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Monday, December 26, 2011

Philip Pearlstein

Philip Pearlstein nearing 88 years of age
Very few of us have ever met one. We encounter, from time to time, what passes today as an art critic, but usually they're little more than just news gatherers who happen to be assigned to cover an artist or some art happening, rather than true critics in the time-honored sense of the word. Often times, the job passes to some society columnist of a newspaper who may know far less about art than the person laying out his or her column in the composing room. Which is fine with the artists being covered because it puts them in a position of strength, and relegates the writer to that of PR person so intimidated by the whole area of art criticism they wouldn't, indeed couldn't, write anything truly critical if their wine and cheese depended on it. On the theory that all publicity is good publicity, this is good for the arts in general, but bad for artists in that it deprives them of valuable, enlightened, responsible input as to the validity and efficacy of what they're trying to do. Except for an occasional Chris Ofili blowup, in simple terms, art is now so complex or so bland that no one cares enough about it anymore to read the esoteric prose these experts would churn out.  So instead the task often falls to the hapless court reporter or obituary editor having a slow day.

Two Female Models in Studio, 1967,
Philip Pearlstein 
It wasn't always so. Back one hundred years ago, indeed, a little as fifty years ago, art criticism mattered. It could make or break the career of a young aspiring artist. Art critics were highly opinionated people, sometimes with an ax to grind, but who, nonetheless could and would speak their minds. However, on rare occasions, an artist would come along and, so to speak, stump the experts. Philip Pearlstein was one such artist. So accustomed were critics of the late 1950s and early 60s to Abstract Expressionism that when confronted by the strikingly unglamorous naked figures in Pearlstein's work, they hadn't the thoughts, much less the words to express their dismay. Here was a valid traditional style of painting, Realism (or naturalism), and an equally valid traditional subject matter that was so far out of the mainstream at the time as to be totally alien to what had become traditional ways of thinking about art. There was no action, no emotion, no outrage, no formal art theory for them to sink their venomous teeth into. There was just...nakedness, photographically composed, photographically based, often photographically lit and colored. How does one criticize something so traditional, yet untraditional at the same time?

Two Female Nudes with Red Drape, 1970,
Philip Pearlstein
Philip Pearlstein was born in 1924. He studied at Carnegie and NYU. Disillusioned with the overcrowded New York School, he fell under the influence of fellow Pittsburgh artist Andy Warhol and began doing to naked bodies what Warhol was doing to soup cans--exposing them in the most mundane manner imaginable. Pearlstein's nudes didn't appear posed, but rather waiting to pose. Two Female Nudes with Red Drape (right), from 1970 is an unsexy perfect example. The color modulations of the flesh are creamy and rich in the Italian tradition born of Pearlstein's studies in Italy during the late 1950s. But Michelangelo and Titian would have cringed at what their art had wrought in the hands of this American realist. Grace and elegance had been replaced by raw, cold-blooded, honest depiction so blatantly real one might sniff for body odor. Heads were often cropped out. Faced with a movement peopled with artists such as Pearlstein, Chuck Close, Richard Estes, and even an old school artists such as Andrew Wyeth, critics had to learn a whole "new" lexicon, a whole "new" way of viewing and thinking about this old art on new canvases. They rose to the occasion, but not without wondering if such straightforward art might mean their days of significant influence were numbered. It would seem now they had good cause to worry.

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