For an artist who's spent half a century painting pictures of people without any clothes on, Philip Pearlstein doesn't show much interest in their desires -- or in their personalities, thoughts or feelings.
"I don't care about their inner lives," says Pearlstein, a neat, slight 83-year-old who made his name in the 1950s by rejecting the torments and emotive excesses of Abstract Expressionism. "I'm not Freud. That was an early decision, not to get complicated and psychological. There's no way of capturing the real person. Whatever you do is fake and artificial."
Pearlstein has focused on the human figure in all its naked lassitude, rendering each bruise, wrinkle and blotch with searing precision. Most of his pictures feature nudes of both sexes in his loft, draped on his furniture, posing with items he has collected over the years: miniature airplanes, toy fire trucks, kilim carpets, carousel horses, birdhouses, African drums. The eye roves from the models' waxy skin to shiny still life and back again, but the focus is always on fleshly mortality. After all these years, his work is still surprising, powerful and unique.
Staller Center's University Gallery at Stony Brook has gathered 10 of those paintings in a compact retrospective, along with eight watercolors and a selection of the objects that show up in them. The exhibit also features a video of the artist in his studio, a few blocks from Penn Station.
That sprawling apartment, an enclave of gracious order in a frenetic neighborhood, has been one of the constants of Pearlstein's work since he and his wife moved there in 1983. Corners and slices of it are recognizable from his paintings, as are the meticulously arranged collections. In one corner is the floor of polychrome squares from "Hands and Feet on Linoleum," from 1984. Even an electrical outlet, its wire running above a baseboard, looks vaguely familiar, like a character actor whose name you can't quite recall.
A cool revolutionary
Pearlstein, now a dean of realists and a model of old-fashioned graciousness, began his career as a cool revolutionary, tossing aside the emotional intensity of Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning and charting his own, idiosyncratic path. He arrived in New York from Pittsburgh in 1949 with his hometown friend Andy Warhol. Both worked as graphic designers. Pearlstein fell under the sway of Abstract Expressionism at first, exploring his feelings in viscous swirls of pigment. But after a while he couldn't -- or didn't want to -- muster the necessary level of intensity.
"I realized that you have to make an effort not to have a nervous breakdown every time you face the canvas," he says. "You just can't sustain it. They [de Kooning and Pollock] used alcohol as a tool to sustain it. I didn't want to make that kind of effort. I've come to dislike expressionism intensely. I think it's fake."
So Pearlstein went back to school, earning a PhD in art history from NYU's Institute of Fine Arts. But even as he was studying classical nudes, he was being told he couldn't paint them. By that point, the human body was a taboo subject -- the emblem of an exhausted tradition.
"In the 1950s, realism was basically in the trash bin," he says. "Everybody had stopped investigating its possibilities. Therefore, it was open to all sorts of possibilities."
That was a time of aesthetic manifestos, and Pearlstein felt called upon to justify his renegade position. In two influential journal articles, he demanded a return to the 19th century realist tradition of Courbet, which the Impressionists had shattered into pinpricks of light. Realism, for Pearlstein, meant accepting the world in all its banality and ugliness. His goal was akin to Flaubert's desire "to write the mediocre beautifully." Noting down every tired and sad detail would, perversely, result in a kind of beauty.
Even so, an undercurrent of abstraction underlay his extreme return to realism. Splayed out across the canvas, his anonymous nude figures became a kind of frozen calligraphy. "I used the body as a compositional device," he says. "The movement and gestures of the limbs are the equivalent of Franz Kline's big, broad brushstrokes."
His earliest realist canvases were pared down: a body or two, oddly cropped so that a head might be cut off at the mouth, an arm at the elbow. Eventually, he added more incident, more complex interactions between people and stuff.
"One day, a model fainted on the rug. Hmm, I said, it's much more interesting, the model as still life, on the rug, frozen in a choreographed position."
Pearlstein can sound hard and detached when he talks about his art. Though looking at people has been, in a sense, his life's theme, he treats his subjects as little more than fleshy props. He makes no apologies for his clear, unforgiving eye or his refusal to romanticize. "I've not been alcoholic and I've not used drugs. Maybe my work has a look relating to that: cold sober. Splashed with ice water."
Perhaps that chilliness helped him outlast an early blast of disdain and prodded him to keep doing the same until the art world rediscovered portraiture and precision. "It's not like he was under a rock," says MoMA curator Ann Temkin. "It's just that people didn't quite place him in the front of their minds. But the funny thing about figurative painting is that it never goes away, no matter how much people keep saying it's old news."
Oversided naked figures
To own a Pearlstein represents a major commitment, not just because a painting can cost up to $300,000, but because its oversized naked figures have a way of dominating the most spacious room, even a museum gallery. "If you try hanging a Pearlstein in a group show, you find that it throws off the scale," says his dealer Betty Cunningham. "There's a power in the work that gets you like the broad chords in a symphony."
To sit for him requires fortitude, too. In 1968, art historian Linda Nochlin and her husband asked Pearlstein to paint their portrait, and didn't blanch when he delivered a severely unflattering likeness. "It was agony to pose," she says. "For me to sit still for more than five minutes is painful. But he depicts us in the act of sitting for a portrait, and sitting for a portrait is about looking bored. He always paints from life -- or, really, living death. This was what I was like at the time, sitting still for seven hours a day, day after day. The accuracy in dress, the exactitude of the furniture, the way he cuts off the tops of our heads -- these are realist strategies for making us concrete."
Paradoxically, though, the more he tried to rid his paintings of personality -- both his own and his subjects' -- the more they wound up looking distinctively his. It's impossible not to recognize a Pearlstein, even from a distance. Each one manifests his eccentric ways of seeing, his peculiar approach to scale, composition and lighting, and the unlikely vantage points he tends to assume -- in sum, his subjectivity.
"I did my best to get rid of my mark," he says. "What I discovered after a real struggle to eliminate myself is that you can't."
Indeed, it's his eye for detail that gives each tableau its quirkiness, and rescues it from timeless classicism. Despite his distaste for symbols and allusions, his "Model with a Swan Decoy" (1987) looks suspiciously like a reference to Leda and the Swan, a subject from Greek mythology favored by artists from Leonardo to Matisse. Pearlstein acknowledges the connection, but he points to the minutiae of Manhattan real estate that keep the scene grounded in his life. "I constantly try to put in things like risers for the heat, electrical conduits, outlets. It's mythological on one level, but those things keep it all in my studio in a loft on 36th Street."
Not alone in painting nudes
Philip Pearlstein has not been the only painter to return to the evergreen subject of the nude, though none matches his dispassionate devotion to detail.
Lucien Freud, a British artist of Pearlstein's generation, scores every rib and marks each tendril of body hair and bile-green shadow, producing symphonies of expressive flesh. Lisa Yuskavage and John Currin, both Americans born in 1962, merge the classic nude with the Playboy kind, painting big-breasted females with vinyl-smooth skin. Currin invokes art history almost ritualistically, combining Renaissance techniques with the signs of 1950s cheesecake.
Yuskavage seems to work not so much by posing models as by arranging sex dolls. One naked woman stands behind another, reaching around a gloved arm in a gesture of tenderness or possessiveness, or both. Her scenes, colored in throbbing magenta, fuchsia and lime green, look more like transcriptions of erotic dreams than renditions of reality.
The Museum of Modern Art has several Yuskavages in its permanent collection, and on Dec. 16 opens the exhibit"Lucian Freud: The Painter's Etchings." The Gagosian Gallery maintains a Web site ( gagosian.com/artists ) that includes a number of Currins.
WHEN&WHERE : "Philip Pearlstein: Paintings and Watercolors." Through Dec. 8 at the University Art Gallery, Staller Center for the Arts, Stony Brook University. For exhibition hours, call 631-632-7240 or visit stallercenter.com .