||Philip Pearlstein Exhibition
Through October 22,
Philip Pearlstein told me he didn’t have anything to say about being Andy Warhol’s first roommate in New York when they were twenty-something guys trying to make it big in the art world.
Then he talked.
“We made a couple of trips together, by train and bus, carrying our stuff in shopping bags,” he recalled of their passage from Pittsburgh, their shared hometown. “We were broke.”
At 81, Pearlstein, whom ARTnews magazine has characterized as “one of this country’s most highly regarded figure painters,” has work in the permanent collections of numerous museums including The Met, the Whitney, and MOMA, and he’s still painting.
An exhibition of his recent work will run through October 22nd at Betty Cunningham Gallery. All the paintings are nudes of women, depicted with his signature realism—droopy breasts, tummy pooches and all. To this eye, they are touching and reassuring because they capture their subjects’ vulnerabilities and imperfections, although Pearlstein insists I’m not getting it.
“It has nothing to do with storytelling, humanity or anything else,” he told me.
After World War II, he explains, many artists strove to create work that was cathartic, emotional, and expressionistic.
“But I wanted to get rid of all that, to be cool and objective,” he said.
A diminutive man whose voice still bears traces of his native Pittsburgh, he proudly showed me around the Chelsea loft he shares with his wife of 52 years, Dorothy.
Those who have heard about how art students have not, to this day, finished cataloguing Warhol’s belongings will understand how he and Pearlstein managed to get along as roommates. The space is filled with hundreds of objects—on shelves, tables, and the floor. An Egyptian urn which dates back to1800 B.C. and a Greek vase from 400 B.C. sit beside a 1950’s Godzilla figurine.
Pearlstein’s career’s been eclectic, too. During World War II, he served active duty in Italy, where he was assigned to create charts and diagrams as part of the war effort. After the war, he stayed in Italy for a year and worked as a sign painter. When he came back to the U.S., he finished a degree at Carnegie Institute of Technology, where he fell in with Warhol.
After he and Andy moved to New York, they found work as commercial artists, Andy as an illustrator, he as a graphic designer.
“Fortunately I wasn’t too successful,” he quipped, recalling that he and Andy spent their days working to earn money and their evenings making art.
“Very often, I’d go to sleep and he’d still be up working,” he recalled. “Andy was always a workaholic, obsessive.”
He remembers they took in some culture.
“We could get standing room tickets to the Broadway shows for very little money,” he said. “We saw a number of shows that year, and re-run movies. At the end of that first year I got married, and Andy was part of our wedding party.”
Asked if Warhol influenced his work, he demurs, “If anything, it was the opposite. But I don’t want to make any claims [about that.]”
Later in their careers, while he and Warhol were not as close as they had been as youths, they remained on good terms.
“Look, Andy was quiet, studious, and nice,” he said. “I know a lot of what [Andy’s official biographers] say happened in Andy’s life didn’t happen.”
Okay, man, relax, we believe you.
Pearlstein went on to attend graduate school in art history at New York University on the G.I. Bill, which provided the foundation for a teaching career that spanned decades at a range of institutions, including Brooklyn College and Yale.
Ultimately, realism is his aim and his inspiration.
“You can’t be a truly expressionist artist without having that nervous breakdown, but it has to be almost daily, or else it just becomes a stylistic maneuver,” he said. “I felt there was no point in pretending that I was surrounded by people in agony all the time.
Betty Cunningham Gallery, 541 W, 25th Street (Betw. 10th & 11th Aves.), 212-242-2772;, Free
--- Heather Robinson
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