Pearlstein is best known for the realistic representations of nude figures that he paints from life in his studio. He treats his models in a detached way usually reserved for inanimate objects, dramatically foreshortening his figures and cropping them at odd angles. However, Pearlstein dignifies his subjects through their monumental scale and the precision with which they are painted. 'Model with Legs Up,' one of the artist’s most elegant compositions, is notable for the complexity of the skin tones and textile patterns and for the artist’s almost playful treatment of shadows on the wall.
Philip Pearlstein Model with Legs Up, 1975 Collection of the Akron Art Museum In 1941 at the age of seventeen, Philip Pearlstein showed a precocious artistic talent, winning first and third prizes in Scholastic Magazine’s fourteenth National High School Art Exhibition and having his winning entries reproduced in Life magazine. He studied both fine art and commercial design at the Carnegie Institute of Art and in 1949 set out in the company of fellow graduate Andy Warhol to seek work as a commercial artist in New York. Soon he was dividing his time between commercial design, painting, and the pursuit of a master’s degree in art history from New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts. Pearlstein’s first exhibited works in New York were landscape subjects, which were almost lost in a flurry of Abstract Expressionist-inspired painterliness. Following a trip to Italy in 1957 on a Fulbright scholarship the artist tightened his brushwork and joined a group of painters who met regularly to draw from the model. His first figure painting was shown in 1962, the year he published an article in ARTnews entitled “Figure Paintings Today Are Not Made in Heaven.” The article outlined the modernist proscriptions against illusionism: It seems madness on the part of any painter educated in 20th century modes of picture-making to take as his subject the naked human figure, conceived as a self-contained entity possessed of its own dignity, existing in an inhabitable space, viewed from a single vantage point.1 Of course, this defines precisely the program he had set for himself. By 1963 Pearlstein was painting larger scale works in which he recorded the model in his studio in a very direct, almost clinical manner, using restrained color and brushwork. At this time the hallmarks of his style all combined to create a startlingly different "realist” look in which his subjects are shown from a close and “tilted” single viewpoint, and strongly axial compositions paradoxically emphasize both the recession of forms into space and the flat surface of the canvas. Forms are sharply cropped at the canvas's edge, and the three lights of the studio setup cast multiple shadows. Pearlstein’s innovations related to those of other American artists known as the New Realists.2 Their art—especially Pearlstein's—had singular connections to the antiromantic, “mechanical” attitudes and techniques of Pop Art and Minimalism developing simultaneously in New York. Model with Legs Up is a product of Pearlstein's full maturity and remains one of his most elegant compositions. His works of the 1970s and into the 1980s might almost be described as sensuous, although not in the sense associated with older manifestations of the reclining nude. Model employs typical Pearlstein methods—extreme foreshortening, linear composition, surprising cropping, and restrained color. In addition there is the dramatic vertical sweep of the model’s legs set against the diagonal of the studio baseboard, the complexity of skin tone and textile pattern, and the almost playful treatment of the shadows falling on the wall. For all its formal rectitude, Model has a certain elegance of contour and warmth of tone less evident in other works by the artist. Pearlstein's works of the last decade could be said to have entered a more convoluted, “Mannerist” phase, with more spatial complexity, rich color patterns, and details of studio props. In fact, Mannerism—in the classic sense of sixteenth-century Italian painting, with its spatial thrusts, sharp contours, and hard, patterned surfaces—has been cited as a possible influence on his work.3 This connection to earlier painting points to the full relevance of Pearlstein’s art in that he has managed to extend both the modernist tradition and the tradition of realist art since the Renaissance. - Russell Bowman, 2001 1. ARTnews (summer 1962): 29. 2. This group should not be confused with the European Nouveaux Realistes, a loosely affiliated group of artists centered in Paris. Rather than depicting objects (or models), they chose to employ the real items in their art. 3. Lawrence Alloway has suggested that Pearlstein’s style is related to sixteenth-century Italian sculpture, a proposition that can be extended to include Mannerist painting as well. See Lawrence Alloway, review of Philip Pearlstein: The Complete Paintings, by Russell Bowman, Art in America (February 1985): 19. Bowman, Russell. Philip Pearlstein: The Complete Paintings. New York: Alpine Fine Arts Collection, 1983. Georgia Museum of Art, University of Georgia. Philip Pearlstein: Essay by Linda Nochlin. Athens, Ga.: Georgia Museum, University of Georgia, 1970. Perreault, John. Philip Pearlstein: Watercolors and Drawings. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1988.