New York

Philip Pearlstein

Hirschl & Adler Galleries

For the last 30 years Philip Pearlstein has, somewhat unfashionably, insisted on painting nudes from live models. But by stalking his subjects from skewed, ever-shifting angles—crucial body parts (a foot, a shoulder, a head) frequently slip off the frame or disappear entirely behind the scene-stealing props—he lends his workboth the spontaneity of a snapshot and the wholly contemporary coolness associated with formal or compositional values.

Pearlstein forces his nudes to vie for space with toys, pieces of furniture, and folk art that not only outnumber or outsize the figures but often appear more animated. Emphasizing pictorial qualities over narrative incident, he guides the eye into and around the patterned crevices of his pictures’ screwy planes, seducing the viewer with the pleasure of looking.

In Models With Dirigible, Weathervane and Kiddie-Car Airplane (all works 1992), the blood-red airplane threatens to overwhelm two weary women confined to their own worlds on an afghan-covered couch. The entire scene (and one doubled-over body) is divided down the middle by a model blimp. Though in Model With Marionettes the fleshtones, browns, and grays create a certain sensual stillness, the picture rises into view as if enclosed in a moving glass elevator. As the image settles, the male figure’s sleepy meditation on two lifelike, gargoyle-faced minstrel dolls becomes less important than his outstretched leg, bent knee, or the long hand in which his head lolls. After a moment’s time it becomes clear that, ultimately, in this as in any other Pearlstein painting, it is not the model’s shoulder we are looking over but the artist’s. For what he paints leaves mostly an impression of the sitting itself—the time and conditions under which it took place—and the effect is both intimate and strange. Model with Empire State Building, Day—a work in which a woman facing one edge of the painting sinks dreamily into a hunzinger chair, while behind her the cityscape looms through a wall-sized window—is a case in point. Similarly, Entrance to Lincoln Tunnel, Day and Entrance to Lincoln Tunnel, Night reflect the artist’s vision of a particular time and place, though in both of these works the figure is absent, as if it had dissolved into the buildings that normally shelter it.

Pearlstein works in a much more traditional vein than many contemporary painters, yet, because he is a master of human topography, he has been able to transform the introspective process of looking into a visible act.

Linda Yablonsky