Philip Pearlstein In Conversation with Phong Bui
In the midst of preparations for his new exhibit at the Betty Cuningham Gallery, Philip Pearlstein took the time to sit down with Rail publisher Phong Bui to talk about his life and work at his loft studio in Hell’s Kitchen, where he and his wife Dorothy have lived since 1982.
Phong Bui (Rail): In an interview with Robert Storr a few years ago you spoke about Picabia, whose different stages of development paralleled the whole evolution of modern art. His work was also the subject of your dissertation at the Institute of Fine Arts in 1955, which was regularly cited in several scholarly texts, including William Rubin’s enormous volume on Dada and Surrealist art. Did Picabia’s fascination with American machinery, which inspired artists like Stella, Weber, and Sheeler to turn attention to their native iconography, have any significant impact on your work as a whole?
Philip Pearlstein: In retrospect, it all began around 1943. After one year at Carnegie Tech [now Carnegie Mellon] in Pittsburgh, I was drafted into the army. I spent the first year, in addition to infantry basic training, acquiring some drafting skills from working on charts and diagrams of weapons for training purposes, and the next two years I was in Italy. My first year there, until the war ended in May 1945, I was back in the infantry. But the second year, after the war ended and we were the army of occupation, I painted road signs, and had the opportunity of studying great works of Renaissance art in Rome and Florence, Venice and Milan. Then, in 1946, I came back to Pittsburgh, and resumed my education at Carnegie Tech on the G.I. Bill.
In 1949, armed with the experience in graphic work gained both from the army and school, I moved to New York City with my classmate Andy Warhola, with the intention of making careers in commercial art. Andy got illustration assignments immediately, and soon he was doing very well. I got a job working with one of the great graphic designers, Ladislav Sutnar, who I worked with for almost eight years—all the while of course, painting at night. Ladislav designed catalogues for companies like American Standard, which made plumbing and sanitary equipment. These would include drawings of urinals, toilets, and showers, all sorts of things. But earlier, while still in Pittsburgh, I had worked on brochures of architectural products by the Aluminum Company of America. And based on the cross sections of extruded aluminum forms from the catalogue, such as window frames, which were crazy looking, I began making paintings. One in particular looks like a mechanical skeleton of a monster, the abstract frame of a gorilla, and down on the bottom of the painting was a self-portrait based on the shape of the window lock, running and screaming in hysteria. Maybe all of that led in some ways, to my eventual attraction to Picabia’s and Duchamp’s work.
But it was also Robert Motherwell’s The Dada Painters and Poets that got me interested in their work. I bought it with money from the G.I. Bill when it came out in 1951, while I was enrolled for my second year at the Institute. Then one day I was standing at a bus stop and right behind me was a storefront gallery, the Rose Fried Gallery, and inside was a show of Picabia’s paintings. These were odd paintings. They were all rather heavily painted black paintings with small dots, like constellations of stars. But at one end of the gallery was an earlier, huge painting, which was so big that it had to be slanted. It was an early Analytic Cubist painting done with sharply defined flat shapes. It was the painting that later was bought by the Chicago Art Institute.
Rail: Would that be “Star Dancers,” your witty interpretation of its original title, “Edtaonisl, (Ecclesiastic)”?
Pearlstein: Yes. “Star dancer rehearsing her troupe on a transatlantic ocean liner while being observed by a clergyman.” I arrived at it by decoding the titles of sketches he did. So I started doing more research on Picabia and Duchamp and the Dada movement in New York. I became very inter-ested in the work of both, mostly because they had used machine shapes just like the stuff I was drafting for catalogues, and reminded me of my experience in the army of making drawings of weapons—rifles, carbines, machine guns and so on. Somehow all these mechanistic things came together.
Rail: Is that why you treat the figure with some mechanical interest, the same way you treat the objects among them or between them? This is also fascinating because Picabia later became a figurative painter.
Pearlstein: That’s the thing—those figurative paintings by Picabia, which he probably did during the years of World War II, were not known at the time. They weren’t published; they weren’t shown before the early 1980s, really. I was just fascinated with Duchamp, Picabia, and the whole Modernist era.
Rail: Is that what initially inspired you to study art history at the Institute?
Pearlstein: No, initially I just wanted to get a sense of the whole history of art. Not that I had any intention of becoming a teacher at that point. And I certainly wasn’t going to go into museum work. At any rate, Picabia died just as I had finished gathering all the information for my dissertation on him. Both Hilton Kramer, who was the editor of Arts magazine, and Tom Hess, the editor of Art News, contacted the Institute. They both wanted to know if anyone knew anything about Picabia and would contribute an article. So I put together the fragments of the main idea that had been going around in my head: Picabia and Duchamp were using machine shapes to stand in for people doing certain kinds of actions, and defining society. They had each taken the idea of depicting a young woman and her adventures and experiences. Obviously a lot of it was highly sexual in disguise. I really worried about doing a thesis at the Institute about sexual adventures because the word “sex” had never been spoken there in my presence. And here it was—they were dealing with sexual intercourse taking place in the painting as part of the subject matter. And at that point, Harriet Janis [art dealer Sidney Janis’s wife] was very helpful to me; she answered a lot of my questions. She told me that she and a friend of hers, who was an art historian, had sixteen hours of taped interviews with Duchamp. I said, “Can I hear it? Can I hear some of it?” She said no, that they were going to do their own book. Nothing ever materialized; God knows whatever happened to the tapes.
Rail: Who has the tapes? Did you ask Carroll [Janis] about them?
Pearlstein: Yes, but he didn’t know. Can you imagine what a valuable thing that would be? Even though she didn’t let me hear them, she was very helpful. The art dealers Rose Fried and Leo Castelli were also helpful. Anyway, the Janises had this big painting that they had just purchased and then sold to the Museum of Modern Art about a year later. It was hanging on the wall, and it was the “Udnie” painting, the full title of which I translated as “I remember fondly my dear Udnie.” So I stood in front of it with a fellow student from the Institute, who was giving me French lessons at the time, and she said to me, “That’s a dirty painting!” She was very insightful and responsive. It’s a picture of sexual intercourse. I mean you have to work at it, but it’s there.
Inevitably that became the center of the argument of the thesis: Picabia and Duchamp used these machine shapes masquerading as people, or people masquerading as machine shapes, following their adventures. “Udnie” is spelled U-D-N-I-E. People thought it was an anagram for Udine, which is a town in Northen Italy, but I read it as pig Latin for “nudie.” “Udnie” first appeared as “la fille née sans une mère,” which I translated as “the daughter born without a mother.” So I had to figure out: What’s a daughter born without a mother? It’s the machine! Which in French is a feminine noun. And in most languages it’s feminine; machines are always referred to as “she.” I got it from the reproduction of a sketch that Picabia drew on a New York City hotel menu and labeled “la fille née sans mère.” It’s the first depiction of her, and the sketch is the basis of the composition of “Udnie.” My article was called “The Hidden Language of Francis Picabia,” but it was as much about Duchamp as it was about out Picabia. Anyway, I showed the first draft to Tom Hess. He said, “It’s too serious. Dada was all about parties, champagne—all bubbles!”
Rail: How we envy them!
Pearlstein: [laughs] And I said, “No! They were nihilists, and they wanted to destroy western civilization through using western art, making fun of it.” But Hess didn’t want to publish it, so I showed it to Hilton Kramer, who had somebody rewrite it. But luckily he showed it to me before they printed it and I said, “This is all wrong!” But at least they did put things in a different kind of sequence, which made sense. I could see the improvement there. So I said, “I will follow the sequence, but let me correct everything—put it in the way I understand the ideas, the terms that I understand.” So he allowed me to do that. That was a valuable lesson on how to present ideas. The article was published, and it was quite a long article. It came out a short while before I had my first one-man show at the Tanager Gallery in 1955.
Rail: How does all of that relate to de Kooning’s Women series, which he began in 1949? His 1953 show at the Sidney Janis Gallery has often been claimed as the impetus for a revived interest in the figure, but a lot of those claims were associated with works by “Figurative Expressionist” or “Gesture Realist” painters like Larry Rivers, Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, George McNeal, Lester Johnson, even Jan Müller and Bob Thompson.
Pearlstein: Along the way, I had made a couple of paintings using the figure. One was a painting I made from a newspaper sports-page photograph of a swimmer underwater, a male figure, and he’s reaching up. And I turned it into an expressionist painting of Icarus, adding large wings to the figure. This is when I was at the Institute, in 1950. I was taking classes from 1950 to 1952. From 1952 to 1955, I was either working at the library doing research for the thesis or writing drafts of the thesis, but also painting and working for Mr. Sutnar. I was doing all those Abstract Expressionist-oriented paintings. The figure of Icarus followed—I’ve said I never worked from photographs for my mature paintings, but I did back then—in the painting, “Monument for the Unknown Soldier of World War III,” which was based on one of those fitness-magazine covers. I cut out the figure of the muscle-bound bodybuilder, and tore it apart and sort of painted it as lumps of meat these businessmen dressed in black suits were putting together as a monument for the unknown soldiers of World War III. It was one of my crazy political statements. Another was of a dollar sign, turning the two strokes coming down through the S into spears at the ends of which were two kids dangling. I did a painting of Superman in the same vein, predating Pop Art by a decade.
Rail: I’ve seen that in reproduction. It looks very heavily painted, in an Abstract Expressionist manner.
Pearlstein: Along that line, another painting that I did during this period, while I was involved with the Picabia thesis at the Institute, was of a football tackle, also based on a sports-page photograph. I painted three male nudes in a heroic Michelangelo-esque way, but without the football. That was the only figurative piece included in my first show in 1955 at the Tanager Gallery on Tenth Street; the rest were quasi-abstract paintings based on my studies of rock forms. De Kooning gave me a private critique of that show, and he liked that figurative painting a lot. That was the only time that painting was shown.
Rail: How did Landes Lewitin, a painter who was even older than most of the first-generation Abstract Expressionists, known for his knowledge of the culture, the alchemy of painting, come into the picture?
Pearlstein: Well, he used to drop by the Tanager Gallery. I had a full time job, so I was at the gallery mostly during the weekends. I was working for Life magazine doing page layout. He was impressed with my article because he thought it had interesting ideas, was well written, and that it was written from the point of view of a painter. He even thought I should get up and speak at The Club’s weekly meetings. But I was too intimidated by all those, you know, really great, older artists—not to mention critics like Clement Greenberg and Harold Rosenberg.
In any case, I went again to Italy on a Fulbright Fellowship in 1958, and for one year I made drawings of the Roman ruins, as realistic as I could make them. Then I would make paintings from the drawings, but the colors were extremely arbitrary—that’s because I was fascinated by the whole Symbolist movement, particularly Rimbaud, who had started to set up a dictionary of the meanings of colors. Anyway, when I came back from Italy, I had a studio right behind the Tanager Gallery, and Lewitin came to see those paintings, and he said, “To you it appears symbolic, but it looks arbitrary to an outsider like me.” I realized the inconsistency, and immediately a light bulb went on. And so the next paintings I did, still working from the drawings done in Italy, I tried to make as realistic as I could remember in terms of color and atmosphere.
Rail: In your article “Figure Paintings Today Are Not Made in Heaven,” published in 1964, you raised two important predicaments for realistic painters, which you referred to as two tyrannies. One has to do with the flat picture plan—the doctrinaire, Greenbergian dictum. The other one is the issue of the roving eye inherited from Post-Impressionist, Cubist, and Futurist, up to Abstract Expressionist painting. Those are the two main aspects that a lot of figurative painters ignore. But you, on the other hand, embrace them as part of your condition, your intellectual challenge to bring forth some new way to paint from observation. So on one hand, you insist on painting from life in terms of capturing real details against the use of photography. But at the same time, your paintings appear to some familiar viewers to have combined the Impressionists’ use of photography in terms of cropping imagery together with the Abstract Expressionists’ all-over-surface composition.
Pearlstein: No, I don’t crop. It’s the opposite. I start the composition of the painting from one complicated area in the set-up in front of me, and I let it grow out from there. And I accept what goes on. Thinking back, it probably relates to what I did at Life magazine. Even though I was only there for one year, I did manage to learn about layout systems. As you can imagine, I spent a lot of my time cropping photographs in a variety of ways, according to the editor’s ideas of how the image would fit the content of each article. For me, again, I wasn’t interested in realism at the time, but I think that there was certainly a subliminal influence when I got involved in working directly from observation.
Rail: That’s interesting. However, to some critics, they see that as an intense, impersonal approach to the figure, and they compare your work to the systematic art of the 1970s, even Minimalism. Is that a fair description?
Pearlstein: That’s a fair description. I wasn’t trying to express anything about the human condition; I was using the figure—I still do—as the most interesting object that is available. It constantly changes, and as you study the model’s figure it is capable of producing a kaleidoscope of shapes so complex that a small shift of my head and eyes changes all the relationships. If the model raises an arm it does something to the shoulder and chest muscles, all unpredictable. When you work from actual models in the studio all the shapes of the forms of the body keep changing, which is not the case when you work from photographs. That’s where the challenge to the artist is.
Rail: No one can refute that, Philip. Let’s continue with Sydney Tillim, who was a very interesting writer on these issues. Besides the fact that every time he had the occasion or opportunity to write, he always tried to defend figurative or representational painting as an inseparable part of tradition. And he didn’t think that it had to be seen as an inscribed new movement but as an ongoing impulse. It’s true in the case of Malevich, and certainly Picabia, Jean Hélion, and one of your contemporaries, Alfred Leslie, all started out as abstractionists but ended up figurative painters. That fascinates me. But what about painters like Balthus, who, even at the height of Cubism and Surrealism, always maintained his vision as a figurative painter?
Pearlstein: I think that the experience for painters growing up in America is totally different from those in Europe. We came from nowhere. Most artists I know discovered art by accident. In the case of Balthus, he came from a very cultivated family. His mother was a close friend of Rilke’s, and it was through Rilke that he was encouraged to draw, and Rilke published a book of Balthus’s illustrations when he was thirteen years old. Of course, his real reputation came much later, when he was director of the French Academy in Rome, from those paintings of young girls. But besides the influence from the frescoes of Piero, I think his works were influenced by ancient Roman wall paintings, such as those in the Villa of the Mysteries in Pompeii. And in Rome, though they are not generally open to the public, you can go underground into places, especially on the Palatine Hill, where there are intact rooms covered with Roman frescos, but you have to get very special permission to see them. During the year I had the Fulbright, when I spent a lot of time in the Roman Forum making that series of drawings, I got to know some of the guards and one of them took me down to see a couple of those painted rooms one day. I’m sure Balthus saw them.
Rail: What do you think of the Neo-Expressionist painters like Schnabel, Fischl, Salle, Clemente, and their contemporaries?
Pearlstein: First of all, you must separate the Europeans from the Americans. The three Italians that emerged at that point, in the early 1980s, the three C’s (Chia, Clemente, and Cucchi) were products of an art education that was based largely on their heritage of traditions that date back to the early Renaissance, and a lot of European artists do feel trapped by that tradition. And the acceptance of all kinds of conceptual art, any kind of radical way of breaking away from that tradition is appreciated and accepted by them, but always in the context of knowing what they broke away from.
In America, you don’t have that. You have people doing outlandish things, but without the sense of breaking away from tradition—they don’t know the tradition. They’re just doing whatever. I think a lot of it comes from nursery school encouragement, self-expression, finding your own thing. I think the most wonderful example of that at the highest level is the work of Kiki Smith. She’s so inventive in finding new ways of depicting the figure. Anyway, in Europe my work is not usually understood, simply because it looks like it comes out of tradition but it doesn’t.
One of the interesting things that we spoke about earlier was that I had this Abstract Expressionist background first, from which I intuited how to put a picture together. I went from that abstract experience to realism, which makes my visual naturalism something different from the academic tradition that’s based on rules established during David’s virtual dictatorship of art in France right after the French Revolution. He established rules and regulations that were very tight, and if you didn’t follow them, you wouldn’t get commissions. The idea of the academy as a kind of police state is what the great reaction against it was about in the nineteenth century. That’s what they were getting away from—not the art itself, but the rules of representation, that things could only be one way. Here in America we invented our own way of working with representation.
Sometime in the 1980s, while I was on the board of the College Art Association, I organized a panel discussion for one of the annual meetings that I called “The Conceptualization of Realism”—by which I meant that many of the current realist artists had abstraction behind them, and they had invented new technical procedures when they became realists, and that whatever expressiveness the work possessed came from the way they dealt with their materials rather than from a narrative being illustrated. Among the speakers I invited were George Segal and Chuck Close, and Sylvia Plimack Mangold. There were others I wanted on the panel but they refused. A lot of artists don’t want to speak in public.
Rail: In spite of the obvious differences in medium and intentionalities, I always thought that your painting and Mark di Suvero’s sculpture share an affinity towards the dynamic and calligraphic composition of Franz Kline.
Pearlstein: One of the first shows Mark had at the Green Gallery on 57th Street, where he had a series of small-scale works that looked like abstract, stylized hands with sinews and tendons exposed, reminded me very much of Rodin’s hand studies. I think that was one of the things that influenced me at the time: how the figure really works, how the hand worked. I responded to them very enthusiastically. I could probably even draw one or two from memory. In some ways, his big sculptures seem based on the same ideas.
Rail: Di Suvero’s work is so viscerally based on a precarious sense of equilibrium between stability and instability. Your work, on the other hand, has a look of premeditation, but actually not, since you randomly pick a small detail that appeals to you and go on from there, without much worry of how things will end up.
Pearlstein: Yes, but don’t forget: a painting is also contained within the four edges. You can’t get away from that.
Rail: Given the perceptual basis of the work, with all the complicated interlocking of figures with objects, chairs, ladders, marionettes, antiquities, what do you feel when some viewers see your work as lacking sensuality because of your intensely detached portrayal of the figure?
Pearlstein: I just never cared. I’m very interested in the way light creates shadow over the forms of the figure, but that’s visual, not sensual.
Rail: Another painter who is equally committed to empirical experience is Rackstraw Downes, particularly in that, like you, he embraces the fused sequences of various views as part of the process. The only difference is that in Rackstraw’s landscapes, things move laterally from the center horizontally while acknowledging the curvature of the Earth which corresponds with the arc of the human eye. The sequence in your work is dictated by the vertical, horizontal, and diagonal movements simultaneously, as if they were still-life paintings.
Pearlstein: Yes, they are still lifes, and the wall marks the depth of space.
Rail: Are there any other artists who share a similar kinship to your work?
Pearlstein: Probably Al Held and Alex Katz. We had a discussion group in the early 1960s for about a year, with Al, his then wife Sylvia Stone, Alex and Ada Katz, Irving Sandler and his wife Lucy, who is a brilliant Medievalist, Paul Brach and Miriam Shapiro, sometimes Allan Kaprow, and occasionally Ad Reinhardt and others. We used to meet once a month and have intense discussions. It was wonderful. Some of us learned to speak in public. At one of the meetings, I read aloud my article, “Figure Paintings Today Are Not Made in Heaven.” Then I had to deal with their criticisms. It was a wonderful feeling to be able to share your ideas with friends.
Rail: What’s your feeling about young figurative artists today, such as Lisa Yuskavage, Elizabeth Peyton, and John Currin?
Pearlstein: I look at their work with great interest, as I look at most art. It’s the only way to try to figure out what somebody has done, without being critical. I’m happy they’ve had such success without real struggle. Our generation had some real struggle.