New York

Philip Pearlstein

Frumkin Gallery

Philip Pearlstein continues to paint large life paintings—and, now, some landscapes too—that rely on cropping, a shallow space, and the precedence of drawing over color. Reflected light intrudes only as a last resort, to make possible a complicated transition that’s got to take place in a restricted space. In—for example—Two Female Models with Drawing Table, 1973, color plays an important role only twice. In the seated figure, reflected light is used to bracket the transition from the side of her torso that’s cast into shadow by her right arm to the visible part of her left calf, which is close to the front of the picture and suspended over the stool. This is a complicated movement—around a form and in and out of the painting—and it forces Pearlstein to resort to more than line and value. As does the problem of the other figure’s integration with the space behind her. Pressed against the picture plane by the nipples and knees, there’s no way—at the bottom of the painting—to connect her to the rest of the pictorial space through drawing. So Pearlstein again resorts to color, and the pinkishness of the model’s legs is made to respond to the green of the floor that’s adjacent to them. 

Color, then, really is a peripheral concern for Pearlstein. It occurs only at the edges in this painting and in his work as a whole. In the middle color’s always reduced to a tonal function, in the interests of a space articulated more or less exclusively through drawing. 

As to Pearlstein’s content, the following comment on his work—made by Sidney Tillim some years ago in this magazine—still bears thinking about: “It is, however, not the sexual element which disturbs—sex there was in abundance in art of 19th-century academicians—but the absence of a necrophile but prophylactic classicism, masquerading as beauty, that would make sex respectable . . . .” 

I’d quarrel with about all of that statement, although it seems to hit on precisely the right things to talk about. First of all, the possibility of not making sex respectable in an era where no one wants respectable sex isn’t quite the opportunity it might otherwise appear to be. Secondly, Pearlstein does and always has made sex respectable in a certain sense, which is exactly the one employed by the 19th-century academicians to whom Tillim refers. Like them, Pearlstein locates the erotic appeal of naked women in a context of conventionalized distance which now looks ironic, where flesh is discretely referred to by contrasting it with inanimate surfaces. 

Which is only to say that the erotic exists as a prior restraint—a signification built into the form—in Pearlstein’s painting, and, I should say, in representational art in general. This poses, however, a problem of a slightly different sort, in that part of the legacy of Surrealism has been the recognition of the role of the erotic in artistic communication per se. An innocent conventionality—one that allows for eroticism but neither responds to it directly nor engages in an explicit attempt to relocate the erotic impulse within a more general linguistic concern—can no longer support the appearance of mythical objective formerly attributed to it, colloquially and by reasoned assent. Now, the conventions of representational art serve other ends than before. This is particularly—perhaps only—true of representational art that takes the figure itself as its subject. At the moment, figurative representationalism serves—more than it does anything else—as an arena within which certain, very generalized, sociological attitudes that have to do with art may be contrasted. In each case, the process of documentation and its modification by the event is, as one might expect, a crucial consideration. 

Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe