The School of Art hosted painter Philip Pearlstein for the latest installment of its Monday Night Lecture Series.
Titled “Retrospective,” Pearlstein’s presentation followed his career as a painter, including discussions of many of the artist’s lesser-known areas of work, such as graphic design. Noting Pearlstein’s association with the Modernist Realist movement and viewers’ idea of him as, primarily, a painter of nudes, School of Art Dean Robert Storr asked attendees to consider how “predictable” descriptions of artists are not necessarily infallible and may merit questioning.
“When people use labels, realist, this and that, and the other thing, the labels are only as good as what they reference in terms of the actual thought and practice of an artist,” Storr said. “And so I think [Pearlstein] will in the most general way, blow your minds.”
Pearlstein’s beginnings as an artist reach back to his high school days, the painter said, when “Merry Go-Round,” a piece he had completed as a junior, received first prize in Scholastic Magazine’s National High School Art Competition. In 1943, after being drafted into the United States Army, he spent six months on a military base in Florida, during which time he began working at an advertising agency as a graphic designer, learning about page layout and design, silkscreen printing and typeface. In his talk, Pearlstein said he received his “basic art education” during the time he spent working in the Florida ad agency, explaining that the graphic design skills and techniques he learned there serve as the foundation of his work. Six years later, after graduating with a Bachelor of Fine Arts from the Carnegie Institute of Technology, Pearlstein moved to New York with his friend Andy Warhol, where he worked designing catalogs for plumbing fixtures and began studying towards a Masters in the History of Art.
Pearlstein noted that the end of his career in graphic design came when, in 1958, he received the Fulbright Grant for Painting, which allowed him to spend a year in Italy.
Pearlstein said that following his time in Italy he began participating in figure-drawing groups and producing paintings. The artist added that, unlike his peers in the drawing groups, he was unable to “gesture draw” — a technique of rapidly sketching an active figure to capture its sense of movement — explaining that his background as a graphic designer made him “a planner, through and through” who had difficulty with the quickness of execution this sort of drawing demanded. The tools he obtained through his training as a designer, Pearlstein said, remain at the core of his artistic process.
“Whatever is on the surface as a realist painting, the basis is my career as a graphic designer,” he explained. “It’s all about layout … it’s very precisely laid out. And then I proceed to work. I don’t do any traditional business with anatomy. It’s all shape. When I make the drawing it’s from side to side, edge to edge, I’m always measuring in my mind, there’s a built in ruler forever.”
Molly Zuckerman-Hartung, a Chicago-based artist and critic, said that prior to Monday’s talk she had not realized Pearlstein had worked as a graphic designer. After listening to the lecture, Zuckerman-Hartung said that the presence of graphic design within Pearlstein’s paintings made sense in relation to their strong compositions.
Téa Beer ’17, an art major, said she was struck by Pearlstein’s ability to ground figurative works in his graphic design training — in particular, how he is able to use his background as a designer to create balanced compositions that “force” emotion from the viewer.
“Even if his work is figurative now, it’s still all about layout,” Beer said.