Betty Cuningham Gallery
November 19, 2009 - February 13, 2010
As one would think, any matchup between what appears to be a pair of opposites usually ends up amplifying subtle and hidden aspects that one would otherwise miss or ignore. I can think of such examples in one memorable exhibit, “I KNEW IT TO BE SO!” (curated by David Reed and Lawrence Luhring in 1984 at the New York Studio School, with an illuminating text by John Yau), which included paintings by Forrest Bess, Alfred Jensen, and Myron Stout; such a diverse collection of uncompromising spirits seemed to bring a closer understanding of the vision of each artist, which was embodied not only in the particularities of specific symbols, but also in the quality of picture surfaces. One might think of improbable pairings yet to be made, such as Catherine Murphy and Thomas Nozkowski, whose paintings may seem even less comparable because of their obvious differences—Murphy being a realist while Nozkowski’s works are abstract. Yet in their shared interest in formal issues, as well as in their restraint and sensuality, they are in fact identical.
The pairing of Philip Pearlstein and Al Held at Betty Cuningham Gallery, organized by none other than Irving Sandler—an advocate of their work, among others, since the beginning of their respective careers—spans five decades, from 1954 to 2009. Right from the start one sees the influence of gestural painting in both artists, as early as Pearlstein’s “The Capture” (1954) and Held’s “Untitled” (1958). If Pearlstein’s painterliness feels less muscular when compared with Held’s heavy, masonry-like impasto, the way they present the painting’s proscenium space exceeds one’s expectations, to say the least, of how realism and abstraction ought to appear. To what extent, one might ask, does this self-imposed limitation become a liberating underpinning for both painters’ ambition?
Despite the evolution of Held’s picture surfaces in terms of sheer physical presence, from textural, robust, and dense in the mid- to late-1950s, to a more uniform and smooth look, a change that took place in 1960 and is marked in the exhibition by “Echo” (1966), his sense of composition has always remained classical in its containment and its consciousness of the rectangular format. (I suspect the change in surface texture may have had to do with the artist’s change of medium from oil to acrylic, which allowed for quicker drying times and ease of sanding, which were crucial to Held’s re-visioning process.)
In contrast, Pearlstein’s compositions are less centralized, with dynamic deployments of diagonals and dramatic cropping that often results in a more brilliant visceral and playful sense of space than, one senses, the painter himself expected. For example, in “Al Held and Sylvia Stone” (1968), the whole picture feels at great risk of falling into the abyss of what is left of the foreground. Both the painter and his wife are merely two diagonals, barely stable against the third diagonal line of the baseboard.
Another beautiful pairing is Pearlstein’s “Female Model on the Ladder” (1976) vs. Held’s “Northwest” (1973). Here both of them pushed their complex yet reductive modes far toward essential structures. As Pearlstein perceives the subtleties of his negotiation with light and dark, his painting surfaces become more unified, thereby clarifying the weight of his forms in respect to his drawing. In other words, the changes in the surface from the figure to the aluminum ladder and their multiple shadows can be seen as similar to the orchestration of four apparently different thicknesses of black lines that Held applied to the canvas as thickly as their white intervals.
In the 1970s, Pearlstein began to include decorative objects, such as rugs and furniture, which led to the addition of antiques or folk art in the early 1980s, a practice that continues to the present day. Although he has greatly expanded the type, color, and texture of the materials he depicts, the sense of intimacy and flatness in his work is ever more amplified. Held’s paintings, on the other hand, became equally more complex in their geometrized forms and high-key colors, yet his reconstitution of perspectival space, which has dominated Western art from the Renaissance to Post-Cubism, created a kind of virtual reality that had never been painted before (see Daniel Baird’s review of Al Held’s Painting Report, Plane: The Essential of Painting, P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center, in the Autumn 2002 issue in the Brooklyn Rail’s archives: www.brooklynrail.org). In the end, what really interests us, especially those who have followed their paintings at least for the past two decades as I have, is that—aside from the fact that Pearlstein and Held both gained fuller mastery of their materials and techniques—their paintings run quite contrary to the conventional reading of the so-called “Old Age Style” or “Late Style,” that of being either bold, intense, and filled with unresolved contradictions like that of Titian and Rembrandt, or simple, pared down and playful like that of Matisse and de Kooning. In each of their cases, not only do they intensify the complexities of their pictorial space, but they also embrace a certain gaiety and sense of completion that seems to suggest an inner harmony and a deep pleasure, which constantly feeds off its renewable vitality. The only difference is the flatter Pearlstein’s paintings get, the deeper Held’s paintings become.