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Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
“What’s it like to be famous?”
That was the first question Andrew Warhola asked of his classmate Philip Pearlstein at Carnegie Tech in Pittsburgh in the late 1940s.
“It only lasted five minutes,” replied Pearlstein, who had won a national high school art competition and had been featured in an article that Life magazine published on the contest.
Twenty years later, the pop art superstar who became known as Andy Warhol would borrow and tweak Pearlstein’s words by declaring, “In the future, everyone will be famous for 15 minutes.”
An exhibition of Pearlstein’s realist nudes was to have taken place at LewAllen Galleries in Santa Fe this month, but the show was postponed because of the coronavirus crisis.
Journal North recently interviewed Pearlstein, who will turn 96 on May 24, about his wide-ranging career, his friendship with Warhol and his love of painting portraits that are not always flattering. What follows is an edited transcript of the conversation.
Q: What’s your connection to the Southwest and to Santa Fe?
A: I spent a lot of time with the Navajo around the time of the Bicentennial. The U.S. Department of the Interior decided to stage a large traveling exhibition by a group of artists called the “New Realists,” which was accompanied by a book. The artists chose where they wanted to paint.
I did two paintings in the Canyon de Chelly National Monument, which has one of the longest histories of continuous human habitation in the world. One of the paintings got ruined by a wind that came through the canyon every afternoon. I was warned about the wind, but I didn’t listen. So I had to return the next year after I repaired the canvas to finish the painting wrecked by the wind.
I became acquainted with the director of the museum of the Navajo Junior College at the canyon. A year later, I was given a very big exhibition of my paintings of nudes in the museum there.
I was given the title of Cultural Exchange Person to the Navajo. I returned about three or four times over the next couple of years to teach classes about the history of painting styles and different techniques of printmaking.
At some point I was invited to teach at a summer program in Santa Fe sponsored by the art dealer Gerald Peters. I took students out to paint the little church that Georgia O’Keeffe made famous. I can’t remember the name right now (San Francisco de Asís Mission Church in Ranchos de Taos). That’s what happens when you’re 95. But one of my paintings was turned into a print for the U.S. Art in Embassy’s program.
Q: How did the show at LewAllen in Santa Fe come about?
A: It was arranged by Betty Cuningham Gallery on the Lower East Side in New York, where the exhibit opened on Feb. 27. That show is still hanging in New York, although the gallery is closed right now. The show at LewAllen is a different group of my paintings.
Q: You must be disappointed that the Santa Fe show has been put on hold.
A: Yes, of course, but I wasn’t going to come out to New Mexico. At my age, it’s not a lot of fun to travel.
Q: I met you in New Jersey at a lake community where you painted portraits of your neighbors. How did you and your late wife Dorothy get to Highland Lakes?
A: We had been going to Fire Island (New York), but it was getting harder and harder for Dorothy to walk to and from the ferry. Cars aren’t permitted on the island. Wagons are used to bring groceries and luggage to the houses. It got to the point where I was pulling Dorothy around in a wagon.
Some neighbors in our building in New York, Charles von Nostitz and Christian Malcolm, told us about Highland Lakes. We bought a place there in 1998.
It’s an interesting group of people – art restorers, graphic artists, textile designers, art directors – all very creative and friendly. We had some wonderful times there.
Q: Yes, I remember hearing stories how you dressed up as a Royal Canadian Mountie for a farewell party when Charles and Christian moved to Canada. But what about the portraits?
A: At Highland Lakes, I’ve done about 20 portraits. It’s a very good way of getting to know people.
I’ve never gone after flattering people. I record my everyday experience of looking at them. I did my best to be true to what I saw.
Q: How did you end up becoming a professional artist?
A: In my high school, we had a marvelous art teacher. I went to high school in the Squirrel Hill section of Pittsburgh. I and a lot of the other kids at the school were from Greenfield and Hazelwood. We were from the wrong side of the bridge. This teacher took kids from economically and racially mixed neighborhoods and started an after-school arts club.
Several people from the club went on to have careers as professional artists and industrial designers, and to work in what is known today as graphic arts.
When I was in 11th grade, I did a picture of a carousel in Schenley Park that won a national high school art competition. Life magazine wrote a story about me. The article changed my life. I became famous in Pittsburgh. I had grown up living in my grandmother’s house with my father’s siblings. They made fun of me because art wasn’t a manly thing to do.
Q: Did you serve in World War II?
A: Yes, I was drafted. In basic training, we were trained to use a bayonet to try to kill the person opposite us. They took this group of flabby kids and turned us into muscular monsters. That was in Alabama. But I was sensible enough to have brought the Life magazine with me. The article probably saved my life.
At the end of basic training, I was sent off to Florida and put into a unit that was doing charts for training purposes, about how to take the weapons apart and so on. The guys in charge had been art directors in California. We worked at the highest level. I learned how to be a commercial artist.
Q: So you spent the war stateside?
A: No, I was sent back to training to become a rifleman. Then I was sent to Italy, near Naples. I never saw combat. After the fighting stopped, I was assigned to make signs.
Q: When did you meet Andy Warhol?
A: Andy was a friend of Dorothy’s. We were all together at Carnegie Tech (now Carnegie Mellon University) after the war. A lot of us were older veterans. We recognized how talented Andy was. In high school, the teachers thought he was stupid because he had dyslexia, which wasn’t really understood yet.
At Carnegie Tech, Andy was like a little brother to me. Andy wanted to be a schoolteacher, but he was too talented to be an ordinary teacher. We decided he should go to New York.
Q: You and your wife, the former Dorothy Cantor, were the subject of a 2015 show at the Warhol in Pittsburgh called “Pearlstein, Warhol, Cantor: From Pittsburgh to New York.” What was it like trying to break into the New York art world in the early 1950s?
A: Dorothy came to New York with her sister and lived in a women’s dorm. Andy and I had a sublet on Eighth Street. We met a man who was president of the art directors club in New York. He had everyone’s phone number. We agreed Andy should call first. By this time, he had changed his name.
Andy’s first big job was shoes on the ladder for Glamour magazine. Some of the shoes were by Dorothy’s cousin, who was a famous shoe designer.
I ended up going to work for a man from Czechoslovakia named Ladislav Sutnar. I stayed for seven years, but left when Dorothy got pregnant because he couldn’t offer me health insurance.
Q: Why did you and Andy go separate ways?
A: I went to the Institute of Fine Arts (New York University) and got a degree in art history on the GI Bill. I was working at Time Inc. for Life magazine and I got a Fulbright Fellowship to study in Italy. When I came back, I got an offer to teach at Pratt Institute.
I was teaching classes in two-dimensional design. It wasn’t called graphics yet. I also taught art history because of my degree. They gave me a figure drawing class to teach. I wasn’t that interested because I didn’t want to study anatomy.
But it changed my life. A group of us would all pitch in to pay the models. A friend had a wonderful collection of Indian saris. On Sunday evening, we would go to her house and she would drape the saris over her couch, and the models would just lie around. I started doing paintings of nude art students casually going to sleep.
I became radical as an artist when I began painting the figure realistically. It was against everything. My old friends wouldn’t speak to me because I had turned my back on abstract expressionism.
Meanwhile, Andy’s career really took off. By the end of the 1950s, he was the highest paid illustrator in the country.
This was not the Andy Warhol who became famous. His personality changed later on. It was a totally invented personality.
Between 1957 and 1962, Dorothy and I had three children. We stopped seeing everybody. We couldn’t afford babysitters.
Andy re-entered the art world as a pop artist. (The art dealer Leo) Castelli picked him up and he became a major artist. We were very proud of him.
Although Dorothy spent a great deal of time with the children, she started a side career as a publisher, working mostly with women artists.
Q: What’s next?
A: I think I’m going to lie down for a little while.
In May, there’s going to be a show of my work in the Czech Republic at an institute in Pilsen named for Ladislav Sutnar, who is now considered to be one of the pioneers of information graphics.