By happenstance or cunning plan, The Cleveland Museum of Art has two large paintings hanging next to each other by artists of whom I am fond– Alice Neel and Philip Pearlstein. Juxtaposed this way, the relative merits of each can be studied.
Except for a long detour in the Picasso Amusement Park, a straight line can be drawn from Alice Neel’s career back to the Post-impressionists. Like many artists who came of age during the first part of the 20th century, such as Pollock, Neel, who was born in 1900, struggled to escape Picasso’s shadow.
Neel does not care for the technical niceties of craft, but focuses her energy on seeing. Seeing—engaging nature—has been at the core of Western Art from the beginning, of course. Artists thus focused often produce efficient. shorthand passages of immense charm, such as the sitters’ shirtfronts in the accompanying illustration. And opening the window on the big, old world helped her escape from Picasso’s long shadow.
Neel’s paintings are also remarkable for large passages that are not successful. It’s as if, like a dutiful student, she insists on persevering with misfired effects, such as the blonde hair in this painting. What prevents these stiff-necked passages from spoiling the work is her directness. She plunges in and happily proceeds, brushing aside misfirings and we end up brushing them aside too.
More problematic is Neel’s celebrity fixation, which remains jarring.
Finally, Neel, like Cezanne, had a very productive old age. This painting was done in 1970 when she was 70. (Amusingly, the museum mislabels it as an early example of her portrait style.)
I’ve admired Peralstein for many years: he was an inspiration when I was young, and a revelation when I studied with him. Happily, he is still going strong now in his 80’s.
We can see that both artists have obvious similarities: interacting with nature is important for each, and both focus on the human form. In these paintings the simple subjects are seen straight on. Neel is not interested in articulating even this shallow space, while Pearlstein most emphatically is.
Pearlstein’s figure is a monument of finely articulated forms. Great care is taken to establish the relationships of the parts of the figure to itself, such as the elbow on the knee, and the figure to the other elements–wall, floor, and chair. The sitter’s left arm is especially beautiful. The negative space it forms with the body and as it stabs the picture’s edge demonstrates the artist’s exquisite design sense.
The chair is an interesting object in itself and cuts the picture plane with its diagonal thrust. Thrusts and cuts–Pearlstein is interested in creating tensions and challenging the viewer’s expectations. The body is carefully articulated, yet by cutting the head and feet with the frame, familiar psychological space is lost, replaced by a more formal one (albeit tinged with anxiety). The figure and chair thrust into space, only to be flattened by the frame.
These issues hold no attraction for Neel; Pearlstein’s ambitions–aggressive ambitions–make him the more interesting artist.
Peralstein is much more interested in process than Neel. When I said that both artists were interested in nature, you might have wondered what artist isn’t. Many artists are consumed with the process of making art, which can take them far, far away from nature.
Peralstien’s painting style is methodical and process-heavy, and provides none of the charming economies of Neel’s. With him, everything is calculated. He calculates a tone and (joylessly) paints a band of it. Then he calculates the neighboring tone and places a calculated amount of it in another band, and so on. He’s suspicious of emotion which denudes otherwise charming passages, such as the chin resting on the hand, of their warmth. The limitation of his technique can be seen in the chair. When examined in the museum, the animal’s face, while not clumsy, fails to track; the artist’s calculations have misfired.
It’s a testament to Pearlstein’s power as an artist that such a cerebral, methodical, suspicious style could give rise to such strong paintings. Pearlstein is a very fine artist whose failings are more interesting than many artists’ successes.
For all of Peralstein’s power, in this side by side comparison, Neel more than holds her own. Her easy-going, direct style looks even fresher against Peralstein’s controlled aggression.[Photos are mine; paintings are owned by the Cleveland Museum of Art.]