Philip Pearlstein (born 1924) is perhaps the leading American realist painter of the second half of the 20th century. Born to a Pittsburgh surgeon, Pearlstein was drafted into the Army during World War II and made many sketches and paintings of the Italian landscape. He graduated from the Carnegie Institute of Technology in 1949. He obtained a degree in art history at the NYU Institute of Fine Arts (1955), mounted his first one man exhibition at the Tananger Gallery the same year, and was included in ten Whitney Museum exhibitions from 1956 to 1973. During the 1950's Pearlstein concentrated on landscape paintings of rocks and eroded cliffs, aiming for abstract patterns in the style of New York Abstract Expressionist painters, but around 1960 he made the switch to carefully drawn, realistic studies of studio nudes that still strive for abstractly designed and assertive images. Pearlstein was an art instructor at the Pratt Institute (1959-63), then professor of fine arts at Brooklyn College (1963-87). He continues to paint and exhibit.

Pearlstein's claim to fame is that he pursued representational landscape and figure painting at a time when Abstract Expressionism made these interests unfashionable. Even so, Pearlstein handles the nude as a highly dynamic element in the design, made abstract by a variety of compositional devices. Two Seated Female Models in Kimonos with Mirror (1980, 102x152cm) shows many of these: cropping the figure and viewing it in a distorting pose and from a distorting angle of view; presenting two or more figures in contrasting or complementary positions; complicating the image with folded and patterned textiles, angular objects or reflections; using a subdued palette adjusted to the harmonies of naked flesh; and crowding everything against the wall or corner of a confined indoor space. He also sometimes covers large areas of the image with a foreground pattern — the wire cage of a fan, the mesh of a hammock — that cuts the image into repetitive facets. Pearlstein's nudes in watercolors are indistinguishable from those in oils; he spends an equal amount of effort in each medium, but especially likes the immediacy and irreversibility of watercolors, which give painting the riskiness of an "athletic sport." Despite the complexity of each painting, Pearlstein always works from life rather than from photographs, making a careful pencil drawing, laying in foundation washes, then refining the details of every part of the painting in one to two months of weekly sessions; the bored or fatigued demeanor of models subjected to this long scrutiny helps to define the emotional distance of his works. As Robert Hughes wrote: "Antisentimental, antihumanist, antierotic, hostile to uncertainty, indifferent to the "psychology" of Expressionist figure painting and the existential doubt of AbEx: Pearlstein's work is unlike anything seen in American realism since Thomas Eakins."



Pearlstein wrote that the nude "is a self-contained subject offering forms of great complexity ever-varying in their relationships, readily available in great variety." The nude, in other words, represents nothing but itself, and can be positioned to create infinite compositional variations. But for most adults the reality of the nude human body is obscured by our reluctance to stare in real life and by the glossy distortions of pornography and kitsch art. Pearlstein retrieves the complexity of the nude by emphasizing the physcial peculiarities of his models while posing them as abstract compositions. Model in Kimono on Drafting Stool (1985, 104x75cm) is made anonymous by cropping the head and shoulders, but is also made individual by the details of hands, feet, knees, and breasts. The vertical drape of the kimono, echoed in the stiff line of the right leg, the back of the stool, and the droop of hand and breasts, is countered by the the horizontal edges of the silk pattern, the emphasis of the bent leg, and the lines of forearm, chair seat and wall moulding. All this foregrounds the light valued thigh and stomach, which invite us to explore at length the contrasts in muscle tension, color, texture and weight in the other parts of the figure — that is, to admire the physicality, sensuality and lived life of this body. Our staring is kept from sexual stimulation by the blunt and slightly aggressive way in which the left thigh juts into view, and the almost clinical observation of the hands. Combined with the large format (typically 40x60 inches) and painstaking detail, Pearlstein's nudes have a monumental strength and richness not seen since Jean-Désiré-Gustave Courbet, combined with the hard edged, cool factuality of Pop Art and Minimalism.

Throughout his career Pearlstein has also painted landscapes and architectural studies, often the same scenes captured in tourist postcards and travel guides. Surprisingly, these images are straightforwardly composed; the monuments are not cropped or partially obscured by intervening objects, as the nudes are. The simplification allows Pearlstein to struggle against the familiarity of the landscape by particularizing it in extreme detail. The Great Sphinx, Giza (1979, 74x104cm) conveys his interest in recording the stones in scrupulous detail. These very subtle color variations highlight the color themes of Pearlstein's technique: colors strongly contrasted in value, all with similar subdued saturation, and mixtures that transition as much toward gray as toward another color. Pearlstein organizes the very subtle color contrasts of the stones within a framework of strong light and dark values (the cracks in the rocks). There is a subtle sense of reverence in the upward angle of view and the dwarfed silhouette of the nearby Cheops pyramid. The handling of the blue gray sky makes it seem like a fresco background, and also harmonizes with the stone surfaces of the Sphinx. In the same way that Pearlstein's nudes emphasize the individual peculiarities of anonymous models, his landscapes seem to assert the physical peculiarities of places and monuments that have become anonymous because they are endlessly reproduced as the cliches of our culture.

The standard reference, now somewhat dated, is Philip Pearlstein: Drawings and Watercolors by John Perreault (Harry N. Abrams, 1988). A slightly earlier but more ambitious overview is available in Philip Pearlstein: The Complete Paintings by Russell Bowman, Hilton Kramer and Irving Sandler (New York: Alpine Fine Arts Collection, 1983).