Around 1961, when he was in his late 30s, Mr. Pearlstein began to paint pictures of nude people from life. It was an old-fashioned idea, but in his hands it became shockingly modern. He stripped the nude of almost all its customary associations. Beauty, eroticism, mythology, allegory: the traditional justifications for nudity in painting were gone, leaving only the bare fact of the naked human body.
Yet he did not use the occasion to display bravura skill or technical novelty. With a bland touch and tortoiselike patience, he recorded arrangements of one or more bodies in drowsy repose surrounded by rugs, blankets and furniture.
He was not the only Modern realist. In the 1950s, artists like Fairfield Porter and Alex Katz painted and drew from life without rejecting Modernism. What Mr. Pearlstein did, however, was more radical. He created a realism for a time when art was increasingly focused on abstract form and sensory perception to the exclusion of traditional, humanistic motivations. The result was a kind of Minimalist realism, in which, as Frank Stella said of his uncompromisingly abstract paintings, “What you see is what you see.”
And yet the body in Mr. Pearlstein’s pictures — usually young, healthy and female — could not be completely neutralized. Tension between clinical objectivity and psychosexual intrigue gives the pictures a weird undercurrent, as if the painter were wrestling with his desires and almost but not quite overcoming them.
Yet the show, organized by Patterson Sims, departing director of the Montclair Art Museum, also offers proof that Mr. Pearlstein, 84, has been an artist of greater range than he has been credited for. Of the exhibition’s 41 works, only 13 are nudes (not counting a 1948 charcoal drawing from Mr. Pearlstein’s student years). The rest are portraits, landscapes and early works.
In some ways, the most interesting part of the show is the selection of works that predate his signature nudes. A small painting of a merry-go-round for which Mr. Pearlstein won first prize in a national student art competition in 1940, when he was in 11th grade, looks as though it had been painted by a Social Realist like Reginald Marsh. A carefully observed portrait of the Mr. Pearlstein’s father from 1946 is as arresting as any of the artist’s later portraits.
Maybe the most remarkable early piece is an image of a bulgingly muscular Superman painted in a roiling Expressionist style. Part of a series of canvases from 1949 to 1952 that were based on cartoon characters, it is a curious anticipation of Pop Art, a road not taken for Mr. Pearlstein.
In the late 1940s he and Andy Warhol were classmates at the Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University). A small, sensitively delineated, mostly brown portrait of Warhol from a third-year painting class is in the show. They were briefly roommates in New York City when they moved there after graduation. In the early 1950s they went separate ways, but you can’t help but wonder what kind of influence Mr. Pearlstein’s “Superman” and similar paintings from that time might have had on Warhol.
As for Mr. Pearlstein, he abandoned pop-culture imagery and threw himself into nature and landscape. “Tree Roots” (1957) and “Imperial Palace #7” (1960), a picture of a Roman ruin, are made in a nondescript, Cézanne-esque Expressionist style. Their conventionality highlights what a daring leap Mr. Pearlstein was about to make.
It could be argued that there is something Warholian — if not overtly Pop — about the voyeuristic, coolly detached paintings of nude figures that Mr. Pearlstein began making in the early 1960s. Unfortunately, there are only two paintings from that breakthrough decade in the exhibition: one of a male and a female model from 1964, the other of two female models from 1965.
Paintings, watercolors and prints from the late 1970s and subsequent decades show how he progressively incorporated more antique objects into his nude paintings, thereby adding Cubist dimensions and the stylistic anticipation of Pop Art that he abandoned in the early ’50s. In “Two Models and Four Whirly-Gigs” (2007-8), the mix of organic female bodies, brightly colored toy wind machines and a multicolored checkerboard rug yields a gripping optical complexity.
Mr. Pearlstein’s portraits are not so exciting. The ones representing well-known people like the art historians Robert Rosenblum and Irving Sandler and the artist Scott Burton do benefit from the recognition factor, and a large 1967 painting of his two daughters, then 4 and 6, sitting on a chaise and looking bored to tears is unusually touching. But Mr. Pearlstein’s portraits are not nearly as innovative — formally or conceptually — as his naked figure paintings.
In landscape and cityscape, Mr. Pearlstein has been adept and industrious. A 6-foot-by-6-foot nocturnal picture of New York viewed from a 12th-floor window in 1992 is absorbingly complicated, luminous and spacious, and a 10-foot-wide woodcut from 1987-88 depicting the Kidron Valley in Jerusalem is technically impressive. But if it’s a question of contributing something original and influential to 20th-century art, only Mr. Pearlstein’s nudes will answer.
Images and text by New York Times