Philip Pearlstein

Galerie Zwirner

The works of Philip Pearlstein are difficult all around. Mannerism, kitsch, and Pop art combine with objects that are painted realistically, even hyperrealistically; abstractly composed still lifes coalesce with nudes and juicy symbolic overtones. Pearlstein flaunts his painterly expertise in these interior studio scenes. This is direct painting with no spark of inspiration springing across the canvas; these scenes implode silently. The naked figures are accompanied, for example, by wooden toys, wooden tables, mirrors, statues, and a red model airplane. The subjects’ poses are always attuned to the given object, producing a silent obscenity that verges on the pornographic. The airplane has touched down upon the reclining nude, with a single wing breaking off.

This is a very American, very direct, indeed blatant form of morbidity—commonplace, straightforward, unabashed—yet Pearlstein’s art also plays very obviously with European art history. Nude with Griffin, 1989, is clearly a tribute to Caravaggio, flouting the laws of equality with a rather stony, almost philistine gesture, while at the same time obsessively maintaining a sense of form; as in the work of Lucian Freud, the references are to realism but not to reality. Today, however, Pearlstein might also be considered a forerunner of a younger generation of painters, such as Eric Fischl. Pearlstein, however, offers fewer psychological revelations, and his animated, nonnarrative scenes never refer, like Fischl’s, to a concealed, usually sordid subtext. Instead, he shows rigid scenes, naked human bodies relating motionlessly to one another or to objects, embedded in ensembles of other lifeless figures such as toys or statues that have frozen into patterns.

Despite all their definite voluptuousness, Pearstein’s paintings are utterly austere. Some of them merely hang in front of you, annihilated by their own ambition of leaving behind the history of painting, immuring the history of human nudity, of the body, in their decor. These pictures contain no despair (which may be what triggers an impression of obscenity), no melancholy. All meaning remains on the surface. Yet it is always astonishing to see the extent to which this stilted depiction of the nude—usually female—looks almost comical. The fantasy of impotence blazes its trail here. This is carefully frustrated lust, celebrated as its glorification in a closed system.

Jutta Koether

Translated from the German by Joachim Neugroschel.