His work is characterized by a non-traditional informality, unexpected postures, and unusual perspectives including the radical cropping of figures. In his later works, he introduced rather elaborate backdrops including richly patterned fabrics and decorative floor patterns.
He was born and grew up in Pittsburgh, and in 1944 enrolled at the Carnegie Institute of Technology. He spent three years in the Army and then returned to school, graduating in 1949 with a B.F.A. He pursued graduate studies in art history at New York University and received a Master’s Degree in 1955.
Although he briefly pursued Abstract Expressionism, he found his mature subject matter during the 1960s when he evolved his signature highly finished-hard edged, objective studies of the nude figure. He has earned awards from the American Academy and the National Institute of Arts and Letters.
Biography from The Columbus Museum of Art, Georgia
Philip Pearlstein was born in 1924 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He studied at the Carnegie Institute, where he received a B.F.A. in graphic design in 1949. He graduated at the same time as his friend, Andy Warhol, who became his roommate when they both moved to New York.
In 1955, Pearlstein graduated with an M.A. in art history from the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University. It was in this year that he began his career as a painter with a solo show at the Tanager Gallery in New York. Though he had been exposed to the works of many of the great masters throughout his tour of duty in Europe during World War II, he conducted an in-depth study of Italian art when he traveled to Italy under a Fulbright travel grant in 1958. He began his career as a teacher of painting and drawing at Brooklyn College in 1963, and he subsequently received grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. He became a full professor at Brooklyn College in 1977.
By the early 1960s, Abstract Expressionism had reached its peak as an avant-garde movement among American painters. The original artists associated with the movement, such as Robert Motherwell, continued to develop their oeuvre in an abstract vein. However, many of the so-called “second generation” Abstract Expressionists advanced in other directions. Philip Pearlstein was one of a coterie of these second-generation painters. In the early 1960s, after having achieved critical acclaim as a member of the Abstract Expressionism movement, he consciously decided to break away and become, in the face of genuine hostility from his peers, a “realist” painter.(1) Moreover, he eventually came to be regarded as one of the leading figure painters of the second half of the Twentieth century. Pearlstein’s fondness for the classical painting tradition, combined with his background in Abstract Expressionism, produced a personal synthesis and style that sometimes is referred to as New Realism.
The artist has stated that he has no interest in advancing personality metaphor or in illustrating the psychological aspects of his sitters. Rather, he intends that the movement of the axial forms—their directional thrust—should create a structure that serves as the “subject” of the painting. These forms engage the edges of the picture in such a way that he often crops away portions of the figure, for the sake of the total composition: ” The prime technical idea I had was that large forms deployed across the canvas produce axial movements that clash and define fields of energy…in relation to one another in nature, [they] are as capable of creating these axial movements and fields of energy as abstract forces are.”(2) The artist also notes, “Technically, the main new problem I wished to impose upon myself was to apply all I knew about abstract painting to recording that which met my eyes.”(3) Pearlstein always works directly from a model and paints in a matter-of-fact manner, portraying what he feels to be the elemental dignity of the human form. Nevertheless, the art historian John Ward stated, “the intersection of bodies with the edge of the picture seems to represent a kind of perverse and inhuman indifference to his subjects.”(4) However, as Pearlstein’s biographer, Russell Bowman, contends: “the deep space in his pictures calls to mind Renaissance illusionism…leading viewers to expect that because Pearlstein’s figures exist in depth, that their deeper sentiments would be revealed… Pearlstein’s people are visually ’rounded,’ but in every other way they are ‘flat’.”(5)
1 Les Reker and George Adams, Abstract Expressionism and the New American Realism: Paintings by Jack Beal and Philip Pearlstein, (Columbus, Georgia: The Columbus Museum, 2001), 11.
2 Philip Pearlstein, “A Concept of New Realism,” Real, Really Real, Super Real (San Antonio: San Antonio Museum Association, 1981), 39.
3 “Realism vs. Existentialism,” Alan Frumkin Gallery Newsletter no. 5 (Spring 1978), 4. 4 John L. Ward, American Realist Painting 1945-1980, (Ann Arbor, Michigan: UMI Press, 1989), 146.
5 Russell Bowman Philip Pearlstein: The Complete Paintings (New York: Alpine Fine Arts Collection, Ltd., 1983), 20.
Submitted by the Staff of the Columbus Museum