R.I.P. Philip Pearlstein

We were saddened yesterday to learn of the passing of neo-realist painter Philip Pearlstein (b.1924). The little bookmark above is a memento from a time when I was honored to know him, a dozen and more years ago. Do the math — his 85th birthday was way back then! He almost made it to the century mark! At the time when I knew him, he wasn’t just still “sharp”, as they often say of older people, he was still productive, still turning out paintings in his instantly identifiable style. This terrific 2015 article chronicles his Pittsburgh origins, and the trio of art school friends who moved to New York together, himself, Andy Warhol, and Dorothy Cantor (who became Mrs. Pearlstein; she passed away in 2018).

Warhol’s and Pearlstein’s styles eventually diverged pretty drastically, but what they initially had in common was a reaction away from the then prevalent abstract expressionism of Pollock, Rothko, de Kooning, etc. Warhol’s whimsy led him to Pop Art and beyond. Pearlstein became noted for stubbornly painting nudes in an era when figure painting was most unfashionable. What made his work interesting is that he approached his paintings like abstracts, focusing on light and line and composition and technical aspects as opposed to some elusive and mysterious effort to “capture” the soul or essence of the subject. He often surrounded the models with props, and staged them under fluorescent light. The adjective “cool” is often used to describe the effect he achieved. Something about his approach made his portraits seem more like still-lifes. His style was dispassionate, sanguine rather than sexual, and at times, downright merciless: the hand depicted what the eye saw, come Hell or high water. Of Plato’s Three Transcendentals, he definitely gave Truth precedence over Beauty.

I was thrilled to see his paintings all over the place, the Met, MOMA, the Brooklyn Museum. He is a particular hometown hero in Pittsburgh and is often shown there. My connection to him was his daughter, a close friend for several years. She was a veteran of the Ridiculous Theatrical Company, and it was easy for me to draw a line connecting Ludlam’s post-modern formalism to that of her dad. There is also a subtle element of whimsy that connects Pearlstein to both Warhol and Ludlam, but you have to look for it: the props I mentioned that he sometimes surrounded his models with. His studio was full of kitsch — dolls, toys, puppets, souvenirs, figurines, tchotchkes, gewgaws and doodads. Like many visual artists, Pearlstein seemed to experience the world through looking and showing, as opposed to gabbing, singing and dancing.

Anyway, I’m saddened by the news, and am fondly remembering the Pearlstein family, and transmitting sympathetic thoughts. That line in The Wizard of Oz resonates “A heart is not judged by how much you love; but by how much you are loved by others”.

There have been some great tributes to the artist over the last couple of days. Find those appreciations at the links:

New York Times

Washington Post