Philip Pearlstein, Mar. 22-Apr. 21, 2001, at Robert Miller Gallery, 524 West 26th Street, New York, N.Y. 10001.
Body after body, none particularly appetizing, but all rendered with a meticulous severity -- even a puritan rigor -- that makes them "formally" objective: that's the gist of Philip Pearlstein's understanding of his own work. He's interested in "esthetic content," he insists, not in "symbolism," which supposedly is not only "independent" of it, but beside the basic point of art: the rendering of form for the sake of form -- form as the only lasting, deep thrill in art.
It's an old-fashioned essentialist point of view, no doubt necessary when Pearlstein first began to paint his naked figures, going against the grain of abstraction, the dominant, authentic mode at the time. To gain credibility, he had to rationalize them as abstract constructions -- which, indeed, they are, brilliantly so: few American abstract painters of the "heroic" generation achieve Pearlstein's level of visual sophistication -- visual thinking, as Rudolf Arnheim called it -- particularly when he is at his best, as in this exhibition. Its two unequivocal masterpieces -- -- are more than a formal match for anything Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko painted.
The nudes and models are complex shapes, all the more so because of their awkward positions, and the way their bodies are highlighted or shaded -- with startling bands of shadow in the case of the nudes. To see them through the very different if equally intricate shapes of a weathervane and fan -- in other pictures an iron bed frame -- is to compound the formal complexity. It is an abrupt, daring contrast of opposites -- the use of the figures as a kind of backdrop for a dramatically foregrounded object is a new device for Pearlstein, indeed, a brilliant new invention -- heightening the spatial tension, as well as the intellectual tension. The apparent irreconcilability of figures and objects, which suddenly jut into and disturb the scene, raises the conceptual and formal ante of the picture, making it more of an emotional as well as visual risk to play.
The figures are static, the weathervane and fan implicitly dynamic; the circle of the fan encompasses the models, the weathervane extends the width of the nudes. The objects seem to take the measure of the figures, reducing them to their formal dimensions, thus confirming their abstractness. Quantified, they lose what little human quality they seem to have left: the consciousness signified by the open eyes of one nude and one model seems incidental in an otherwise mechanically constructed picture. The formal drama is intensified by the fact that the inanimate objects seem more animate -- more charged with movement, however mechanical -- than the figures, who passively vegetate, and look stale in comparison to the exciting machines.
Both fan and weathervane can be understood as ingenious repoussoir devices, vigorously establishing perspective. In fact, the curved fan has an ironic relationship to the grid, traditionally used to break the figure into perspectivally correct fragments. They, together with the geometrical patterns of the iron bed frame, and of the furniture and objects that appear in other pictures, and especially evident on the Navajo blankets in several pictures, seem meant to get us to recognize that the pictures are geometrical constructions in all but appearance.
Pearlstein tips his hand, as it were, inviting us to see through the outer realism of his pictures to their inner abstraction -- the outer content to the inner form. To let the pictures go there -- to admire their "duplicity" as especially dramatic formal constructions and ironically realistic scenes -- is to be blind to their emotional drama -- their uncanniness. It is to refuse to read their symbolism, even though its meaning is not too difficult to fathom.
Over the years, Pearlstein has changed the balance between his figures and his objects, making the latter more prominent. The weathervane and fan are the grand climax of this tendency: they seem to overtake the figure in importance, displacing it to the periphery of the scene. The result is not only a more mannerist picture -- Pearlstein was always known for the absurdity of his space, with its conflicting diagonals, upward tilt and blind corners, as well as the often truncated figures that seemed out of place in it, all the more so because they were sometimes abruptly foreshortened, as though collapsed into a procrustean space of their own -- but a mannerist situation.
Pearlstein's paintings are full of sexual tension -- they tell a bizarre sexual story. The models and nudes are a given -- they're part of the studio character of the paintings. All Pearlstein can do is arrange their bodies and position them in space. Invariably, they seem at odds with one another -- alienated, or at least not particularly interested in relating to each other. It's a physical encounter -- and not much of one at that -- rather than an emotional encounter.
But Pearlstein is free to choose his props; they symbolize, however indirectly, his presence. And the older he gets, the more he intrudes himself, in symbolic form, into his pictures. Modern masters are known more for their youthful breakthroughs than their late styles. It's difficult to follow a big bang with what everybody expects to be a whimper. It only seems natural that detumescence and creative impotence should follow heroic penetration and exploration of a dark new continent of creativity.
But Pearlstein refuses to go out with the usual labored repeat of old ideas and attitudes. Instead, he's gotten emotional -- almost violently emotional. His figures have always seemed less than human, and now they seem almost completely inhuman -- more wooden and opaque than ever. But his objects are more sensuous than ever, indeed, sexy -- much more libidinously alive than his figures. They carry the burden of humanity and warmth in what otherwise look like rather than cold, calculated scenes -- emotional deserts.
I want to suggest that the weathervane and fan, taken together, symbolize Pearlstein's ambivalence towards his models, on whom he has depended all these years. They represent his unconscious feelings towards them. They violently intrude into the space of the nude models, the weathervane like a gigantic phallus, the fan like a meat grinder. Note the two testicular tails of the weathervane, which have an uncanny resemblance -- down to their geometrical detailing -- to the amorphous shape in the upper level of Duchamp's Large Glass.
The weathervane is a satyric spear hovering over and about to penetrate the sleeping nude. The blades of the fan hover over the two nudes. If Pearlstein started the fan, it would chop them up into perceptual pieces, in effect destroying them -- completely undermining their presence. In a kind of reprise of Jan van Eyck's Arnolfini marriage portrait, Pearlstein paints himself in the convex hub of the fan, the way van Eyck painted himself in the convex mirror on the wall behind the couple.
Thus Pearlstein makes it clear that he unconsciously identifies with the aggressive fan. His desire for his female models, and the conflict it gives rise to, has been kept under wraps by his cool formalism, but it is now ready to burst out, in whatever displaced form.
There is, then, more manneristic madness to Pearlstein's constructions than he himself is willing to acknowledge. His pictures are rich with covert sexual symbolism, and deep feelings about growing old. Who else is the lion in Model with Crossed Legs and Luna Park Lion (1998) but the painter himself -- the proverbial lion in winter? Why else are the model's legs crossed except to deny him sexual entry? He's reduced to a toy pussycat, if still mean-looking.
Similarly, his presence and passion are implicit in the colorful birdhouse in Birdhouse, Airplane and Two Models (2000). It abuts the female model, and its "heat" seems to melt the lower part of the leg it touches. This detail is one of Pearlstein's most dramatic, unusual gestures. She seems to caress the birdhouse, and one leg of the stand it rests on seems to penetrate her. The male model represents Pearlstein's reluctance to act -- to sexually engage the female model -- while the birdhouse indicates his eagerness to do so.
So much is sexually suggestive in Pearlstein's pictures, or else emotionally telltale -- their strange space should clue us into the fact that they are not straightforward. It is their emotional complexity that helps make them masterpieces, that is, masterful expressions of the unconscious, all the more so because they contradict Pearlstein's conscious will to mastery. Pearlstein is almost out of control in these pictures, which makes their control all the more moving.
DONALD KUSPIT is professor of art history and philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook and A.D. White professor at large at Cornell University.