Figurative artist
 Philip Pearlstein
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  The series below is one of my early over-life-sized portrait paintings, being painted from life in 1969. The painting is six feet high. The models were Linda Nochlin and her husband Richard Pommer, both art-historians. My aim was only to paint as exact a likeness in that situation as I could, without wanting to interpret them psychologically. They sat there quietly for many hours over the course of a week in a very hot, mosquito-ridden cabin in Skowhegan, Maine, while I painted it.

I paint people and landscapes from direct observation. I do not use mechanical or optical devices of any kind to make my drawings or paintings. However, I did one painting that is an exception to that self -imposed rule. In 1993 I was persuaded by art historian Irving Lavin, who in the early 1950s had been a fellow student of art history at the New York University Institute of Fine Arts, to paint a portrait of one our teachers: the great art historian Irwin Panofsky. The painting was to be used in the 100th anniversary celebration of Panofsky's birth. As Panofsky was dead, I said that I never worked from photographs, and Dr. Lavin told me that it was about time I tried. So I projected a Kodak slide of Panofsky onto a sheet of plastic suspended in my studio, about the distance from me that a living sitter would be, and painted the portrait from that as best I could. I found it to be an awkward procedure, and a chore. I work far more efficiently with the intensity of working from living models in front of me, being forced to confront the technical challenges of capturing the play of light over forms, and the specifics of color that my eye sees.

Today I find this conference to be an instance of "Déjà vu all over again", to quote Yogi Beara, as way back in 1965, I wrote a passionate letter to the editor of the New York Times to refute a Times art critic who had placed my work in the same category of photo-realism, as that of another artist (Howard Kanowitz), who had an exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum of nudes that he had painted from photographs. The writer said that unlike Philip Pearlstein (and a couple of other artists), Kanowitz did not hide the fact that he worked from photographs. I wrote that the effort of painting from life cost my models a great deal of physical discomfort, and cost me a great deal of money in model fees, and that I wanted to make the camera obsolete. I said I wanted to make the camera obsolete because in my reading about early 20th century art, I found that the most frequently used argument made in favor of abstraction was that the camera made realist painting obsolete.

That letter lead to a panel discussion at the New York Studio School, which took place before a packed audience that expected blood to flow over the issue of using the human eye versus the mechanical camera lens. During that discussion much was said about the history of the use of mechanical aids by representational artists. (And that led to a thoroughly researched article on the history of artists using mechanical aids and photographs that appeared soon after in Art News magazine). No blood flowed during the discussion that evening, because all the contestants, including myself, agreed there were no moral issues involved, but that there were important stylistic issues that each artist made for themselves.

Several years earlier, around 1960, when I had made the very self-conscious decision to tackle the problems of realist painting, I decided to re-read Panofsky"s 1948 edition of "The Codex Huygens and Leonardo da Vinci's Art Theory". The book contains a discussion of essays from the1500s, centered on the attempt to establish ideal proportions of the human body and of mathematical schemes for the projection of those human forms in complex poses viewed from different angles onto paper of canvas. The book is made up chiefly Panofsky's summary or the discussions about the use of geometric one-point perspective as formulated by the architect Bruneleschi as the great artistic tool of the time. Panofsky's edition did include three of Durer's prints that demonstrate shortcuts to drawing: using a sheet of glass on which to draw the contours of a figure in a foreshortened pose, and the use of a screen made up of a grid from which to copy the contours of a another foreshortened figure onto to a paper on which the same grid is drawn. The third of Durer's prints demonstrated something about looking at a stringed musical instrument that I couldn't figure out. I went on to re-read the collection of essays in the original Codex Hugens, and as I remember, there were discussions of the use of optical devices, such as a flat mirror to view a scene in a single dimension rather than in two —binocular vision, and about a device that Leonardo was rumored to have for invented for projecting the illusion of a scene or person in a closet as a joke to scare his housekeeper. However, there was no discussion I can remember about using those devices in preference to the intellectual use of geometric perspective constructions. I had first read the book when I was an art history student in 1950, long before I was interested in such drawing problems myself. I had remembered only a discussion of how late medieval artists puzzled over how to represent the line of where the wall meets the ceiling when that line slants up or down depending on the observer's view point, and how some artists had tried resolve that in paintings.

After I read Panofsky's book and the Codex Hugens again I decided to ignore all that, and face the realist painter's problems empirically on my own. Trying to solve those painterly problems has kept me busy and excited all these years.

As for my having declared that I wanted to make the camera obsolete I would say that the photograph is a graph, a flattened rendering of the scene it captures. Photographs do not break the picture plane, and so they parallel one of the great dictums of 20th century modernist art, which is that form follows function. The paper is flat, that is, the picture plane is flat, therefor the artist must keep his picture flat. Therefore the photograph is accepted as modernist art. Therefore one of my aims in painting is to break the picture plane.

When I decided to become a realist painter I determined that every mark I put down on the canvas would come from my actual visual experience. And I soon learned the technical difficulties of trying to make each mark be a metaphor for the light on the forms, textures, and space in front of me. I found that the greatest difficulty lay in getting those metaphors of form to break the picture plane, to get the forms to look as though they existed with measurable distances from each other, with a sense of air around them. When I stare at the scene I am painting, the distance between the forms assumes a kind of profundity, and it seems very important to capture them accurately. Those spatial relationships seem to characterize the basic life experience of potential movement. I suggest that it is the honesty of the attempt to recreate the forms and spaces visually without artistic editing that is one of the hallmarks of realist painting.

The use of optical devices, whether prisms, sheets of glass or photographic prints, can give the artist only the outlines of three dimensional objects reduced to one dimension. But the struggle to make that reduction and fill the areas between the outlines gives the artist working from direct visual experience some of his greatest kicks. The difference is like the acceptance of the published score of a hockey game as the finished product, while ignoring the physical experience of the struggle that is the point of the game. It is what is painted between the outlines that makes the difference between merely competent painting and really meaningful art.

I remember reading somewhere in Delacroix's journal that the whole art of painting was demonstrated in a drop of water painted on the buttock of one of the sea nymphs in Rubens' painting of the arrival in France of Marie de Medici.. Perhaps Rubens only drew the outline of that drop of water on the lady's backside and it was a studio assistant who painted within the outline; but whoever painted it put his sense of the universe inside that outline.

I would like the panel to consider just how Rubens and his studio assistants got those ladies to pose in those positions with that water churning around them for the length of time it would have taken to paint them in the several layers of paint that were employed in his complex painterly technique. I will repeat: it is what is painted between the outlines that makes the difference between merely competent painting and meaningful art.

There is an art to staring. Years ago I wrote that, quote,: "I get my highs from using my eyes." One can stare at anything, and the object of the staring, if one's mind has been emptied of all extraneous thoughts, becomes the most important thing in the universe. Historically, I cite two precidents from two different cultures: the first and most famous is the case of Abbot Sugar of Paris, who in the 1100s, was brought to trial by the church on accusations of avarice. He loved precious jewels, and had amassed a collection worth a fortune. His defense was lengthy, and it became famous, during which he quoted a number of precedents in earlier Church literature. His chief argument was that as he stared into the heart of a precious stone, he lost himself and found God. He was exonerated, and went on to commission a chapel, the design of which was to have minimal wall space, but to have windows as large and high as possible, to be made up of designs realized through mosaics of intensely colored pieces of glass. This apotheosis of Abbot Sugar mechanism for self hypnosis, was the origin of the French Gothic style of architecture. Another example in art history, is that of certain sects of Buddhist monks in medieval China who would lose themselves in the contemplation of a stone, or tree -- something in front of them. Then after the abrupt emergence from the contemplative state, they would use the brush, ink and paper that was at their side to quickly splash down a kind of hieroglyphic notation of that experience of finding themselves at one with the universe through the contemplation of a specific object.

I am suggesting that any artist who is intensely concerned with the two dimensional depiction of an object in front of him, will lose himself in the process of the technical struggle to depict that object, to recreate the visual appearance of the tonal and color values of that object. Perhaps he will not find God, but he will have had a very intense, even profound confrontation with that object. I am also suggesting that it is the honesty of the attempt to recreate the forms visually, without artistic stylistic editing that is the hallmark of realist painting.

The use of optical devices, whether prisms, sheets of glass or photograph prints, can give the artist only the outlines of three dimensional objects reduced to one dimension. The devices remove the problem of binocular vision and reduce it to one. But that problem gives the artist who works from direct visual experience some of his greatest kicks. The difference is like accepting the published score of a soccer game as the finished product, but it is the physical experience of the struggle that is the point of the game. It is known that the Van Eycks and their competitors, the ones who got the contracts and designed the paintings, had workshop set-ups, employing other artists who were specialists in specific skills -- those who painted the flowers and foliage, the jewels, the fabrics and furs, etc. I am certain that the jewel specialist painted each pearl and ruby as if their existence depended on it-they lost themselves in it.

Delacroix is quoted as saying he learned the art of painting from studying a drop of water on the buttock of one of the sea nymphs in his painting of the arrival of Marie de Medici in France, that is in the Louvre Museum. Perhaps it was Rubens who drew the outline of that drop of water on the lady's backside but if was probably a studio assistant who painted that drop; but whoever did it put his sense of his universe inside the outline.

It is what is painted between the outlines that makes the difference between merely competent painting and really meaningful art.


Philip Pearlstein is a figurative artist known for his contribution to the sharp-focus realist movement; he was a major figure in the revival of figure painting in the 1960s. His works are known for their non-traditional vantages of the nude figure. The model in the painting above is Linda Nochlin, a respected historian of 19th and 20th century art on the faculty of the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University.


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