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Pearlstein, Philip


PEARLSTEIN, PHILIP (1924– ), U.S. painter, printmaker, watercolorist, and draftsman. Although the human figure stands at the center of Pearlstein's art he professes lack of interest in the psychological aspects of his models, preferring instead to focus on color, light, and composition. Working from life, Pearlstein most commonly paints nude studio models in harsh lighting with a precise, smooth brushstroke.

Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Pearlstein's interest in art manifested itself when he was a child. Indeed, he was awarded first and third prize in Scholastic Magazine's National High School Art Exhibition. After completing one year of study at the Carnegie Institute of Technology (now called Carnegie Mellon University), he was drafted into the army. While enlisted Pearlstein made documentary sketches and watercolors of training scenes and the life of the soldier, thinking that upon his return to the United States he would become an illustrator. Instead, following the war he renewed his studies at Carnegie Tech, graduating in 1949 with a B.F.A. With a degree in hand he moved to New York and enjoyed his first work as a professional artist as a catalog illustrator. In 1955 he earned an M.A. from New York University in art history, writing his thesis on Francis Picabia. Around this time Pearlstein showed his expressionistic, heavily impastoed landscape paintings at his first one-person show at the Tanager Gallery. In the early 1960s he began to focus on studio models, first painting figures in an expressionist manner akin to his landscapes and then, starting in 1963, painting in a more straightforward fashion on an increasingly larger scale. Typical of Pearlstein's work is Two Female Models Sitting and Lying on a Navajo Rug (1972, Des Moines Art Center, Iowa), which shows a pair of unidealized, unemotional females lounging on a brightly patterned rug. The sitting female's head is cropped and the reclining figure's body is contorted, allowing the artist to explore the complicated pose, which he paints from a high vantage point. In his oversized canvases, Pearlstein privileges accessories – such as rugs, mirrors, chairs, and other furniture, often with decorative upholstery – as highly as the humans he depicts.

In the 1970s Pearlstein reintroduced watercolors to his repertoire. Pearlstein's watercolors, as his paintings, are factual, dispassionately rendered, representational works that eschew symbolism and narrative. Watercolors of nude studio models preoccupied the artist from this period forward, as have sepiawashes of both landscapes and nudes.

Through the years Pearlstein's teaching helped him to refine his own art, first at the Pratt Institute (1959–63) and then at Brooklyn College (1963–87). While he is best known for his monumental nudes, Pearlstein also made portraits, including a 1979 Time magazine cover of Henry Kissinger. Pearlstein wrote about his art technique and philosophy in several articles.


J. Viola, The Painting and Teaching of Philip Pearlstein (1982); R. Bowman, Philip Pearlstein: The Complete Paintings (1983); J. Perreault, Philip Pearlstein: Drawings and Watercolors (1988); R. Storr, Philip Pearlstein: Since 1983 (2002).

[Samantha Baskind (2nd ed.)]

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