Pearlstein/Warhol/Cantor: From Pittsburgh to New York
The Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh
May 30 – September 6, 2015
The pleasures and perils of studio visits at provincial art schools are not unfamiliar to us critics. When you see what talented students have learned by imitating faculty artists from a previous generation, you recognize that these young people must move to an art center and radically innovate if they are to find an entry point into the contemporary art world. Gathering paintings, photographs, and works on paper from their student years and early times in Manhattan, “Pearlstein/Warhol/Cantor” provides a marvelous record of such a process. Philip Pearlstein (b. 1924), Andy Warhol (1928 – 87) and Dorothy Cantor (b. 1928) studied at Carnegie Tech, Pittsburgh—and they went together to New York after graduation, where the two men sought employment as commercial illustrators. Pearlstein, who was slightly older than his two friends, had served in the Army. And so we see scenes of training camps and military life in Italy; and then from Pittsburgh his drawing Private Hebrew Lesson (ca. 1948) and domestic scenes, like Family Picnic (Memory of) (ca. 1948 – 49). Some of his advertising images are on display; but unlike Warhol, he soon realized that he was not a successful illustrator. His Superman (1952), however, is a convincing, oddly precocious proto-Pop painting—with the comic book figure flying over a city, the entire scene rendered in an expressionist style. And then Two Models with Three Masks with Turkish Rug (2015) is a good recent example of a painting in his long-established personal style.
Warhol’s student work was also varied: the Self-Portrait (1944) shows that he was a skilled draftsman; Four Figures on Swings (1947) likewise presents a skilled perspectival demonstration. Girl in Park (Phipps) (1948) shows Pittsburgh’s conservatory and botanical garden, which was near to Carnegie Tech; and I like Dance (1948) presents marvelous biomorphic figures with elongated torsos, thin limbs, and tiny heads. Some of these early Warhols have not, to my knowledge, been previously published. Then we get to his familiar early advertising images and Campbell’s Soup Can (Tomato Rice) (1961), a large hand-made version of the famous soup cans made the next year.
Pearlstein and Warhol were friends; Warhol described Pearlstein’s Portrait of Andy Warhola (1950)—included in this show—as his favorite portrait. But moving to New York brought dramatic changes for both artists. When Pearlstein was unable to persuade the co-op Tanager Gallery, where he exhibited, to accept Warhol’s early homoerotic line drawings, their relationship effectively ended. Fewer, less varied works by Cantor—mostly unpopulated cityscapes of Pittsburgh and Manhattan—are displayed. We don’t get much sense of her student art. In the 1950s, after she married Pearlstein, she did make drawings of cats and her son. It’s unfortunate (but perhaps not surprising given institutional biases against female artists and the demands of motherhood) that this talented woman didn’t pursue a career as an artist.
Imagine that you did studio visits with Pearlstein and Warhol at Carnegie Tech. Judging by the art in this show, what might you have expected of them? 1948 was the annus mirabilis for American art, the year when Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, and Mark Rothko started to create the majestically original art, which in the next decade would establish their reputations. Pearlstein, Warhol, and Cantor couldn’t have learned much about Abstract Expressionism at Carnegie Tech—and they didn’t need to, for when they came of age, the art world had moved on. What a vast distance they had to move in order to establish themselves as original artists! I believe that this situation, in which the best artists of each era radically reject the concerns of the previous generation is, to some degree at least, a distinctive phenomenon of contemporary art. The critical question, then, is what role art schools can play in nurturing students. Nothing that these three artists could have learned in Pittsburgh in the 1940s remotely prepared them to have careers in New York starting in the 1960s. The same thing is true, I would add, of art students whose careers would begin three or four decades later. Learning to deal with change is challenging. What I taught artists at Carnegie Mellon (in 1965 Carnegie Tech merged with another Pittsburgh school, the Mellon Institute and was renamed) in the late 1970s and the 1980s did not really prepare them to move to Manhattan, for by then Pearlstein and Warhol were famous, and so it was too late for ambitious young artists to emulate them.
DAVID CARRIER is co-author with Joachim Pissarro of Wild Art (Phaidon, 2013). His next books, with Joachim Pissarro, are Aesthetics of the Margins / The Margins of Aesthetics and Aesthetic Theory, Abstract Art and Lawrence Carroll.