“The Body Re-Formed”

As we turn our gaze away from the NY School of Abstract Expressionism, there were young, gifted artists who wanted to explore the human body as an aesthetic form worthy of the creative’s gaze! English figurative painter David Hockney said: “In 1960, for a your art student trying to think of modern art, of the visual art of his time, obviously wanting to be involved in it, the opposition to the figure as a subject was very strong. I opposed it too; I thought, this is not the way to go. Yet obviously, I was dying to do it…” (David Hockney, David Hockney, 1976)

Philip Pearlstein, born in Pittsburg between WWI and WWI, sought to gain the skill to approach the figure, as an emerging artist looking to utilize a modernist/realist approach to the nude, studied the visual arts at Carnegie Mellon School of the Arts and also Art History later at New York University. Pearlstein was responding to an inner voice that wanted to explore, what British critic and museum curator Kenneth Clark referred to as “The Body Re-Formed.” More specifically, the undraped human body, male and female. “


“To be naked is to be deprived of our clothes and the word implies some of the embarrassment which most of us feel in that condition. The word nude, on the other hand, carries in educated usage, no uncomfortable overtone. The vague image it projects into the mind is not of a huddled and defenseless body, but of a balanced, prosperous, and confident body: the body re-formed.” (Kenneth Clark, The Nude, 1956)

In Post WWI United States, there was in general society a strong resistance to the undraped body; in the avant-garde areas of Greenwich Village and academic institutions teaching studio art, drawing or painting the human figure was still frowned upon for very different reasons. The avant-garde was still focused on the realm of abstraction and the artist’s inner anger and perception of beauty through the lens of angst. Pearlstein, took exception to that restriction from society and from other artists/critics. Pearlstein’s studio was essentially neutral to the intrigues expressed outside about confronting the human figure. Pearlstein was observing the undraped figure existing in closed spaces while occupying, at the same time, the abstract aesthetics special to the artist’s studio. Pearlstein embodied his figures with an obvious erotic charge, but a charge protected by a centuries long cultural agreement in the West which emboldened artists to confront the undraped figure—male and/or female.

What are your thoughts on Pearlstein’s efforts to satisfy both the New York School aesthetics (i.e., abstraction) while listening to his inner voice driving him to undertake the “professionalism” of examining the human figure (in the well established Western traditions going back centuries of time)?

Photograph of Philip Pearlstein in his Studio
Philip Pearlstein in his Studio Drawing

Published by: roberttracyphd

Academic professor at the University of Nevada Las Vegas. I teach theory courses in Art and Architecture History. In addition, I also curate exhibitions on campus as well as in other venues nationally and internationally.

29 Comments

29 thoughts on ““The Body Re-Formed””

  1. I think in his own way, as he was re-imagining what the human form meant to him. On the surface level, some may have thought he was just going back in time by just painting the nude human body. But, he was doing so without this “male gaze.” He was depicting them as they were, and as the viewer, at least when view his work, I don’t feel like I’m invading something so personal. It almost clinically objective in sense. I think by going this route, he was able to usher in a form of painting. If he would have focused solely on satisfying the abstract New York crowd, we wouldn’t have gotten this new take on the human form.

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  2. To me it seems as though Pearlstein was trying to find a balance between pushing the envelope while staying true to the roots of art and painting. Whether he was doing this for the sake of the art world, or merely for himself could be hard to say. I say that this was a journey he was on within himself. Based on the post, Pearlstein has a real interest and intrigue in pushing the envelope of art and continuing to honor tradition regardless of what the art world at the time is saying. I feel that there are aspects of history within art that are always going to be prevalent and will be hard to stray from. For instance I follow a handful of artists on Instagram that constantly use the human form in their work. I think the reason this sort of pushback was relevant at the time is because how quickly things were changing; the number of art movements that were constantly popping up. There were all the artists that wanted to move with the future and disregard the past. The difference of today is that we have instant access to the past and can so easily predict the future, that it in a way seems right to honor either one, or both. I would say Pearlstein wanted a hand in both the past and future of art.

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  3. There is a fine line that all classically trained artists encounter when it comes to academics and what they would like to convey in their work. Pearlstein was pushing the boundaries of what he could accomplish while still at the New York School of Abstract Expressionism. It seems like he was finding a way to create the human body that made sense to him while still conforming to the guidelines and teachings of the school. This is a complex issue that many artists face throughout their education and it is up to the artist to decide if they are to conform to what they are being taught or interpret these teachings to create something that works for them.

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  4. Overall, I get Pearlstein’s efforts and I find them to be incredibly successful. I actually find it quite shocking, personally, that the human figure, over time, slowly became to be less of an art form, but I’m happy to see that during this time, the acceptance of nudity in art was slowly beginning to come back. As someone who enjoys figure drawing on a fundamental level, the amount of help its done for me is immeasurable when it comes to drawing humans in my own personal artwork. I believe Pearlstein’s efforts to satisfy both his need to look at the human figure and abstraction were very successful, and I think it forced many people to rethink the way we see the human body. There are many times in art schools where the student has to decide whether they want to listen to the inner voice that beckons them towards a style not necessarily appealing, or to follow in the current aesthetics of their school and educators. In Pearlstein’s case, he was able to find an amazing medium between the two to create a unique journey for himself that helped his art truly begin to shine at its full potential. Being able to create a human form that is there to be human in the most pure of sense, is a feat that he was able to accomplish through his works.

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  5. I think that Pearlstein is very admirable for working on satisfying both and also kind of relatable. It’s interesting to learn how academic institutions were against allowing individuals to understand the anatomy of the human body by observing undraped bodies. I think it’s good that Pearlstein continued to explore what he wanted to do as an artist while following guidelines that the New York School established. Many artists want to enhance their skills and opportunities such as attending an institution come in really handy for experience. Although academic institutions are great, they should never deny one to explore beyond boundaries. Pearlstein’s craving to discover and approach nude in a different way was his calling and I appreciate how he dedicated himself to developing his ideas.

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  6. It is respectable of Pearlstein to study the body professionally. How else would people be able to study anatomy if there is no one going to take that first step? It is the stigma surrounding nudity as being sexual that really makes it difficult to study the human body without feeling ashamed, when in Greek art the human body was seen as a thing of beauty. To show professionalism in this subject is a break through for the art world; now more artists are able to grasp human anatomy just as humans were able to study animals anatomy without any cat-sized sweaters for example. It would just be hard to study the curvature of muscles and how limbs connect/work. I’m glad he stuck to his studies and was able to break down this negative stigmatism of nudity in the art world.

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  7. I think all of the art students here can agree that figure drawing, and learning the human form is extremely important for you to learn no matter your medium. It is surprising to me that nude portraits became so taboo later in history considering the origins of so many western art forms. However, I think Pearlstein does quite well with mixing these styles. He takes the composition and coloring and gives them that modern twist that his school was requiring from him. Thus making the poses and environments much more fun and interesting to look at, but still being able to exhibit his skills and desire to display the human form in a more traditional manner. I honestly think this style is extremely appealing and something I would see an artist of 2020 being popular for. It is interesting to see someones struggles in art from a different time. Today I feel as if (although I do not go to an art school) that schools encourage students to take their own paths. This is how we make new movements in the industry, and to put students in a box where they can’t necessarily do what they want seems silly. However, through this I think Pearstein made a very successful style that is unique to him exciting to view.

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  8. I feel Pearlstein’s efforts to satisfy both the New York School aesthetics and his interest in the human figure is a very smart and dedicated decision. He took into account of the restriction he had from being able to paint what he wanted and kept them into the guidelines by the school’s aesthetic while implementing his own style and paint what he loves doing. I feel this could go for any work ethic in the art field where an artist may love creating art based on a specific subject, but the “bigger-ups” disagree that it should be their way and not the artist’s way. To go around that is to be able to adapt and improvise what you can do to make it work both ways that can be accepted to work on what you love while still following the satisfactory requirements on who you’re creating work for. Artists can’t always please everyone nor their clients so I always hear if there’s a way to convince the client on what is best while still doing what you do best is key to having both sides happy. Of course unless the client doesn’t budge and still want a specific guide then you just gotta move on and keep trying or wait until others come to you that will accept the changes.

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  9. Looking into Philip Pearlistein’s situation, I find it quite interesting how passionate he was to continue to pursue more classic means of studying the figure in opposition to what was expected of him. In my opinion, studying the human figure can help many artists to become better overall regardless of their direction and to be able to take the school’s aesthetics and attempt to bring with it the ability to view the nude figure in a creative way; in my opinion, creates a very strong and impactful skill that many students should probably learn from. Artists should develop their skills in many ways and what they do with the skills they obtain are ultimately up to them. I believe that Philip made a good choice to incorporate both of these concepts in his work and that he was able to find a medium that worked him.

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  10. I have a sense of respect for Pearlstein’s outward willingness to go against cultural and societal norms which have changed so much over the years in regards to the naked body. I do understand why it isn’t currently the most admired or shining subject to the general public, especially with concerns about younger people seeing “inappropriate imagery,” but I have always admired the way that older art, such as the renaissance period, embraced the human figure, and in the state that the media still tends to stray from: natural or voluptuous, not overly unrealistic for the average person. It is incredibly interesting to see the styles of the older, traditional art forms clashing with the more modern, NY School aesthetics, in Pearlstein’s unique pieces. By abstracting realistic forms, perhaps it makes it slightly easier to digest this “taboo” subject matter, even if it isn’t for everyone.

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  11. Lizbeth Ramirez | Art 477

    Pearlstein’s efforts to satisfy both the New York School aesthetic but also his own is something many artists struggle with. The root being to attempt to satisfy society but also staying true to yourself. Pearlstein did it in a way where he was able to accomplish both and showed how his preferred subject could be done in a professional manner. In modern society the human body isn’t as bad of a subject, more people are able to see the beauty in it rather than always sexualizing it.

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  12. I find Pearlstein’s efforts to satisfy both the New York School aesthetics while listening to his inner voice very sensible and courageous. I feel that when creating art, many artists are often faced with different obstacles, especially their own fears and insecurities. There is a fear of failure, success, and change when trying to visualize our own understanding of art without being completely confined to specific teachings and traditions. I think that Pearlstein was aware of what he wanted to express as an artist and took everything he had learned about the world and himself to bring in a new and visual perspective of art and approach to the human figure. He acknowledged the lessons he learned and the progressive spirit of abstract culture to allow his spontaneity to flourish and let his art speak for itself which I find to be very remarkable and relatable today and throughout the fluctuating art scene.

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  13. I think that Pearlstein’s efforts to satisfy both the New York School aesthetics as well as his inner voice proved to be successful. I find it incredibly weird how in the past where so many art pieces had nude models that were focused more so on form and the beauty of the human figure, grew to become so restricted and censored when it came to the human body. It is even weirder that an art school that Pearlstein attended was so adamant on him following their guidelines, rather than helping him develop his talent any further. An art school of all places should be the most accepting when it comes to finding and developing new styles and art I think at least. I think the rules helped Pearlstein though because he was able to develop and mold his skills so he can draw nudity in a way that had not been done before, so in a way the guidelines did help him I suppose. His desire to paint the human figure could not be suppressed and he was able to reach outside of his boundaries, and that makes me appreciate his works even more.

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  14. I believe Pearlstein’s mixing of abstraction and the human figure was something that naturally worked off of each other for him. Abstraction was an accepted style of New York Style Aesthetics that goes against the idea of visual art being used to represent something concrete. Then there are the nude figures which were not the norm during the post ww1 period. In mixing the nude and abstract into one piece Pearlstein’s art was able to satisfy his inner voice while also adhering and going against norms. In doing this he was able to gain attention by standing out from other abstract artists as well since he was directly contrasting abstraction with representation. Lastly, I think at it’s core this mix was simply a result of Pearlstein wanting to do what he wanted to with his art, and it just so happened that by doing this he was able to gain popularity and exposure from it.

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  15. I think he combines traditional values with New York School aesthetic successfully. Especially in a time when painting the nudes is not only unpopular, but also unwelcome. Abstraction should not be limited to unidentified subjects or forms, it should be unlimited in terms of presentation. Further, Pearlstein’s human nude painting often incorporate with objects, they contribute some surreal quality to his work, and adds up the abstraction quality in the meanings. Although his style is realism, the portrait still possess mysterious message. I also enjoyed his cool color palette in some of the paintings, the figure has this specimen, unreal quality. All in all, I admire his professionalism of examining the human figure in Western tradition, and I also think that Pearlstein presented a new way for use to look at abstraction and modernism.

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  16. Pearlstein’s reimagining what “professionalism” means through his application of abstraction to traditional art. This is, in its own way, pushing abstraction even further. He is applying the new and revolutionary philosophy of abstraction to an artistic style that was previously rigid and clean cut. He blurred the line between realism and abstraction, weaving together emotional and unclear brushstrokes with recognizable imagery. His self-expression was evident in his approach to examining the human figure. He went beyond what he immediately saw, using other senses and cues to guide the abstract elements of his pieces. I think that he was successful in his efforts to stay true to his unique artistry while still appeasing the New York School’s art community.

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  17. I feel like almost every artist has a similar experience when it comes to depicting the human body. At first the human body is depicted in such an abstract way, young artists are inexperienced on how to replicate the human form naturally into a drawing or a painting. At first, the human form never looks correct, but as one practices the art of anatomical structures the human body begins to look more traditional (as it was studied in the Western canon). However, as one grows as an artist, they tend to lean more towards abstractions as their art evolves. I feel like Pearlstein was able to satisfy both ends of the spectrum. He was able to satisfy the need and aesthetic required for the New York school, while also maintaining his desire to depict the body in a “professional” manner. This balance that Pearlstein showcases is a sign of his artistic skill, it really shows how flexible he is as an artist. Good artists will stick to their niche once they find it, but great artists will remain flexible in their works, which I believe would create a more interesting and diverse portfolio.

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  18. I believe Pearlstein efforts of mixing abstraction and the human figure were very successful. While it’s odd to think about the human figure being less accepted , Pearlstein figured out a way to depict it in such a way that it was more tolerable to the audience of the time. I think it’s very understandable that he broke away from what was expected of him due to cultural norms, and it’s great that, by doing so, he got to create the art he wanted to create.

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  19. I think in any decade it can be hard to stay “neutral” because it’s either you have to be for or against something. In art especially where individuals are allowed to express themselves however they would like I think its important to be open to those forms of expression. Even if their are critics and individuals who want to keep things how they are and not advance or evolve any further its important to know that time is always evolving and trends are always changing so the idea of not evolving is impossible. Even now in 2020 there are things that make people uncomfortable but a community without change is not a thriving community for long. Moving forward and helping reform that community for a more open and welcoming presence is the best thing that can happen for their future.

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  20. I think in the field that we are all in of art (painting, drawing, design, music, etc.) there is this balance that we have to go through that I feel doesn’t get spoken about enough. It’s that we as creatives have to find this balance between creating work that satisfies us and what we want and creating work that is satisfactory to what the mass wants (i.e. a job, an agency, the media). It’s this constant balance that we have to find and only sometimes do the two conjoin where you’re creating what you want and satisfying other necessities at the same time. I think Pearlstein’s effort is proper. He had to do what he had to do to satisfy other people but he also continued creating what he loved to create.

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  21. I would say that the works of Pearlstein are somewhat compensation to satisfy both the New York School aesthetics and his inner voice. I think it is very unfortunate that certain time in history reject the artist’s desire to express their inner voice on canvas as it resists the artist’s own freedom in creation; it makes the art become submissive and stereotypical in that it tells how the art should be portrayed and how it should be created. Personally, I believe that studying human forms is important because it helps artists understand the aesthetic of human nature. Also, I believe human forms are such an abstract in that each individual forms of the figure has their own story of that person’s life and time.

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  22. The human form is something we all study deeply in art school. It is hard to reimagine because we know its proportions and how it should look. Incorporating abstractionism is something I think is difficult but often comes out well in the sense of creativity. Each person has a unique body so with this idea in mind, abstractionism can go far. I personally believe that satisfying others is often taken too seriously in the world of art. The best art can be made without worrying about your audience. I often like to ask myself why I am making the art I am making. If the answer is not “because I want to make this”, I rethink it all together.

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  23. Dear Professor Tracy,

    It is clear to see Pearlstein’s efforts in his paintings in every object seem to have equal importance concerning the model. His work to satisfy both the New York School aesthetics while listening to his inner voice, driving him to examine the human figure’s undertaking, is visible. During the 1950’s it was not quite acceptable to display nearly all of one’s body as it is today at the poolside or the beach. In Europe, it has been and currently is more acceptable than in America. ARIADNE ASLEEP ON THE ISLAND OF NAXOS, by Vanderlyn, 1809, clearly shows that the nude woman is not embarrassed and accepted as art in the past. Pearlstein has been able to depict “the undraped figure existing in closed spaces while occupying, at the same time, the abstract aesthetics special to the artist’s studio”(The Body Re-Formed); while showing a balanced, prosperous, and confident body.

    Therefore, Pearlstein “paints the nude not as a symbol of beauty and pure form but as a human fact—-implicitly imperfect.” (Sidney Tillim, Arts Magazine, 1963) undertakes the “professionalism” of examining the human figure (in the well established Western traditions going back centuries).

    Kindest regards,

    Sydney-Paige (CeCe) Kay

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  24. Pearlstein’s effort to please the New York School aesthetics while trying to push the boundaries was visible in his works, and I believe he balanced this quite well. Studying the human figure is important and valuable for all artists. The human figure allows for artists to understand forms, shapes, and proportions, and enables them to have a traditional understanding of art basics. It seems as if Pearlstein was trying to find a way to depict and form the human body while achieving the guidelines of the school, which he accomplishes. He demonstrates that you can still learn from the teachings of school, but still be able to express individuality and explore beyond their boundaries and ideas. Pearlstein was able to explore human nudity without the shame that often surrounds it. He was able to illustrate the human body in abstract situations, giving it a sense of normality and rid of the negative stereotypes of nudity.

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  25. The difference between nude and nakedness is more than simple intellectual arrogance; it is one without naked clothes, while nude is the way the artist sees a naked person. Philip Pearlstein, who tends towards realism with surprising, grinding, and mysterious elements, does not spare his respect for the old masters in his calm and stylized interpretations of nude figures, which he has taken firmly since the mid-1950s. His extraordinary approach to the pictorial frame and his unique stylistic attitude in color and form carries him to the current through the connection he establishes with tradition. It is evident that the human body, which is an ordinary phenomenon other than sexuality and skin color, is a different form for Philip Pearlstein. Like a passion. By overcoming constraints such as overcoming intellectual barriers, he has succeeded in doing the works that he believes will be permanent in the way he wants. I respect that.

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  26. I think is are is about how he views the world from his own perspectives and how he likes to express those views to everyone. Every artist has something to view to the world in their own image and painting is one of the ways to do it.

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  27. I really respect when people push the boundaries of what is expected of them and with Pearlstein, I really like that he found a way to do both realism and abstraction. The nude human body is something I think all artists should study. I feel that to really learn abstraction you need to understand realism. Plus, with Pearlstein pushing the boundaries, he has given way to people being more open and comfortable with studying, observing, and respecting the nude human body.

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  28. I think that Pearlstein did a very artist thing to do. He created art in the way that his “inner voice” wanted him to, as his right as the artist by seeing how far he can go without losing his job or being too shunned by his peers and bosses. By painting nude bodies and surrounding the figure and painting with abstract details, it gave him his argument to say “he’s following the rules”. I think it is pretty genius that he can make the combination work, but personally, he should have been allowed to create whatever he wanted.

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