A Conversation with Philip Pearlstein
Yezzi, David, New Criterion
Editor's note: Earlier this fall, David Yezzi, The New Criterions poetry editor, interviewed the painter Philip Pearlstein at his apartment and studio in Manhattan's Garment District.
DAVID YEZZI: Where do you find the objects that you include in your paintings?
PHILIP PEARLSTEIN: Everywhere. This bench that you're sitting on is a primitive American, made by somebody probably in the 1930s, and obviously it took some skill, but it's all truly folk art. And it's documented. It may actually be much earlier. It's just a slab of wood resting on two cross pieces, but the back and sides are made up of these crudely turned rods. Some dealer had it for sale, and I bought it to use in a painting.
DY: Do you collect objects for their own sake, or is it always with painting in mind?
PP: Originally, everything was collected for its own sake, but I lived in a brownstone and this area where we're sitting with these multicolored squares of linoleum was my entire working space for twenty-two years. Brownstones are small--fifteen feet wide and thirty-five feet long. Half the space was working, and half was storage. So I had all this stuff, folk art, that I kept buying, and classical antiquities. Most of it was just piled into the back part of the top story of the brownstone--the front half. It never occurred to me to use them in paintings.
But then when I moved here, there were six or seven graduate students from my courses at Brooklyn College; I hired them to help me make the move, just the studio, to consolidate and load up the van. And we were supposed to be here at seven o'clock in the evening, or five o'clock in the afternoon, and it was midnight by the time we got here. Everybody was tired. The brownstone was four stories high, and they had to walk up and down all day long. And they just piled the stuff in groups, you know, furniture, sculpture, weathervanes on stands, all that kind of stuff. That airplane above us was smashed up in the moving van, and that's been pieced together somewhat.
DY: And that's appeared in your paintings.
PP: I've used it a number of times. And the stuff looked so interesting in these accidental groupings that they became part of my subject.... I have to admit I did an M.A. thesis.
DY: On Picabia, wasn't it?
PP: Picabia and Duchamp. I couldn't separate the two. I concentrated on 1910 to 1921, you know, the Dada period. And it was very interesting. I was painting abstractly at the time. And the things about Duchamp that I read, there was very little in English at the time, and I had to read it all in French. I spent about eighteen months just translating articles, and it was a wonderful experience. And then when I moved the studio, the idea of "accident," I mean, here it was, right here in my own space, these accidental groupings of these crazy objects that really didn't belong together. And I just had the models pose in between them. New York City is the great flea market. And you walk around doing what Duchamp did. You look at all these odd objects. I used to go to the flea market very often, and you designate these things as art. You confer on them a kind of status that maybe the maker never thought of.
DY: How many work spaces do you have going at one time?
PP: Almost every working session is on a different painting. Right now, there's a watercolor, an oil painting in the middle here, and two oil paintings down there. And one night a week I work on portraits, just of friends.
DY: What is the difference for you between the portraits and the paintings with models? PP: None. No difference. Except the paintings of models with these objects look like they mean something. And again that was very much influenced by my paper on Duchamp and Picabia. You know, I spent three years writing it. It wasn't a casual thing. And at the end of it I figured, if it took me that long to figure out their work, what the hidden symbolism was, why bother? …