Philip Pearlstein is the great genre-bender of contemporary art. Ostensibly, the subject of his relentless scrutiny over the last four decades has been the nude in the interior, as the almost retrospective overview of his career at Betty Cuningham, "Philip Pearlstein: Then and Now," suggests in 13 canvases ranging from 1964-69 and 1988-2008.
And yet, for all the pounds of flesh and claustrophobic constructions of actual, lived-in and worked-in space these pictures present, the paintings are imbued with such a denial of emotion, connection, or purposeful activity as to rob them of the defining characteristics of the interior genre, social intercourse, productivity, and leisure.
The sense is that, despite the human presence and the architectural frame, Mr. Pearlstein is actually a still life painter, his intense gaze zooming in upon specific objects, their formal relationship with one another, their visually challenging proximities. In more recent canvases, the props — which reflect his avid fascination with Americana, toys, and folk objects — take on star roles. The nudes are overtly reduced to object status, splayed around the inanimate things in mercilessly matter-of-fact compositions whose construction — starting with a focus of the artist's attention and ending wherever the edge of the arbitrary frame of vision falls — leaves no room for sentimental humanistic notions of the integrity of the figure. "Nude on Rusty Chair" (1969), on view in the office, nonchalantly decapitates the seated figure and robs her of her feet.
But even in his paintings from the 1960s — with which Mr. Pearlstein first came to the attention of the art world and in which nudes held unrivaled mastery over their prosaic domain — the passivity of the models, the drastic cropping, and the willfully perverse perspective ensured that objectification was the order of the day.
Mr. Pearlstein's audaciously clinical anatomy studies earned him Irving Sandler's epithet, shared with Alex Katz, Alfred Leslie, and others, of "new perceptual realism." These artists' return to traditional subjects and means was understood as being closer in spirit to the strategies of the contemporary avant-garde than the academy with which it seemed to make superficial connection. If you keep in mind the all-American objects that were to follow as their canvas-mates, Mr. Pearlstein's early nudes relate to that most blatant of commodity objects, Andy Warhol's Brillo Box.
The "academic" nude held as remote a proximity for fine artists as the design on a carton of household dry goods — under their noses, yet out of bounds. Mr. Pearlstein broke a Modernist taboo by reinvestigating the most traditional of subjects, the passively posed nude, but he imported from cutting-edge contemporary art strategies for abstracting perceived things. Primarily, this had to do with radical shifts of scale and context. Mr. Pearlstein's nudes equally connected with Color Field painting and Minimal Art as they did with Pop, on several counts. They were larger than life (typical canvases here are 6 by 6 feet, 6 by 5, 7 by 7); the lighting was stark even to the point of blandness, and the insistence of painting exactly what is seen without capitulating to the comforting tricks of perspective or foreshortening meant that a realization of the flatness of the picture surface jolted rudely into viewer consciousness.
The selection at Cuningham stresses continuity but also dispels the put-down (one of many endured by the ever controversial Mr. Pearlstein) that he has been painting the same work for 40 years. The front gallery sandwiches a recent canvas, "Two Models with Large Whirlygig" (2006), between "Nude on a Blue Drape" (1964) and "Two Nudes with Red Drape" (1965). The continuity points to the perceptual realist's affinity with one of abstraction's absolutists, Piet Mondrian, answering Barnett Newman's question (in the title of one of his works): "Who's Afraid of Red, Yellow and Blue." In Mr. Pearlstein's work, the first and third of these primaries are stridently represented, while yellow comes in a contingent form — flesh tone.
These rugs notwithstanding, the early canvases are stark in their tonality and anticlimactic in their light modulation. "Two Nudes with Camp Chair" (1969), for instance, allows enough shadow play to identify without any ambiguity the synthetic light source, which is offstage left, but the contrasts of light and shade are kept to a minimum within the figures, whose pallid complexions meld with the off-white walls and yellow carpeting.
"Model, Neon Mickey and Bouncy Duck" (2007), by comparison, is by Mr. Pearlstein's standards a riot of chromatic complexity. There are striking juxtapositions of texture and tone — the metals of the iron garden seat, the sprung toy and its footrest, and the armature of the neon Mickey, lit up red, yellow, blue, and white; the different woods of bench and base; the brittle knots of dreadlocks against the shine of glass and metal and the softness of flesh; the different kinds of shadow from neon and overhead light. As he typically does with his black models, the nude flesh is up against a paragon of whiteness in the toy duck. Her rich skin tones bounce back the synthetic colors that surround her.
The extreme objectification of the human figure is accentuated in the paintings of the last 20 years by the increasing animation, by way of contrast, of his still-life motifs. So many of his toys are animal characters, and even his furniture can have animal life. "Model with Horn Chair" (1990) pushes the organic-inert dichotomy to an almost symbolic extreme: The baroque furniture writhes with life while the nude, forced tortuously to negotiate a space for herself amidst these absurd protrusions, seems skewered by the horns. His flesh, with heavily defined ribs and muscle, has a statue-like stillness, while the sinewy, glistening horns seem to perspire.
What is less than lively in Mr. Pearlstein's art is his paint surface, which is deadpan to the point of necrophilia. It is ironic that an artist whose modus operandi is to paint from life, with models posed in an actual space in real time, should produce distilled images that are effectively out of time and space. By rendering what he sees at the expense of what he experiences, he drastically compresses space, eschewing any realist tricks for suggesting depth and recession to insist, instead, on the stark reality of the canvas as a film of vision. Architecture is akin to the cropped nudes as Mr. Pearlstein almost never gives a room its corners, rendering surroundings as flat ground rather than as volume. Similarly, the breathing flesh, quivering plastic blimps, and mechanical toys, which must present themselves to the artist in his studio with actual or implied movement, are frozen in paint. A painterly, impressionistic touch would find a metaphorical equivalent of the pulsating signs of life that Mr. Pearlstein denies. His objects — animate or otherwise — are divorced from lived experience. Despite his fanatical perceptualism, his art is anti-empirical — essentially abstract.
Until August 6 (541 W. 25th St., between Tenth and Eleventh avenues, 212-242-2772).