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Philip Pearlstein: Life Happens

At 95 years-old, accomplished painter Philip Pearlstein works every day from 9 am to 5 pm with the same model in his stunning Midtown Manhattan studio. This short documentary explores his 15-year working relationship with Kika von Kluck.

AIRED: May 02, 2021 | 0:26:31
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TRANSCRIPT

Kika: So, Philip, I know we shouldn't be talking while you paint,

but there is one subject that everybody asks.

What's the meaning of your paintings?

What do you say to them?

Philip: There's no meaning to the painting.

It's a pure visual experience.

And a lot of people aren't willing to accept that.

The audience wants a storyline.

Even the critics.

They can't accept that it's just a...

kind of an abstraction that happens

to look naturalistic.

Most people, unless they have eye troubles,

don't experience, don't think about it.

You take eyesight for granted.

I decided just looking is important and meaningful.

Because painting is a form of meditation, right?

It is.

We usually don't talk.

Right.

This is a special occasion.

[ Chuckles ]

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My career really took off when I suddenly switched, overnight,

to concentrating on the figure.

And nobody else was.

The figure, as an object of study, had been abandoned.

Even in this last show in London,

at the Saatchi Gallery, I got, what,

about 17 reviews?

But almost nothing was said about the paintings themselves,

except they felt the absence of...

What's the word?

Sensuality, or something.

Attractiveness, or something.

The offensive part was not the nudity,

it was the objectivity.

And I wasn't giving it.

And they felt it from the painting.

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I never make a painting exploiting sexual attitudes.

Even the poses,

I've deliberately tried to avoid anything --

which is hard to do, when you have

a couple of naked people in front of you.

But the origin was in the Army experience.

When I was 18, I went into the Army.

The first training, four months in the summer in Alabama.

It was horrible.

It was all about hand-to-hand combat,

trying to kill the person opposite you -- seriously.

Every morning, we did this bayonet practice.

You had to run through this course,

one after the other.

You're about six in a row.

You have to try to stab the sacks.

And then, you get tired.

You sit down.

[ Light laughter ]

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My first awareness of the body, of the human body,

had nothing to do with sex.

It had to do with how our bodies got transformed.

during that summer.

We all entered as baggy, schlumpy kids.

Nobody was physically fit.

That was the upper classes.

They played tennis

We didn't.

Right.

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All the models that you've had -- and me also, --

after 14 years, or 15 years together,

you know the person's anatomy, basically.

So, does your perspective change with time?

Yeah. It takes a while.

It takes a while, right?

To what? To observe how they move.

What positions they're comfortable in.

I stay with the same models as long as they'll stay with me,

exactly for that reason -- it takes a while

to get to know them -- the way they move, not as personality.

Mm-hmm.

That was the first thing you told me when I started here.

What you said differently from other artists

is that you were interested in the way I moved.

And that was so strange, because, for this,

you stand still.

You're not moving.

Philip: To you, it may feel you're in the same position,

but it's usually not true,

because the person keeps moving, and there are always changes.

Every time you breathe, everything changes.

And that's a challenge for you.

I try to keep up with the changes,

or incorporate them in some way.

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So, in Florida, it seems like you had more time

because you have much more work coming out.

I was assigned to work with a group of artists

doing big charts.

That was my introduction to printmaking.

Huh.

My introduction to lettering. My introduction to drafting.

Very hard work, constant hard work.

But on my weekends, I did these watercolors.

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I did background studies for those paintings,

the series of landscapes.

My first landscapes. Your first landscapes.

I was going to say, they already have

the cropping, and the vision

that you kept throughout your life after.

Well, I was learning design...

Right.

...from these guys.

Then, I got more ambitious as I --

first, I made these sketches.

And then, I began asking my friends to pose for the figures.

So, was that a posing, or was he just --

Yeah. He was a fellow...

Soldier.

So, he's...

one of my bunkmates posed for me.

[ Laughter ]

That's great.

He knew what it was to be exhausted like this.

Right. Right.

I got, you know, involved in composition.

This is -- the rifle's carefully placed on the diagonal

from corner to corner.

If you go this way, the man's collar is right in the center.

You know, it was planned.

That's right. It's all in diagonals.

By that time, I was fairly sophisticated.

I got very good at watercolor paint.

Right. I can say that, sitting.

I've been sitting with you for how long?

14 years?

14 or 15 years.

Right.

And you fit into my geometry.

I fit into your geometry.

More than many other models.

Really?

Besides the fact that I look anonymous.

Well, as you take a lot of the poses you take,

kind of geometric.

Right. Very angular.

Basic geometry.

Right. My luck.

[ Laughter ]

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Kika: When I started working with Philip, I realized,

for instance, I prefer to have my eyes closed,

because I like the way he paints my eyes when they're closed,

I like the way he addresses the eyelashes, and the shape.

So, I try to find the best shapes that fit his setup.

Because we get the setup together.

And with Phillip's paintings,

each one of them has such an essence of me.

I am there because he captures something

which is -- we hate to say the word "soul" in this place.

It's not the soul.

But it's -- it's an essence, for sure.

He captures -- like you said, it's the movement.

Like, nobody moves exactly like another person.

Nobody fits into a position like another person.

So, Philip is a specialist at capturing the movement.

It's the relationship between the object and the model.

A lot of times, I fall in love with the painting

that we're working on because of the colors,

because of the composition,

but also because of the way he will address the angles.

Like, here, for instance, he has this such a difficult situation,

with the foreshortening.

And to me, that's so spectacular

because it doesn't part from a measuring.

It parts from a looking.

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When you got to Italy,

what was the situation of the war?

This is 1944 or '45.

The middle of '44. '44. Okay.

We were to be the replacements.

For the casualties? For the casualties,

one of the other big battles of Monte Casino.

Right.

I took basic infantry training

all over again, a third time, around the Roman ruins,

on the [indistinct].

Those big buildings.

But they were ruins, you know.

But we trained around those.

I got fascinated with the way those piles of rocks looked.

♪♪

We went to all the museums that they reopened.

The Vatican museum was open.

And evenings and weekends, we'd go into Rome,

and have these wonderful experiences.

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When the war abruptly ended, all my friends went off.

I was held back, and assigned to doing road signs.

And we were settled into this very picturesque little town

called Marina di Pisa.

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And on weekends, with the guys --

a couple of guys who were interested in the art,

we'd go with the mail truck --

we got mail once a week --

to the headquarters of the Fifth Army in Florence.

And we parked right in front of the "Gates of Paradise,"

by Ghiberti, from the Baptistery,

which had been taken, leaning against the wall of some garden,

next to the Uffizi Palace,

which had Raphael paintings in them.

And 20 feet down the road, maybe 50 feet, was the church

of the Carmines, with the Masaccio famous frescoes

that were the turning point of the history

of the Renaissance art.

And how impactful was...

Tremendously.

Every time I had a chance, I'd go on this truck,

and spend the day in Florence.

I studied those Masaccio frescoes face-to-face,

which you can't do now.

It was incredible to be 10 inches away from that,

and nobody else around,

and I could stay there for as long as I wanted --

which I did.

You could see the brushstrokes.

Right. It was amazing.

So, what transformed you was that the thing itself,

not the meaning behind it.

Oh, the meaning meant nothing to me.

I was only interested in the art.

I have no real religious background of any kind.

But I did read -- when you got on the troopship to go to Italy,

the only reading material was a tiny little book,

very thick, of the Old and New Testament.

That's when you read the Bible.

That's when I read the Bible from front page to back page.

There was 15 days to do nothing else.

The weather was nice on the troopship

during our time going across.

So, we sat on the deck.

Everybody's sitting there reading the Bible.

And of course, that came in very handy

when I went to study art history officially.

Because of the themes.

The themes. Right. Right.

So, the Italian experience...

was profound. Profound.

It's where I grew up.

It's where you became an adult.

When I went back to Pittsburgh after the war,

I felt I was in a foreign land.

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♪♪

What drove you to start collecting antiquities?

Rome has great flea markets.

Things were cheap, then,

and you didn't have to worry about export.

Nobody cared.

And the love... the drawings on Greek faces.

They're fabulous as drawings.

I don't care what they mean, but the drawings are wonderful.

So, you started collecting the objects

because of them as objects.

As objects, but representing...

I was concentrating, more or less

on the human -- on faces -- the human head.

The bodies came with it, sometimes.

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So, a lot of these are pre-Colombian.

But then, there's these weird things that come from

the Middle East, like this.

This guy looks like he's from outer space,

with that horn on his head.

I don't know what culture it's from.

You don't?

But then, there he is.

You pick these things not for their historical value,

but for their -- For the look.

For the look, because sometimes --

It's a record of how the artist depicted the human head.

It's fun.

It's fun. But it's a hobby.

It's not directly related.

But they become subjects.

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This one was the first one we did together.

-Right. -The first painting.

Right.

And then that one. Yeah.

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Kika: I learned, with Phillip, to look for meaning

in the objects themselves.

Woman: So, you consider yourself an object?

Absolutely.

And that has been one of the biggest problems

with Phillip and the feminists --

and I'm a hardcore feminist.

Working with Phillip,

I see that they are completely wrong,

because they're not here working with him.

You know, there's nothing but respect for human beings,

for women,

and for the relationship between artist and model.

It's all about having a good relationship.

So, to me, I get emotional when I see the painting finished,

or the process of getting there, and the the building of it.

Even when you have the first layers,

like, I get -- I got -- I get a tear, you know?

I'm like, "Oh, my God, it's so beautiful."

And you're like, "Oh, this is just first layer."

You know, "We're gonna work on that."

So, to me, it's both.

It's the essence, and the shape, and the form.

The self-consciousness has to be discarded.

You have to let go of that.

Because it's his eyes, and it's his art.

It's not my art. I'm just the vehicle.

So, yes, I am an object.

And that's what he does with the paintings.

We have the same importance as anything.

Nothing takes precedence.

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What moves you?

What moves me?

Yes.

When I get it to look like what's in front of me.

When you get it to look like what's in front of you.

When the painting, here, looks like it's you,

and I can get confused between you and the painting.

[ Chuckles ]

Right.

When you achieve the reality.

When you achieve a sense of reality within the painting,

is that what...?

Well, when it resembles you.

When I get mixed up between the painting and you,

looking at the painting or looking at her.

Hmm.

It's a very simple-minded idea.

And that's what I work with.

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Philip: When I got back to Pittsburgh after the war,

and met the girl I married,

who was a friend of Andy Warhol's --

I met her through Andy --

it was such a relief.

They were so young and unworldly.

[ Laughs ]

And I felt like this old man

who had been through every experience possible.

And it was such a relief to find them,

to be suddenly with young people.

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We became great friends.

And we ended up -- after he left, graduated from college.

In 1949, we came to New York together, and spent maybe...

...nine months living in the same one-room apartment with him,

working in one corner, and me at the other.

The second time was with...

into this modern dance studio run by this woman.

She's the one who made it.

It kind of psyched Andy out.

She didn't like me.

She thought I was too bourgeois.

She said he had to get rid of me

'cause I was holding him back from being his real personality.

She was probably right.

Kika: I don't think so.

I got married at the end of the year,

and he was our best man.

But at one point, when we were in Pittsburgh, at school,

we exchanged paintings.

And I got this one,

which I think is a great painting.

But it doesn't really predict his later work.

But that's my Andy Warhol painting.

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The fact that Andy and I roomed together, shared a room,

whatever you want to call it,

keeps coming up with the implications

that there was a homosexual relationship.

Woman: Does that bother you?

It doesn't bother me,

but I wonder what my children think.

[ Laughter ]

I've never asked them.

But there was no such relationship.

It was purely...

love of art.

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Kika: It's your birthday next week.

How old are you going to be?

94.

How do you deal with getting older, and also your models?

Mostly, it results in taking a lot more time.

We take more breaks.

It takes a lot more time.

Oh, the paintings take more time.

The physical levitation has more to do with

the way I hold the brush.

You know, my fingers are twisting.

Yeah.

It's not me doing it.

It's the fingers.

Arthritis has crept up.

And...

so I can't hold the brush the way I used to.

Things like that.

I scrub the paint on, now, instead of brushing it on.

Like I'm cleaning a surface.

I mean, really scrub -- literally scrubbing,

rather than...

calligraphy choreographically manipulating.

On the days that you're not painting...

Right now, I'm seeing doctors.

No, but do you miss painting when you're not?

On the days that you're not painting,

do you feel like you should be painting, or...?

No. Then, I'd become concerned about myself.

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Woman: When was the happiest moment of your life?

I can't can't say.

Why?

Life happens.

And the good moments are fleeting.

Like, I had that terrific opening of this exhibition

just a couple weeks ago.

The gallery got so crowded that...

I've had a lot of students, over the years.

I don't recognize most of them when they become older.

So, to me, they look like strangers.

But almost everybody knew me. The place was packed.

It was amazing.

I might have been happy.

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