Philip Pearlstein's Portrait of Linda Nochlin and Richard Pommer ties together the personal and the intellectual strands of my life like no othe work or art. It was commissioned in 1968, as a wedding portrait, and we are both wearing more or less the clothes we were married in: Dick, white linen trousers and a blue shirt; I, a white dress with a bold blue geometric pattern. We are represented sitting in Philip's studio in Skowhegan, illuminated by the cold light of dentists' lamps, sweating in the heat of a Maine summer, though this latter condition is not recorded.
The painting engages a long process of creation and an afterlife of experience. Temporality is necessarily involved in this process, whether in the seemingly endless and discomforting--at times even agonizing--sitting for the portrait, or, equally important, in living and aging with it after its completion. In the beginning we thought we looked old; but a time came when we overtook the painting and looked back on it as a record of a moment when we were in fact quite young. There was never a time when we looked at it and said, "Ah yes, that's us, exactly."
All portraits are related to the history of portraiture as much as to the subjects they portray. In Pearlstein's image, this relationship is conceived as a rejection of most aspects of the portrait tradition as constituted by such practitioners as Rembrandt, Sargent, and Degas, though there is something of Degas in the indifferent cropping. But the traditional pretexts are missing: listening to music; the eye lifted as though from reading; the glimpse of the subject, seized as though unaware, in a box at the opera; the accoutrements of social position, the probing of character or personal psychology. In few previous portraits is the existential condition of simply sitting for the artist registered as ferociously a it is here. It is not merely that depth and psychological profundity are avoided: they do not seem to have existed even as possibilities for representation.
This is a painting of surfaces alone. But what surfaces! It is as an abstract construction of surfaces that the painting makes its most intense impression. In a case sense, it might be thought of as the work of a willful and determined camera. The texture is complex and dryly perverse. At the bottom of the canvas, triple-cast shadows play out an intricate relationship with a vigor that the human figures, isolated on their torpor, cannot summon. The wrinkles in our clothes, the various slight protuberances and indentations of our flesh, incised by variations of cold light and colder shade, the strange and previously unknown excessiveness of a shoe strap or an eye pouch--the Unheimlichkeit of a body you had thought you knew and was yours in a space you had taken for granted--are recorded with obsessive fidelity. All the painting's liveliness is in the details, the fragments, the footnotes, as it were. We, the sitters, are put to death, or, at the very least, into a state of suspended animation, for the sake of trugh to the detailed surface.
But then again, it is only a surface that is engaged here? The period around 1968 was a time of radical questioning, including the questioning of canonical Modernism. Why must a painting be a flat, self-reflexive demonstration of its own identity as a surface? In the portrait, Pearlstein revalues the illustration of depth and painting's historical engagement with the illusion, creating a limited but definite recession in the picture, a self-conscious evocation of space and distance. …