Today I had a truly amazing art experience. The Carnegie Mellon University College of Fine Arts is having a series of special events this weekend in the New York area, and tonight’s event was a studio (& home) visit with world-renowned artist Philip Pearlstein (BFA, Carnegie Tech class of ’49). As an alumnus of CMU — even though I toiled away in the engineering school as an undergrad — I was able to participate. I’d been looking forward to this event for weeks and was relieved that today’s foul weather didn’t scuffle the plans.
Pearlstein lives and works on the west side of Manhattan and upon entering his apartment (with the other two dozen or so visitors) you immediately notice his immense collection of objects. I would be tempted to say “tchotchkes”, but in fact these objects are much more than that: figurines, models, sculptures, masks, toys, and more. It’s really a mini-museum of human culture. Mr. Pearlstein mentioned that for the most part he was a collector of objects before he began being a painter of them. As you look around you see many familiar items from his paintings — a zeppelin, a neon Mickey Mouse sign, some wooden ducks (that also happen to be represented in a painting behind his dining room table).
Moving into his studio, my feelings changed from nervousness (visiting a famous artist’s home!) to one of pure excitement: Wow — I’m in Philip Pearlstein’s studio looking at several finished, gorgeous paintings on the walls with two more works in progress on easels! It’s always instructive to see a “work in progress” as you get a real sense of how the artist does his thing. Pearlstein has his easels set up fairly close to where the models would be sitting and begins with a rough charcoal drawing on an untoned, white canvas. Then, it seems he uses Naples yellow to add to the drawing. Then (as the artist explained) he begins painting from the center and works his way outward, in the present case by starting with a particular intersection of curves between the model’s leg and the arm on the chair. He mentioned that he’ll touch all parts of the canvas — eventually — three or four times as he goes, each time tightening things up a bit more.
Laid out on his palette were (if my memory is serves me) the oil colors Naples yellow, raw sienna, burnt umber, cadmium orange, cadmium red, and a black whose name I couldn’t see (and I didn’t dare touch the palette to turn over the paint tube). I asked him if his palette had evolved over time and he said he thought it had; in the past he had used more Mars colors (those made from an iron oxide base). He mentioned that he chooses the objects to be in any specific painting primarily for their formal characteristics — shape and color and how they fill the space.
After an introduction from the dean of CMU’s College of Fine Arts, Hilary Robinson, Pearlstein spoke about his journey from Carnegie Tech to his eventual success in the New York art world. He had early training in design and continues to think of himself in a sense as a graphic designer, with composition on the canvas being a kind of page layout problem. After beginning as a member of an artist’s co-op on Tenth Street in Manhattan, he got a big break when one of the art magazines did a review of his show and put a large image of one of his paintings front and center, while images from the likes of Rothko, de Kooning, and Kline were small and off to the sides. This got him attention and landed him an uptown gallery relationship. When he later told that art reviewer about the success the magazine placement had gotten him, the writer told him (I’m paraphrasing), “I did that because I had just gotten fired. I thought your work was the worst of the bunch and I wanted to stick it to the magazine.” Pearlstein’s audience laughed as he told this story — a little luck is always a good thing, it seems…
Pearlstein and his wife Dorothy were gracious hosts and everyone I spoke to expressed great appreciation of this opportunity to meet him.