In a cramped loft in Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen, Philip Pearlstein painted every day for 30 years, surrounded by hundreds of trinkets, art historical objects he collected during decades of travel, and books he had acquired over the better half of the last century. As Pearlstein’s paintings and ceramics looked over him, tucked into every free inch of his shelves, he chipped away at his painting practice, securing his own place in art history.
Pearlstein’s iconic work became inextricable from the objects he valued. Visits to his studio and conversations with the artist — whom I was lucky enough to know as a 21-year-old intern and later as a receptionist at the Betty Cuningham Gallery, his longtime dealer — heavily centered stories. Pearlstein, who died this Saturday, December 17 at age 98, was full of them, not just about himself but about the art he pondered and the places he traveled to.
Pearlstein made his mark by painting unromanticized views of the human body at a time when such realism was enormously unpopular. The New York art world around him was ruled by Abstract Expressionist paintings that dripped with drama and emotion. While his peers and friends either stayed the course of dramatized abstraction or voyaged into Conceptual art, Pearlstein embarked on a different path, crafting clinical and sometimes familiar portraits of the human body. He did not paint to flatter: Many of his works appear drenched in fluorescent light and darkened by unbecoming shadows, his subjects sitting on the chairs and rugs in his loft, surrounded by everything from antique weathervanes to decoy ducks.
Pearlstein was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 1924 to first-generation Russian and Lithuanian immigrants. He earned the first of many accolades in 1941, when he won first and third places in Scholastic Magazine’s National High School Art Exhibition as a high school junior. One of those paintings was printed in Life Magazine.
At the Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University) years later, Pearlstein recalled that his classmate Andrew Warhola approached him and asked, “How does it feel to be famous?” Warhola (who later changed his last name to Warhol) set up his easel next to Pearlstein’s and the two became close friends; later, Pearlstein would become Warhol’s first NYC roommate.
Pearlstein began studying at Carnegie in 1942 but was soon drafted into World War II. He served in the infantry, then was transferred to become an illustrator and sign painter for the army in Italy, where he got his first glimpses of ancient and Renaissance art. He returned to America in 1946 and went back to Carnegie on the G.I. Bill, where he met his wife Dorothy Cantor, a friend of Warhol’s. Pearlstein and Warhol moved to New York City together upon graduation and shared an apartment until Pearlstein married Cantor a year later, in 1950.
In New York, Pearlstein was part of the pulsing downtown art world of the midcentury. He attended “The Club,” the famed meet-up of artists such as Willem and Elaine de Kooning who presided over the Abstract Expressionist movement that dominated the New York art scene. In remembering these early years in a 2021 interview with Life, Pearlstein remarked, “You have to be unhappy to be an expressionist … I didn’t want to fake it.” He returned to the images of his time in Italy, creating abstracted paintings of rocky hillsides.
Pearlstein received a Master’s degree in art history from the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University in 1955 and wrote his dissertation on the Surrealist and Cubist artist Francis Picabia. He earned his first solo exhibition in the same year at Tanager, one of the scrappy and cutting-edge 10th Street galleries in Manhattan’s East Village in the 1950s and 1960s. The next year, with a solo show under his belt, Pearlstein published an article in the Art Review about Picabia that “changed [his] life in the art world.” Pearlstein had made a name for himself. He earned another solo exhibition at Peridot Gallery, a decidedly less scrappy art establishment, but he was still years away from developing his characteristic realist style.
In 1957, Pearlstein began a year-long stint working in graphic design at Life Magazine. As he cropped photos for his assignments, he reflected on what got cut and what viewers found interesting in the forms he was reshaping. In his studio portraits years later, Pearlstein cropped with seeming reckless abandon, severing arms, heads, and legs as they reached beyond the canvas.
In 1958, he was awarded a Fulbright grant to paint and travel. He spent most of that year in Italy with Cantor.
Pearlstein continued to paint prolifically, exhibit his work, and write. Although he still depicted landscapes (now less abstractly), he painted portrait upon portrait of models in his Hell’s Kitchen studio. In 1975, Pearlstein explained his artistic process and his realistic turn in an essay for the Paris Review: “The meaning of the figure in its particular situation had no interest for me, I refuse to be an amateur psychoanalist [sic],” he wrote, adding that he found himself in “a conflict with the art-world establishment.”
“But in the process I believe I have made a contribution to humanism in 20th century painting,” Pearlstein continued. “I rescued the human figure from its tormented, agonized condition given it by the expressionistic artists, and the cubist dissectors and distorter of the figure, and at the other extreme I have rescued it from the pornographers, and their easy exploitation of the figure for its sexual implications, I have presented the figure for itself, allowed it its own dignity as a form among other forms in nature.”
He taught at Brooklyn College and the Pratt Institute and earned a host of awards, including a National Endowment for the Arts grant and a Guggenheim Foundation fellowship. He was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1982 and served as its president from 2003 through 2006.
Pearlstein held his last solo exhibition less than a year ago — a watercolor show titled titled I Love Mud which I helped work on while I was at Betty Cuningham Gallery in the Lower East Side. Pearlstein had painted each of the works in the last year (at the sprightly ages of 97 and 98) as he moved between his Manhattan apartment and his country home in New Jersey. I remember he presented the gallery with so much recent work that I had to slide some of his watercolors into plastic-coated binder sheets and relegate them to a white table I set up on the gallery floor. They simply could not all fit on the walls.
For this last exhibition, Pearlstein did not rely on models and traditional realist depictions but instead turned inward, in a way. He painted his art collection and antique toys, accumulations of a long life and markers of all the things, people, and memories it contained.
Philip came into the gallery frequently during this exhibition. He would walk through the gallery doors and begin talking, each time pointing to a different object in one of his watercolors and relating the story of how it came into his life. He talked about the war, as he was prone to do, and asked questions of everyone around him. He was excellent at remembering small details about people. It seemed like Philip was endlessly interested in the entire world.
At a gallery dinner for the artist after his exhibition’s opening reception (a very well-attended event), I was seated next to Philip. He told me about his travels and his thoughts on Picabia, jumping seamlessly between decades in winding narratives that wove art historical ponderings into personal anecdotes. Philip’s beloved Dorothy made an appearance in nearly every one.
Pearlstein led a life that was completely extraordinary and also utterly ordinary. He was married to his college sweetheart from 1950 until her death in 2018, and he leaves behind three children, Julia, Ellen, and William, and two grandchildren, Sophie and Adrian (all of whom are memorialized in characteristically Pearlstein portraits).
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