On ViewBetty Cuningham Gallery
May 5 – June 30, 2017
In the early sixties, Philip Pearlstein—working in Brooklyn long before it was Brooklyn—painted female nudes sitting on geometrically patterned carpets and chairs in pale rooms with a cold light. The art was not so much erotic as descriptive, a sensibility that persists in Pearlstein’s current show of portraits at Betty Cunningham Gallery. The exhibition is proof that—as a nonagenarian—Pearlstein continues to paint remarkably well, reasserting his decades-long stature as a major American realist. At the same time, the exhibition functions as a group portrait of Pearlstein’s art world, bringing together historical and recent works portraying the artist’s friends and colleagues—figures like Al Held from the past, and Patterson Sims, the curator, still working. Pearlstein records a scene in New York that was and remains active, if no longer fully persuasive in its promise for younger artists.
Al Held and Sylvia Stone (1968) depicts the two artists sitting in chairs against a large white wall. Now deceased, the two were well-known—Held was an abstract painter, and Stone an environmental sculptor. The pair fill the center of the painting. In a brown shirt and pants, Held reclines on a dark brown chair with wooden armrests. Stone sits on a steel stool, in a blue sweater, tan skirt, and dark stockings. Held’s high forehead, skewed a bit to the side, looks off in the direction of the viewer, while Stone regards us with a vivid gaze. Done nearly fifty years ago, the painting builds on the formidable presence of Held and Stone’s energetic poise.
Very much a realist, Pearlstein has always concentrated on the structure of the face. His heads are built along shifting planes, their physiognomic details rendered through differing shades of color only. Now, so late in his career, Pearlstein is starting to paint more loosely; the edges of the forms are not so linear, and the light comes across with a softer hand. In Portrait of Patterson Sims (2009), the curator sits on a bentwood chair; to the right, in the foreground, is a yellow wooden eagle, wings uplifted, rising from a pedestal. Sims, in a gray sweater, looks back at his audience through rectangular glasses. His gray hair and chiseled face give him a pensive air as he sits stoically in the seat. A former curator at the Whitney, Sims represents a group one generation younger than Pearlstein’s. But the warmth of the painting makes it clear that the artist and Sims share a friendship. Portrait of Chuck Close (2016) shows the artist in a blue and yellow patterned sweater and his signature white goatee, moustache, and yellow glasses. He looks over the top rims of the glasses rather quizzically, as if he were gazing at the viewer and the other paintings in the show. These paintings feel like set pieces—portraits of a modern or contemporary art world in which the participants establish an intimate rapport based on long interaction. They evoke not only the person being portrayed but the milieu in which they, and Pearlstein, too, participate. Despite their obvious stylistic differences, Pearlstein is—in this way—a bit like Close, who paints many of his personal friends: artists who came of age in the late 1960s and 70s.
Since the rise of Abstract Expressionism in the middle of the twentieth century, realist painting in America has mostly been at the back of the race. Artists like Pearlstein haven’t pioneered a cutting-edge sensibility, but rather maintained a pictorial development within the historical continuum of traditional portraiture. Pearlstein establishes his art on the edge of academic practice, yet his work feels contemporary and alive. He practices a style of painting that feels nearly narrative; it is so quick with allusive detail. The poses and clothes are modern, and the energy of the portraits is often suggestive of an ennui that feels completely up-to-date. It will be interesting to see what the painter creates in the future. Whatever Pearlstein chooses to do, we can be sure that he will maintain a body of excellent work going back to the middle of the last century, and one that will last a long time.
JONATHAN GOODMAN is a teacher and author specializing in Asian art, about which he has been writing for more than twenty years.