“Between art and contrivance there is a gulf fixed.” - Ludwig Pursewarden
Philip Pearlstein and the Rome Prize Recommendation Refused - Herbert Simon and Robert Lepper, 1989, 1990
I don't know what got in my head to write to Philip Pearlstein for his support of a Rome Prize application. I don't even know why I bothered to consider applying at all. Perhaps it had to do with the enthusiasm that people who normally didn't like my painting felt about the self-portraits at my 1986 Blue Mountain show.
Perhaps I also was amused at having done an official portrait of Herbert Simon, Godfather to the computer sciences at Carnegie Mellon University the same time Philip painted the school's president. While Philip got the bigger purse, I got the better man, who also happened to be my longtime friend.
Actually, I had painted two portraits, but Herbert complained that the first was too flattering. Now you don't hear that too often!
When I painted the first small portrait of Herbert, it was at a failry close distance. Hereber speculated, in his scientist manner, about my using only one eye, as something to do with brain hemispheres. But I refuted this and brushed aside his continuing on that observation, as simply that I kept the eye nearest to him closed to look at him from behind the safety of my nose with the other. It wasn't that I was afraid, though to be sure Herbert was a bit a of a dragon. It was that I just found it too personal to be that close to somebody - that is, unless it were a beautiful girl.
After it had dried in my studio, I took it over to the Simons' house, and pinned it to a wall in the living room. Barbara, their grown daughter, whose portrait I had done as a lithograph back in 1965, had been the reason why Herbert and I met. She was in town and I was invited to dinner. Herbert insisted on going out to their small backyard to discuss the business of the commission. I waived it aside; it was a gift. Herbert deemed it not acceptable; the school would pay for it. So I asked to think about the price. When a week later I came back to the house with a $5,000 number, Herbert's face darkened with a stunned, incredulous annoyance; then a whole other aspect came over his expression. It was one of recognition and delight, and perhaps amusement. He almost was beaming as he grew into the understanding that I was giving his portrait importance. Then we renegotiated for the second portrait that Carnegie Mellon would eventually purchase. Herbert paid me up front, but when the school got the second portrait, he had them send me their check as well. So I got paid for both portraits.
When I used one of the three large etchings from the autumn of 1966 (the one of Evelyn Ress, sick from cancer with two views of her falling into sleep) for the flyer to an exhibition at the University of Chicago in 1967, Herbert placed a copy of it on the shade of the standing lamp by his piano in the dining room, and for over 30 years, it greeted everybody entering his house. There was nobody outside my family who was as uncompromising in their support of my work than Herbert Simon.
Around that time I did a number of other portraits including that of Robert Lepper, Philip's old teacher as well as mine.
Just recently I tacked Lepper’s portrait to a wall while I was writing this. If anything I was amazed how much it has in common with Philip’s work in terms of its presence. It’s bigger than life. But what I don’t do to a ninety year old sitter is force him into some contortion the way Philip does to his models. I was lucky Lepper could give me a little over an hour before we had to stop. He had emphysema after years of chain smoking. He didn’t like his mouth and lips, which were extended and straining for breath.
A number of years before Lepper had come to understand: “Richard, I believe you no longer see me as your guru.” And I replied: “It’s been a long time since anybody’s been that to me.” But, none-the-less, a few years before he died I wrote an essay on his teaching practice and influence for which he was grateful: “Richard, it seems that you followed my lessons very well. I had not thought that you had.”
I always found it curious that Philip guarded his exchanges whenever I brought up Lepper. Normally artists share and swap stories of their former teachers, but Philip played the Cheshire Cat. For what point I don't know other than marking his lack of generosity in trusting me.
When I speak of generosity I mean of spirit. Why when someone knocks on your door asking only for directions is it so very hard to send him off with a joyful song. Philip couldn't do that, or at least he couldn't do that with me, Am I really so threatening! To Philip I guess I am. Or maybe Philip just can't sing. When I spoke to Herbert Simon of Pearlstein's letter rejecting support, Herbert replied that the man on top will naturally keep potential rivals from threatening his position. Herbert , of course knew of what he was speaking. He knew from experience what the man on top would do.
Installation, Blue Mountain Gallery, December 1986
Pearlstein Oct. 6, 1989
I like you and respect your intellect. But to be honest I can't say that I am enthusiastic about the painting you sent photos of. The[y] lack the structural complexity of the work I remember of yours as a student, and emphasize what I thought was a major weakness then - an overt romanticism that implies spiritual or mystic values. I am out of tune with that. At the same time your work while superficially related to Neo Expressionism and New Image modes lacks their sarcasm, irony, nastiness that gives them an edge. Your work is too serious for that – relates more to the Cobra school – which I don’t feel sympathy for.”
Now please don’t think I ignore constructive criticism. I immediately understood Philip’s point that my work needed more care in how forms establish spacial intrigue. If Philip would have said that he encouraged my focusing on that aspect of my painting, and that if that would be my goal while in Rome, and then he could recommend that my time there would be put to good advantage; I would have been so grateful.
Studio views, showing portraits of Bess Kimberly, Robert Lepper, Doug Pickering - all 1987
When I saw Philip next it was a complete surprise for both of us. He was speaking at the Warhol symposium held at the Carnegie Museum the following spring. He had used the occasion of this captive audience to speak more about himself than necessary; however, one did learn about how close he and Andy were early on. And as I have said on occasion, I believe Philip is more the pop artist than realist. Certainly he has become a fetish copy of himself. His latest works look like the embalmed corpses of the works from around 1980 with everything in his household thrown into the casket!
Robert Lepper also spoke and was the principle reason for my being there. On my way down to greet Lepper after all the speakers were finished I crossed paths with Philip on the narrow staircase of the lecture hall. It was uncomfortable for both of us I think. Out of the blue he came right to the point: "Richard, have you forgiven me yet?"
That took me for a loop and I stuttered out: "It was a bit of a shock at first, Philip. But then as I thought it over you did help me to define myself. And of course you did define yourself."
With that, Philip recoiled as if I struck him in the face. I had not meant it as an attack on his person, but as a clearly definable demarcation between two opposite poles of aesthetic purpose. But Philip being the defensive person he is must have known he had a reason to be, and I immediately saw how my words could address his miserly inability to be generous to another person.
Studio view of Herbert Simon, 1987
So with that brief but loaded exchange we sort of both nodded and turned away. Once again truth had to be told even though the biting side of it captured the moment. However, if one would set aside two distinctly different temperaments and only assign interest in the aesthetic divide, then one could understand the real importance of my initial statement, and a far more significant challenge comes to light. For if I cannot be, nor wish to be the kind of artist Philip is, then I am unapologetically and deliberately striving to do otherwise. And that's where Philip helped me. His strong anathema to the emotional / spiritual dimension of my work made me stand my ground. He made me consciously choose to declare my unwavering difference between his generation's prohibition of emotion and my inability to do otherwise.
So where I had made once again another mistake was in that I did not apply for the Rome Prize using his letter of difference. It would have been my calling card: I am not his boy; I'm my own man. Take it or leave it.