Published  11/04/2016

Philip Pearlstein: ‘I decided I didn’t want to express other artists’ ideas any longer. I wanted to paint what was in front of me’

Philip Pearlstein: ‘I decided I didn’t want to express other artists’ ideas any longer. I wanted to paint what was in front of me’

The American artist has pursued an independent path for more than 60 years. Here, he talks about his life and career, from his time in Italy during the second world war and his student days with Andy Warhol to his current practice


Philip Pearlstein is one of the most important artists of the 20th century. He worked in an abstract expressionist style before shifting to large-scale formalist nudes constructed theatrically with a range of props from merry-go-round horses to the Eames chair. Pearlstein turns 92 in May yet he continues to work on large-scale paintings where the nude figure is juxtaposed with a diverse range of objects: from crashed model aeroplanes to marionettes, a model of the White House that is in fact a birdcage, and richly patterned rugs and fabrics. A sense of enigmatic drama is created, perhaps alluding to the anachronistic nature of human existence, to the disconnect that exists between an individual and war and politics in the wider world.

After the second world war, during which he spent two years in Italy, Pearlstein became a fellow student of Andy Warhol at the Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh. After graduation, they relocated together to New York. A year later, Pearlstein married Dorothy Cantor, also an art student at Carnegie. In New York, Pearlstein began a career in graphic design as an assistant to the major designer Ladislav Sutnar, but also studied art history at New York University, taking courses with Horace Janson and Erwin Panofsky. His career has been hugely influential while he has consistently pursued an independent path for more than 60 years. In the lead up to a new exhibition of 170 of his wartime drawings, at the Betty Cuningham Gallery in New York this coming September, Pearlstein speaks at length about his remarkable career.

Janet McKenzie: You have been an active and productive artist for more than 60 years, and so your career has taken place through numerous significant art world changes where you have played an important role. Can you recall your early urge to make art as a child and young artist, and why it was always so important to you?

Philip Pearlstein: It started in kindergarten. The teacher told my mother I should be encouraged; my mother was an innocent person who knew nothing about art. But she kept all my drawings and paintings, and that stash existed until I returned from the second world war to Pittsburgh. Stupidly, I threw them out, as well as a lot of puppets which I had made all through my schooling years. I had been fascinated by theatre. My father made me my first puppets out of the cardboard tube inside toilet paper rolls. They would look very modern now, but as a returning adult soldier I was embarrassed by them.

All I ever did was art; I wasn’t very good as a student. At high school there was a teacher who gathered a group of students enthusiastic about making art during our last couple of years into an afternoon art club where everyone would work on their own projects and several went on to great careers in industrial design, art history, advertising; one became the director of the Walker Art Museum in Minneapolis for many years, another became a designer of household objects for a Japanese firm in America, and several of us became artists. In 11th grade, he encouraged us to apply for the National Scholastic High School Magazine art contest and I entered a painting I did in 10th grade, as well as a more recent watercolour and they both won first prize. The exhibition went from Pittsburgh to the Metropolitan Museum in New York where Life magazine wrote it up and my two paintings were reproduced. All the winning entries were reproduced in colour, but one of mine was given a full half page.

Within the next 18 months I was in the US army. In the induction interview, I showed the Life magazine to the officer, who seemed very impressed. I was put into the infantry, which was very rough, to become a rifle foot soldier, as a replacement for combat casualties. At the end of that training, because of that initial interview, I was assigned to a special unit that was producing instructional charts on the infantry weapons for instructional purposes in the field training of new recruits. For several months, I worked alongside men who had been commercial artists in civilian life. It became my basic art education. I learned all about perspective, lettering, spacing, page design, drafting and silkscreen printing. For me it was a wonderful experience, ironically at the height of the war. That assignment came to an abrupt end after about seven months and we were put back into basic infantry training again. And I ended up being shipped to be a casualty replacement in the fighting in Italy.

JMcK: Your work is based on perceptual drawing, so close observation is the key. Can you explain how you came to be “blinded”? And what you experienced at the time?

PP: It happened during a training exercise at night at the base of Monte Cassino, where I had arrived with a couple of hundred other foot soldiers, just after the battle had ended, and where we were doing fake battles every day as training exercises. This night, creeping along the bank of a small river, the Volturno, there was a huge phosphorous bomb explosion right at my feet, and then I couldn’t see. People were always being injured during these exercises, so the medics were on hand. I sat down and waited to be led back to the field hospital, where I waited an endless time for my turn to be treated. I couldn’t see a thing. And I thought: “Oh well, that’s the end of being an artist, but at least I get to go home alive.” Then the doctor came round, took off my glasses and I could see. My glasses were simply covered in mud. The incident taught me just how miraculous vision is.

JMcK: I am interested in the unofficial art education that happened during the war. It is amazing that you had such opportunities, and such an extraordinary war experience.

PP: I made a visual diary, drawing every day the simulated battles our training involved. There are 60 or 70 of those, firmly realist in the tradition of artists from the civil war onwards. There is going to be an exhibition of my wartime drawings, including the graphic works, this September at the Betty Cuningham gallery, here in New York. There will be 170 pieces altogether.

JMcK: You were based in Rome and in Monte Cassino and therefore saw remarkable destruction, but also remarkable art and architecture.

PP: The British had a team of art historians there, and, as each town was liberated from German occupation, they would bring together works that had been hidden for safety. They would put on exhibitions in churches and halls, and produce little pamphlets in English. I still have a few of them. The pamphlets were just there to be picked up, from Naples and the surrounding area and later in Rome. They were dense compact exhibitions of great masterpieces that had been hidden. About a month after the fighting ended, I got to Venice and remember a gigantic exhibition in Venice on the second floor of San Marco that I believe was organised by the American art historian Bernard Berenson. Earlier, while the fighting was still going on, I was based in Rome, and at that time the Vatican and its museums was open, so on weekends I could go there regularly to study the art. Later, I was in Tuscany with an engineering unit stationed outside Pisa, painting road signs. I got into Florence regularly and we would park outside the Pitti Palace. I would walk to the nearby Carmelite church of Santa Maria del Carmine where there are Masaccio frescoes. It was dark and piled high with sand bags; I would climb up the sandbags and study the Masaccio up close, face to face, by the dim light from the dirty window of the chapel.

JMcK: That’s a profound experience and an unexpected one to have during the war. I did my art history training in Australia, so almost entirely through reproduction, so in coming to Europe and seeing the works in the flesh for the first time is absolutely thrilling, and it’s an unforgettable experience. The combination of your unofficial art training and the chance to see marvellous exhibitions curated by Berenson et al must have compelled you to take a career in art further when you returned to the US?

PP: By the time the fighting ended, I had been in Italy for about nine months and I was then transferred to an engineering unit there in charge of rebuilding the road between Rome and Florence, supervising German prisoners of war who were doing the work. I was in charge of a group of four prisoners who were the personnel of the sign shop. The chief sign painter introduced himself to me as having been the chief calligrapher for UFA (Universum Film-Aktien Gesellschaft), the German movie studios [established in 1917], and he considered his work on the Marlene Dietrich movie The Blue Angel one of his best. He taught me a lot more about the refinement of layout and fancy calligraphy and lettering. At the end of the war, I returned to Pittsburgh, which then struck me as very provincial: however, I went back to the Carnegie Institute of Technology on the GI Bill [Officially known as the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, the GI Bill was created to help second world war veterans and, among other things, it granted stipends covering tuition and expenses for veterans attending college]. I chose to live with my parents as I felt that I owed them that – I was their only child – after my absence during the war. At Carnegie Tech, I became friends with Andy Warhol. Most students there were older army veterans, though Andy was younger. In New York, the following year after graduation, I married Dorothy Cantor, whom I met at Carnegie Tech. So I had my official formal education [BFA] in Pittsburgh.

JMcK: I am going to move to the 1950s, in New York, where, after the war, you had already acquired a lot experience of life for your age. Most artists were horrified by the atrocities of the war, culminating in knowledge of Auschwitz, then Nagasaki and Hiroshima, to the point that images of the human form in art were deemed by most as not acceptable. Abstraction therefore came to dominate postwar art.

PP: All the experience I had acquired came together when I moved to New York. In Pittsburgh at Carnegie Tech, because of the graphic skills I had picked up in the army, I was hired by our professor of design, who had a freelance job designing a series of pamphlets on architectural products for the Aluminum Company of America, as an assistant to do the final drafting, text pasteups and colour-separations for the printer. On the basis of that work, in New York I was hired by a prominent graphic designer, Ladislav Sutnar, on the design and production of industrial catalogues on products for the building industry. I worked with him for almost eight years. Early on, he encouraged me to go back to university to study art history, so I worked for him part-time while I did a degree at the New York University. All the time I was making paintings at night.

J.McK: Where Erwin Panofsky taught?

PP: Panofsky dominated the Institute of New Art, New York University, at that point. I chose to do my thesis on Marcel Duchamp and Francis Picabia, which seems unlikely, but as artists, in the Dada works they produced during the years of the first world war, they were working with the kinds of machine images I was drafting at the time for Mr Sutnar’s catalogues. They gave their industrial shapes human personas, acting out funny, odd activities. But I focused on Picabia because I realised that it was he who came up with the ideas; Duchamp followed. I now realise that it was probably Picabia’s wife who came up with the ideas.

JMcK: Ah, the genealogy of creativity!

PP: That study gave me the opportunity to do a thorough study of modernism. It was a wonderful opportunity and I had to give meaning to everything I wrote about, for Dr Panofsky! However, my actual thesis adviser was another famous historian, Horace Janson.

JMcK: The commission for a Portrait of Erwin Panofsky (1892-1968) in 1992 to mark the centenary of his birth (from a photograph) can be seen as an important episode in your career. Can you recall the issues it threw up for your studio practice?

PP: I was asked to do the portrait of Panofsky on the occasion of Panofsky’s centenary by the person who had been a fellow student in Panofsky’s class and seminar, and who was now the head of the Institute of Advanced Studies at Princeton University (which had been founded for Albert Einstein and Irwin Panofsky – they were considered equals – and where they both taught). I said to my friend: “He’s dead, and I never work from photographs, on principle.” He said: “It’s time you did”, and sent me several photographs, all of which were taken by professional photographers, including Yousuf Karsh who took the famous one of Churchill against a dark background, making him look like the leader of the world, which became the prototype for all Karsh photographs. I chose a snapshot taken by one of Panofsky’s grandchildren to work from, in which he looked as I remembered him.

JMcK: I think it’s a very fine portrait so it can’t have been too bad an experience?

PP: I did a number of subsequent portraits, and several of the sitters asked if I would do them like Karsh had photographed them, including Henry Kissinger, whom I painted for a cover of Time magazine in a manner unlike Karsh.

JMcK: You railed against Panofsky?

PP: Well, I didn’t exactly rail against him. The photo I chose to use was taken by one of his grandchildren using a cheap flash-camera. The hands were blurred so I gave him my hands; I figured I was about the same age as he was in this photo. While I was working on it, I realised this was the guy I had been fighting with! During the years I was at the Institute and working on my thesis later, I had been making landscape paintings based on abstract expressionist ideas, until around 1960 when I decided I didn’t want to express other artists’ ideas any longer, so I decided I wanted to paint what was in front of me. From that point on, I have been doing perceptually oriented paintings, choosing titles that refer descriptively to the objects and figures in the work. While painting the portrait, I realised I had been fighting Panofsky because of his dictum, which he stated early on in his career. He was giving an impromptu lecture when this major idea came to him – that you cannot understand art if you do not understand the culture that produced it. Further, he insisted on the obverse – that you can’t understand the culture without studying the art. His whole career was based on it and it’s a terrific idea. It evolved in our time into pop art. Pop art was the total realisation of Panofsky’s theory. I had decided I didn’t want my work to have any meaning; it was about the total visual experience. The meaning of any work of art is up for grabs anyway. Whoever stands in front of a picture gives it their own interpretation.

JMcK: That brings me on to the fact that, in art historical terms, realism has been traditionally connected to politics. Can you tell me how your work is quite different from social realism or socialist realism? What do you set out to do?

PP: Well the high point for social realism was 19th-century French painting. A friend of mine, the art historian Linda Nochlin, did a book on realism, investigating all of that: about social meaning and class, with examples of paintings of peasants tilling fields; Van Gogh’s early work, such as The Potato Eaters (1885) belonged to that context. Things evolved away from that historically; the impressionists couldn’t care less about social realism or those meanings. In the history of Russian art, realism before the revolution made far less contribution than did their modernism, after the revolution. Then, after the second revolution, the Bolshevik revolution, in the 1920s, modernism was squelched, suppressed, and a kind of idealist realism with a dominating view of the workers, so politically oriented, took its place. At the same time in the US in the 1920s and 30s, modernism was being suppressed; there was a realist movement that was becoming dominant. Abstract artists were regarded as scary communists and foreign. You were not to look at modernist work; ordinary people who painted nice abstract works were looked on in Pittsburgh as communists! It was such a crazy turn around. After the [second world] war, even in Pittsburgh, abstraction replaced everything else for at least the next two decades. That’s the position that I reacted against. Some of the critics were taking an almost Fascist role dictating the style young artists should do. It was a dictatorship based on Harold Rosenberg and Clement Greenberg’s writings that decided what styles art should be, and if an artist did not follow, he was not chosen for exhibitions.

JMcK: And if symbolist or decorative subject matter was employed, it was not uncommon for it to be denigrated in Greenbergian terms as “kitsch” – such a put-down!

PP: Rosenberg described art in terms of interior mental process: existential philosophy: always searching so it’s always unfinished. There’s an exhibition on just now at the Met Breuer: Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible (18 March – 4 September 2016). In the 1950s, there was never a finished painting. It was inbuilt stylistically; it’s always up for change. For Greenberg, art had no meaning, art is always visual. Anything objective was out, according to both Greenberg and Rosenberg.

JMcK: You introduce objects into your work and, at first glance, there is quite a drama going on in your studio: there are planes crashing, and all sorts of goings on. Can you explain?

PP: This happened while I was teaching, by the 1960s. I had a Fulbright grant to go back to Italy for a year to study in 1958, even though I was older, so I went with my wife and family – we had just one child then. We lived a year in Rome and I got caught up drawing the Roman ruins, which suggested abstract expressionism! I spent my year there, making very precise wash drawings of the ruins and of the cliffs on the Amalfi coast. The paintings I did from them later are abstract expressionistic, stylistically. During that year I got hired to teach at Pratt Institute. I had moved from my first job with Mr Sutnar to Life magazine (it had health benefits) so by then I had a good background in graphic design, I had a degree in art history and had published some articles, had a number of exhibitions so I was well qualified to teach. I taught art history in the studio by taking examples of art from history and bringing them into studio practice. While in Rome, I wrote up what I would do in the course and stuck to it for the next 30 years.

JMcK: When I was first preparing for this interview, I wanted to ask you: “How do you take a drawing or painting of the figure, a nude, and make it into a painting?” And then I saw your graphic work and I didn’t need to ask at all because all of the graphic work was, still is, so exciting, full of energy where you seemed to understand the picture plane and what you could do with it. Your paintings are very much a consequence of the experience you had in graphic art.

PP: Well teaching was itself a great learning process. One of the artists I fell in love with while I was an art history student was Mondrian. I used the library at the Museum of Modern Art for my research on Picabia and Duchamp and when I needed a break I would go down to the galleries, and in those days they were empty so it was possible to stare at works without interruption. Mondrian was already the God of all layout artists, but as I really got to know his work, it began to vibrate, to do very strange things. It moves, the elements move if you give the work time. All sorts of things happen with the optic nerves, I guess, so lines drift and move around. You blink your eyes and it’s all gone. I tried to teach on that basis. Everything I taught involved some of that lesson I learned from Mondrian, from his picture structure and how the picture structure drifts. The setups I produce in my studio are really theatre designs – maybe that’s what I should be exhibiting.

JMcK: It seems somewhat anachronistic that the beautifully rendered figures are sometimes missing their head. What does this vital omission perhaps signify?

PP: I start in the centre of the canvas. What is missing around the edges of the canvas is someone else’s problem.

JMcK: I have observed a sense of detachment, at times a meditative stance in your figures, while all around there is mayhem and destruction, though it is admittedly a constructed mayhem. Am I projecting too much on to your work, to think that this is in fact the 21st-century state of humanity, that it is essentially dichotomous?

PP: I get stuff from flea markets, eccentric pieces of furniture, things now from eBay. It’s my take, my playing around with what became pop art. When I was still living with Andy Warhol that first year in New York, I did paintings of flying figures – the last was a painting of Superman that started with the Angel of Destruction, based on seeing the painting in Pisa during the war, The Triumph of Death. I was so moved by it, my Angel of Death (swooping over the landscape in black robes) came from drawings I did during the war as well, this crazy angel in the sky over soldiers doing bayonet practice in the field. Our training was based on first world war trench warfare training, with the rifle and bayonet: we lined up every morning and tried to kill our friends, whoever were standing across from us. In New York, the first painting I did was the Angel of Death flying over New York. That, and the painting of Icarus, led to my painting of Superman. Everyone laughed at it. Now it’s in a current exhibition in New York and has been reproduced on the covers of a couple of publications.

JMcK: It is a very great achievement to be well, to be creative and active in your 90s. You still work on large canvases and are still highly productive. Has old age been helpful or illuminating?

PP: It just gets in the way. Instead of working five days a week, I only do three. Two days a week have to be kept for doctor visits, either for my wife or myself. I can still walk to them! I have always stood to paint, and perhaps that has contributed to still being OK. Most doctors who see me can’t quite figure it out.

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