New York

Philip Pearlstein

Frumkin Gallery

For this reason, Philip Pearlstein’s elevation, as opposed to mere acceptance of the figure as subject, is obviously very much against the grain of contemporary artistic ambition. But the very fragmentation of his effort has something indomitably misguided about it: it compels curiosity, not by virtue of any success within his paintings (whose qualities vary considerably), but by the excessive pressure and density of a program that half knows, and is half unaware, of the odds it is facing.

With implacable zeal, Pearlstein proposes a race of beings that are about as matter of fact, and unselfconscious in behavior (if not anywhere near as flesh and blood) as the denizens of Caravaggio. Pearlstein lights them with a tinny brightness far more high-keyed, but no less harsh than the old master. Even his insistence that they are simply models parallels Caravaggio’s didactic claim that he painted from life. This has a certain charge when issuing within a society dedicated to antinaturalistic conventions. But three and a half centuries have passed since it could be expected that optical and formal discoveries might ensue from the flinging down of the realist gauntlet. With Pearlstein, the item of interest is his imperviousness to discovery on this level (the real energy does not go into learning): an act which yet gives off its own surreptitious emotion—brought off, furthermore, without any nostalgia whatsoever.

Rather, it is a sealed off ambience he portrays, readily symbolized by the airless confines of his New York studio. Here, he articulates volumes more accessible to the knowledge of his mind than to the capacity of his sensory apparatus to respond freshly to visual forms. No amount of intense looking eradicates the hermetic artifice of his observation. Under the glaring floodlights, multiple shadows make striated, conflicting patterns across his nudes and furniture. These reflections are more those of the light than the materials—flesh and fabrics—interacting. Only in a few instances does Pearlstein indicate the reciprocal actions of color itself. For its part, the latter (grey umber, light blue, cocoa, orange, liver flesh) is nothing but a tinted insertion, without any feeling that the texture of a substance has influence upon the hue that the eye perceives. Nor does he organize by decorative patches or light dark foils as much as by a modeling much more emphatically supported by drawing than by tonality. His tonal variations, in fact (hardening at the edges into a coarse linearity), are a surrogate form of drawing, etching the complicated armatures of anatomy, rather than forming transitions. Finally, the personages in Pearlstein’s canvases are not the naked people themselves, seen as overall entities, but various isolated and arbitrary features of their bodies: a knee, an elbow, even a toenail, looming into monstrous focus. His extreme foreshortening abets, if it does not become responsible for, this effect. The fact that his compositions are so radically cropped increases the fragmentary aspect of his vision, even as it tries to remove into a realm of impersonality what is, in fact, an obsessive concentration on his motifs.

Indeed, this cropping is one of the most provocative characteristics of his work. Contrary to the practice of Degas, who wanted to stress the transient nature of action caught in, and yet partially missed by the picture frame, Pearlstein’s over-life-size figures almost seem to react physiologically to the compression of the perimeters, and swell up, thickening in limb and ligament, to fill the space around them. One result is that they often get rather interestingly in each other’s way; another is that they tend to push outward from the surface uncomfortably toward the spectator’s space.

It is here that the real controversy around this artist has swirled. One does not like all that sallow, drained, even moribund flesh deposited in one’s lap. What is more, the artist’s fierce repression of any instinct of desire, in the face of material that naturally would inspire at least some measure of it, almost amounts to an unwitting prurience (Two Models With Blue Drapes). There is an attentiveness to sex without a willingness to be vulnerable to it. If this unkind judgment is to be modified, it might be said, in extenuation, that Pearl-stein seems desperately to want to break free to the wholeness of an older sensibility which his historical location in the 1960s has unfortunately denied him. The displaced energy, the operation of a firm intellect, the struggle to attain his ends by an act of will rather than through the expansion of his pictorial equipment, all this exerts a certain fascination, even as it results in an unrequited, dispiriting art.

Max Kozloff