Currently Hanging

Edging Toward Abstraction:

The Figure Depicted and Denied

The last thing I want to do, in writing about the paintings of Philip Pearlstein, is to reinforce the canard that there’s no difference between representation and abstraction. There are people who believe it, you know, and the belief has some basis in truth. Painters of all stripes-whether abstract, representational or some mix in between-have to consider and (if they’re any good) give shape to the formal elements of the medium. Space, mass and color carry the same weight for the stubborn realist (Edward Hopper, say) as they do for the most stringent practitioner of geometric abstraction (Piet Mondrian, for example).

Comparing the underlying pictorial scaffolding of Hopper’s Early Sunday Morning (1930) with the 90-degrees-or-bust neo-plasticism of Mondrian has, in fact, become a staple of art-appreciation courses. Yet Hopper and Mondrian are two very different painters. A fundamental part of that difference lies in what they chose to paint and how the choice affected their distinctive visions. Abstraction and representation are simply not the same thing-the truth is more basic and more complicated than that.

So why do I insist on calling Mr. Pearlstein, whose recent efforts are on view at Robert Miller Gallery, an abstract painter? He’s not, of course. For the past 40 years or so, Mr. Pearlstein has patiently and pitilessly painted the human form. You’d think he’d had enough of the perils of foreshortening and the unlovely intricacies of knobby knees. He hasn’t, though. Fidelity to observed fact is of paramount importance to the work, practically its defining characteristic.

Mr. Pearlstein’s just-the-facts-ma’am aesthetic allows no room for sensuality. The dry severity of his nudes can be traced, at least in part, to the concentration necessary in making “pictures of the human form with its parts all where they should be” (as the artist put it in Art News ). In recent years, those “parts” have increasingly been sharing space with still-life objects, notably Native American blankets and folk art. These items make for comedic juxtapositions of incident: In Model on Lawn Chair with Tin-Toy Locomotive (2003), the blatant phallocentrism of the title toy is ridiculed even as it’s underscored. In Model with Kimono on African Chair with Mirror and Mickey Mouse (2003), Walt Disney’s cartoon character is transformed into an enthusiastic peeping Tom. Elsewhere, a bored model and a decoy echo Leda and the Swan . Mr. Pearlstein has a sneaky, often ribald wit.

But his chief objective is to create figurative art in which the figure is all but superfluous. He crops his studio setups abruptly and with little regard for the individuality of the sitter; aligns the composition along strong, skewed diagonals; plays up the bright colors and patterns of a kimono against the bland monochrome of living flesh. By denying the figure, Mr. Pearlstein becomes an abstract artist.

But the paintings are never mere exercises in form. Consider how Mr. Pearlstein orchestrates Model with Old Iron Butcher Sign #2 (2003): The exacting placement of the title characters and the enabling relationship both share with the parameters of the canvas create a covert network of pictorial stresses. How is it that such a pragmatically set forth image suggests mystery and portent? I can’t explain it, nor do I want to. Mr. Pearlstein knows that a painting isn’t there to supply answers; it’s there to make answers obsolete. Questions we never knew we could enjoy puzzling over-that’s what an artist should provide, and Mr. Pearlstein does so with astonishing consistency.

Philip Pearlstein is at the Robert Miller Gallery, 524 West 26th Street, until Feb. 7.

An Open View

The photographs of Joel Sternfeld, on display at Luhring Augustine Gallery, look like the work of any number of contemporary photographers. His pictures of the American landscape, its inhabitants and its prospects (to take a thematic cue from the title of the main series on exhibit) bring to mind those of Jeff Wall, Gregory Crewdson, Thomas Struth and Andreas Gursky, all prominent figures on the international scene. Like them, Mr. Sternfeld takes big, color photos of panoramic vistas teeming with meticulous detail.

The settings are mundane and literally all over the map: a back road in Washington State, the outskirts of Phoenix, an aquatic theme park in Orlando, a picnic area close to the Great Salt Lake. What occurs in the photographs is less mundane; it can be horrific (the aftereffects of a tornado), funny (a sprinkler is the center of the known universe for one homeowner) and inexplicable (that back road in Washington? It’s blocked by an exhausted elephant). A distinct sense of theater-of distance, really-marks the work: Deadpan but curious, Mr. Sternfeld steps back and takes it all in, setting aside any agenda that might obscure the view.

Though at first glance you might think that Mr. Sternfeld shares the chilly contrivance and numbing ennui typical of Mr. Crewdson, Mr. Struth and other peers (actually, they’re his followers: The American Prospects series dates from the late 1970’s and early 1980’s), the longer you spend with Mr. Sternfeld, the less you see of his aloofness. In its place is a surprising, refreshing openness. The thin veneer of detachment barely disguises the wealth of contradictory emotions embedded in the images. The photographs are meditations, various and awesome, on the complexity of a land and its people.

So ignore the claims made by Mr. Sternfeld’s supporters about how his subject is “the contamination of paradise” or about how he’s moved the medium forward by “corrupting the purity of photography,” or about how American Prospects documents an “out of control America … ever closer to the abyss.” Mr. Sternfeld has less in common with Crewdson, Struth and Co.-the crowd that mistakes artifice for invention and nihilism for disinterest-than with Walker Evans and Garry Winogrand, artists whose gift for concentrating the world is inseparable from a respect for the integrity of their subjects. Mr. Sternfeld’s photographs, unsettling and expansive, remind us that one of the chief virtues of art is its ability to slip out from under cant.

Joel Sternfeld: American Prospects and Before is at Luhring Augustine Gallery, 531 West 24th Street, until Feb. 7. Currently Hanging