It’s not every day that an artist the caliber of Philip Pearlstein comes to town.
Yes, he was born and raised in Pennsylvania. But, much like his old friend and fellow Pittsburgher, Andy Warhol, Pearlstein spent much of his working life in New York City.
This month, however, he returns to his native state to open a review of his lifetime of work, “Philip Pearlstein: Seventy Five Years of Painting,” which will show through late May at Harrisburg’s Susquehanna Art Museum.
“Pearlstein is arguably the preeminent figurative realist painter of the 20th century,” said Alice Anne Schwab, SAM’s executive director. “He’s like the Energizer bunny. He just keeps pumping out incredible paintings into the 21st century.”
Best known for his modernist nudes, the 92-year-old has led a revival in realist art that went against an entrenched abstract expressionist trend. His works are now featured in collections of more than 70 American public art museums.
The SAM exhibit, though, won’t only include old works. Just last month, Pearlstein was “literally finishing one of the works to be included in the exhibit,” Schwab said.
Yet there was a time the artist didn’t believe he’d be able to do fine art at all.
“When I started my first year at the Carnegie Institute Department of Art, we were in the middle of the Depression and World War II followed,” Pearlstein said. “I anticipated going into public school teaching, advertising or illustration.”
Some of Pearlstein’s training came from an unexpected place—the military. While in the Training Aids Unit in Camp Blanding, Fla., during World War II, he developed skills in layout, drafting, lettering and printing.
“My whole unit had all been commercial artists, and they were open and friendly,” he said. “I learned a lot.”
Toward the end of the war and post-war in Italy, Pearlstein took up sign painting to fill the Army’s needs. Still later, back in civilian life, he designed catalogues for building products at an architectural firm, among other commercial art projects.
Being a fine artist still seemed remote. So, on the advice of an employer, he went back to school to study art history.
He kept the company of other artists, some of whom, like George Klauber, also became famous. One of Pearlstein’s fellow students at what is now called the Carnegie Institute of Technology was Warhol. The two were roommates before Pearlstein’s marriage in 1950, and Warhol was in his wedding party.
Though friends, they parted company artistically.
“I totally rejected pop art,” Pearlstein said.
The discovery of a weekly drawing meeting in Manhattan moved Pearlstein in another direction.
In 1954, he was selected to be in an “Emerging Talent” show at Kootz Gallery in New York. A year later, he had a one-man show at the Tanager Gallery and earned his master’s degree in art history from New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts.
Shortly afterward, he received a Fulbright grant for painting in Italy. A few of the landscapes he painted there are included in the SAM exhibit.
Starting as an abstract expressionist, Pearlstein discovered the niche he is best known for in 1962 after a class with live models. He began to paint directly from the model with “Reclining Nude,” followed by such works as “Male and Female Nudes Reclining in the Studio” and “Reclining Nude on the Green Couch.”
“I saw models lying around casually, not in academic poses or in reference to art history,” he said.
Soon, he moved on completely from landscape art.
“It was easier to do models than landscapes,” Pearlstein said. “It all has to do with how you design. My basic training was layout.”
Despite the choice of the human body as subject, the artist insisted he “didn’t care about the human factor at all. It was all compositional. People try to apply psychoanalysis to my painting, but it’s wrong. This is a distinctive American way at looking at nudes, rather than the European way.”
Art and Artist
Because of space limitations, SAM is unable to present a comprehensive exhibit of the artist’s career.
“Rather, it is a survey of his work,” said Schwab.
Included in the exhibit is a painting Pearlstein did as a teenager. “Merry-Go-Round” won first prize in Scholastic Magazine’s “High School Art Exhibition.”
On Feb. 9, two days prior to the opening of the exhibit, Pearlstein will attend a special fundraising event for the Susquehanna Art Museum. He will speak about his work in the context of the exhibit, to be housed in the main gallery.
The next day, he’ll spend much of the day with high school and college students at the museum. That evening, SAM will host a members’ preview.
The SAM exhibit is unique, Schwab said.
“It is the only one so far to feature work from Pearlstein’s award-winning high-school painting through the current day,” she said. “We’re thrilled to bring his work, as well as the artist, to Harrisburg.”
“Philip Pearlstein: Seventy Five Years of Painting” runs Feb. 11 to May 21 at the Susquehanna Art Museum, 1401 N. 3rd Street, Harrisburg. For more information on the exhibit and the special events, call 717-233-8668 or visit www.sqart.org.