Philip Pearlstein, an artist whose coolly observed nudes reclaimed the naked human body for painting, and who found a persuasive modern idiom for the portrait genre, died on Saturday morning in Manhattan. He was 98.
His death, in a hospital, was announced by Betty Cuningham of the Betty Cuningham Gallery in Manhattan.
In the early 1960s, Mr. Pearlstein turned from landscapes executed in a brushy Abstract Expressionist style and began painting nude models from life. In an era dominated by Color Field abstraction, and still heavily influenced by the emotional extravagance of artists like Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, his icily lit nudes, presented as implacable facts rather than symbols or characters in a narrative, represented a shocking departure in American painting.
“He has done what most of the ‘advanced’ critical opinion of the last two decades had declared impossible: He has created a major pictorial style based on an accurate and painstaking depiction of the figure,” Hilton Kramer of The New York Times wrote in 1969, reviewing a one-man show at the Allan Frumkin Gallery, adding, “They are certainly like nothing else in the painting of our time.”
Robert Hughes, reviewing a retrospective of Mr. Pearlstein’s work at the Brooklyn Museum in 1983, wrote in Time magazine that he “probably did more to ‘break the ice’ for realist painting in America than any other artist of his generation.”
For many mainstream critics, the very idea of painting the figure from life represented a reactionary leap into the past, a nostalgia-laden venture into the swamps of 19th-century academic art and a betrayal of the hard-won victories of the modernist avant-garde.
Mr. Pearlstein overcame these objections by taking a rigorously modern view of his subject. His models, in defiance of traditional posing, lolled and slouched, their faces slack with boredom or fatigue. Harsh lighting fractured their bodies into abstract planes of muted color, which Mr. Pearlstein allowed to be cropped ruthlessly by the canvas edge. A torso might end at the neck; arms were cut off at the wrist or elbow.
The artist’s unsparing eye, usually positioned well above his models, refused to edit out stray shadows, even those cast by the easel. The result was chilly reportage, unsettling yet compelling.
This “hard realism,” as Mr. Pearlstein called it, broke decisively with the torrid emotionalism of the Abstract Expressionists, embracing an art that was, he asserted in a statement to ARTnews in 1967, “sharp, clear, unambiguous.” His nudes resisted interpretation or erotic interest. Anti-symbolic, they refused to participate in a narrative.
“The meaning of the figure in its particular situation had no interest for me,” he wrote in an artistic statement for The Paris Review in 1975. “I refuse to be an amateur psychoanalyst, or novelist. I would prefer to be thought of as a sort of stilled-action choreographer.”
Philip Martin Pearlstein was born on May 24, 1924, in Pittsburgh, to David and …….