It is a marvel that Andy Warhol’s first friend Philip Pearlstein continues to paint with his accustomed authority well into his 80s, but the question remains, to what end? For few painters have produced a body of work as homely as Pearlstein’s: flat, unappetizing, lifeless and weirdly domesticated.
Pearlstein’s new work, on view at one of Chelsea’s most beautiful spaces, Betty Cuningham Gallery, are an enhanced and familiar riff. A friend of mine, who became a famous painter, told me back in 1978 that he would fret nervously whenever a model disrobed in his studio. Did she hate him for his role of artistic authority? His presumed lasciviousness? The necessity of her hourly work?
Pearlstein’s relation to the model has always seemed to be de-eroticized, falsely neutral, yet controlling. There is a model with a short blonde bob in the new work who epitomizes Philip’s glazed gaze: indifferent, a bit more than a bag of bones, just a job.
But the template of the model in Pearlstein’s vision forms a sort of existential background, a kind of white noise underneath the different objects he conjoins his ladies to. This year, in a nod to Warhol, it is toys, one of Andy’s most flippant and formerly least valued series. Pearlstein highlights a neon Mickey Mouse and a sort of whirligig and other antique confections, perhaps from his own collection, a Proustian gesture.
While not as bizarre as the stuffed emus and ostriches he employed a few years back, the toys invite the eyes and draw Pearlstein’s painterly purpose into full relief. For he is at once a realist, a surrealist, and a pattern and decoration painter verging on abstraction. The obligatory awkward poses of Pearlstein’s nudes grate against the true subjects of his work, the other objects in the room. This dead calm has always unnerved me personally, but it has its rationale. You can always identify a Pearlstein in a collector’s aerie, and its skewed design and flat painterly touches are the perfect complement to the best interior decoration. Alex Katz’s flatliners are soulful by comparison, Lichtenstein’s interiors whimsical in contrast to Pearlstein’s archness.
One senses that Pearlstein’s paintings will last in spite of one’s distaste for them, making perfect sense to future generations, when his nudes are just one more collection of objects from the past.
Phillip Pearlstein, Mar. 29-Apr. 28, 2007, at Betty Cuningham Gallery, 541 West 25th Street, New Year, N.Y. 10001.
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).