Philip Pearlstein

By Kuspit, Donald | Artforum International, May 1995 | Go to article overview

Philip Pearlstein


Kuspit, Donald, Artforum International


Philip Pearlstein is usually regarded as a master realist, a consummate observer who renders the nude with a startling precision that makes it seem peculiarly alien and enigmatic, fresh rather than familiar. But such a reading neglects that he is, in fact, an abstract painter, indeed one of the first to realize that flatness had exhausted itself, and to replace it - or complement it - with the body. In Pearlstein's hands the figure becomes a rounded surface full of intricate detail that often form a peculiarly weightless, even wry pattern. The complexity of the skin's surface is not only pictured, but becomes the model for the skin of the picture.

Previously, Pearlstein's abstractness was openly signaled by the seemingly arbitrary way in which he cropped his figures. In these new works (all 1994), abstraction is evident in his conspicuously planned, indeed, seemingly overplanned - almost Mannerist - compositions. The figure becomes a perverse composition in itself, an oddly mechanical, indeed, mineral construction: a deceptive terrain of unevenly lit planes, implicitly at odds with one another yet alike in their aloof emotional tone. It is as though we are moving over a dangerous, unstable glacier, full of hidden faults. Indeed, we completely lose our footing when we follow the outline of a Pearlstein figure. In Model with Apache Basket the figure is a masterpiece of contradiction - a kind of anamorphic device that amounts to an absurd counterfigure. In effect, we have two figures in one: a literally immobile, inexpressive one within which lurks a grotesque, violently expressive figure - an unexpected, dramatic shadow self. (Dare one say the soul within the body?)

Thus we have the other side of Pearlstein's realism. He offers us a double vision: that of the surface, determined by everyday observation, which, however acute, remains absorbed in facticity; and that of depth - an intimation, of a half-hidden monstrous emotional underworld. …

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