Philip Pearlstein's Fictions

published by the Betty Cuningham gallery, September 2005


It began with a woman riding bareback on a lion. Next came a swan, his body wrapped in a drowsy Leda's embrace. With these images, painted almost twenty years ago, Philip Pearlstein changed course. Suddenly, the spare, ornamental settings of his earlier work (chairs, rugs, hammocks, kimonos) gave way to lively, kitschy accessories. Exit, decorum; enter, geese decoys, minstrel marionettes, carrousel ostriches, inflatable Godzillas, lawn flamingoes. It was as if Pearlstein's studio had moved from a bourgeois living room to a junk dealer's attic.

The paintings' affect could now zigzag wildly-- from the human models' bored languor, to the tchochkies' clownish excitement. Sparks of expressiveness, and even self-mockery, were lit within the cool surfaces of Pearlstein's art. A Punch puppet leered at the nude woman beside him. A grinning, red-eyed tiger marionette hung over a sleeping victim, as though frozen in mid-spring. These were no arbitrary “juxtapositions;” they were comic tableaux. They acknowledged, and even parodied, the sexual vulnerability that had always been implicit in Pearlstein's art. The objects became a supporting cast: colorful, animated, a little rowdy. Like the “rude mechanicals” of Shakespeare's romances, they provided a subversive accompaniment to the main action.

Increasingly, in Pearlstein's most recent paintings, they are the main action—not props, but co-stars. In “Model with Old Butcher Sign,” as in many recent paintings, it's the object, not the model, that occupies the foreground. Her body, seen through its interstices, has been carved up like a picture plane into luminous fragments. A sacrificial bull, perched above the butcher's implements, stares directly into her closed eyes, as if willing them to open. If the model's eyes were open, if she were staring back, the confrontation might tip towards melodrama or whimsy. Instead, the intimation of mortality feels dry, delicate, almost accidental. Pearlstein's formalism becomes a kind of tact, a way of assuring that the meanings on offer are more ours than his.

The flip side of that tact, though, is a vexing detachment, an aloofness about meaning that makes his art freshly uningratiating. “Butcher Sign” makes sense as a memento mori ; but many late Pearlstein's are less neatly intelligible, if they are intelligible at all. Why, in a couple of recent paintings, has Pearlstein's model chosen to dangle her legs over a phallus-studded African drum, as if it were a makeshift Lazy-Boy? The incongruity feels specific, charged with sexual (and racial) connotations that we wish to resolve--or ignore. Neither is easy to do. About paintings like these, as Robert Storr wryly put it, “exegetes check in, but they don't check out.”

Several paintings are baited with false cues: In “Model with Dreadlocks and Chinese Kite,” the model's thighs tuck into the kite-ship's bright blue hull. She's a passenger, it seems, on a metaphorical sea-voyage, bound for the High Modernist High Seas. But one look at her face, with its familiar, late-afternoon fatigue, and the voyage vanishes. Pearlstein flicks the switch of our imagination, and then shuts off the breaker. He's teasing us.

Pearlstein hasn't changed his spots: he hasn't become an iconographer, a covert symbolist, a painter of “subjects.” But neither is he, as he sometimes seems, a formalist provocateur, luring us towards iconographical dead-ends. Instead, his recent art occupies a tricky middle zone, where formalism and symbolism cohabit. We know that Pearlstein's model is posing, and that her thoughts probably have nothing to do with ships or kites. But the ship-kite is too prominent to be only a fact. We recognize it as an emblem of flight, of travel, of the world inside her head or outside the studio. An emblem, in other words, of possibility, of the anti-literal. Other, less grandiose toy vehicles—airplanes and boats—dominate many recent paintings. In similar ways, they act as a foil to their settings, giving these calm, close-up views unlikely suggestions of speed, adrenaline, and distance. Their irony is double-edged, aimed at both their sober settings and their corny, plaintive selves. Pearlstein isn't taking sides—we know what side he's on—so much as exposing a growing vein of ambivalence.

Back in the sixties and seventies, Pearlstein's realism struck a very different note. Stripping away every stitch of content, it reveled in its own empirical self-sufficiency. Inspired by Pearlstein, the critic John Perreault published a “new realist” manifesto as a list of prohibitions—a nearly all-encompassing one. In the tough-minded art of the future there would be

No stories; no allegories; no symbols.

No hidden meanings; no obvious meanings.

No philosophy, religion, or psychology.

No jokes.

No political content.

No illustration.

No fantasy or imagination; no dreams; no poetry

In short, no flamingoes. Today, one reads this catechism with a smile. Nevertheless, it captures the extremity of Pearlstein's original premise. Those early factual nudes shrugged off all our expectations of pictorial freedom, all the things that made art “artful.” What was left was bare, if intricate, description. Of course, Pearlstein's intransigence was very much of its time. The young Frank Stella's anti-metaphorical credo--“What you see is what you see”--suited Pearlstein perfectly. Unlike early Stella and Judd, though, Pearlstein retained the human body, the classic chassis of metaphor. The result was a sort of Pushmepullyou, an anti-figurative figuration, and a style that belonged to, and yet dissented from, the aesthetic temper of its time.

Weirdly enough, that's true again today. You might think, in a climate of satirical appropriation and allusion, that Pearlstein would be more isolated than ever. The surprising thing is that his recent art, as it has grown more dryly theatrical, seems more difficult, fresh, and, in some ways, curiously connected to the present. Jeff Koons' consumerist altarpieces, with their inflatable lobsters and fragmentary lingerie models, look almost like outtakes from Pearlstein's attic. Odder still is the rhyme between John Currin's “Fishermen” and Pearlstein's Two Models with Chinese Kite—it's as if Erwin Panofsky had come down from heaven to assign two antithetical artists the same nude boating fantasy. These are accidents, but they suggest affinities—an attraction to folk fantasy, to visual opulence, and to guarded, layered, irony. But of course, Pearlstein is no forty-something. To begin with, his art is more temperamentally secular than theirs—or for that matter, than anyone's. Currin's generation opts for a sardonic reembrace of rhetorical freedom. What we see in Pearlstein is more like an elegiac reconsideration of that freedom: a memorial for all that's been left behind.

Has Pearlstein, now in his eighties, mellowed? Kenneth Clark thought that one of the hallmarks of old-age style was a “retreat from realism.” But in most ways, Pearlstein remains as intransigent as ever. Still the master describer, he delights in optical difficulties--in awkward foreshortenings, in dauntingly mechanical patterns. His paintings don't just report; they define and clarify. And his compositions have lost none of their intricate, Franz Kline choreography. What's changed is a matter of tone, or undertone. As artifacts of the imagination loom ever larger, his paintings project a new openness and complexity, at once comic, interrogative, and faintly sorrowful: a tacit recognition of all that literalism excludes. In a sense, the old list of “No”s is still in force. It's just that Pearlstein has added, to every prohibition, a question mark.