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I always look forward to The Andy Warhol Museum’s special exhibitions because while the permanent collection mandates a single artist as its theme, their second floor gallery offers up a rotation of changing, often obscure, material. These temporary offerings focus on topics related to Andy Warhol or Pop Art, even as they stray into oblique corners of that history. If there was a diagram for these complementary topics it might be a mod atomic starburst clock with arms radiating out from Andy perennially in the central clock face, with his hand resting cheekily on the three.
After the glitzy runway ambiance of last year’s Halston and Warhol: Silver and Suede, followed by the bright palette of candy colors that spelled out deep literary and religious thoughts on posters in this spring’s Someday is Now: The Art of Corita Kent, The Warhol’s newest exhibition, Pearlstein, Warhol, Cantor: From Pittsburgh to New York, is dense, dark and somewhat academic. But that is the nature of the work itself—a thick, painterly reflection of midcentury Pittsburgh in all of its grit and charm, told through the lens of not-yet-famous art students under the lingering influence of 1940s social realism, fulfilling classroom assignments asking them to study the surrounding world. For that reason alone, if you love Pittsburgh with its tangled streets and working class history, as well as its beloved cultural institutions and Kennywood amusement park, this is an exhibition for you.
Pearlstein, Warhol, Cantor is part of a confluence of forces assembling in Pittsburgh at the moment, painting the town, not simply as an industrial city, but as a formidable modernist hub of art and design. In addition there is the film project chronicling twenty-something Elizabeth “Betty” Rockwell Raphael’s gutsy modern art gallery and lending library that existed from 1941 until 1947 (Tracing Outlines, 2014), a film that includes recorded reminiscences by Philip Pearlstein. Then later this fall, Silver to Steel: The Modern Designs of Peter Muller-Munk will open at Carnegie Museum of Art, presenting the first monographic study of one of the most important industrial designers of the era [in full disclosure, I am curatorial research assistant for this exhibition]. Muller-Munk relocated from New York to Pittsburgh in 1935 to teach in the country’s first degree-granting program of industrial design at Carnegie Institute of Technology (CIT, now Carnegie Mellon University), and in the very art department where Philip Pearlstein, Andy Warhol, and Dorothy Cantor studied. (Muller-Munk overlapped only briefly with Pearlstein, missing Warhol and Cantor by a year or two.) With these inter-connected projects, Pittsburgh is finding a midcentury artistic pedigree that will surprise outsiders with its opulence.
Pittsburgh both lured figures from New York City and, as in the case of Pearlstein, Warhol, Cantor, also offered up its talented children to the volcano of New York’s cultural dominance. The Warhol exhibition is organized as a chronology broken up by themes that trace the rise of these three artists, from their working class Pittsburgh elementary school art classes to the moment just before they achieved New York fame as painters.
In this race of young ponies, Pearlstein was the clear winner in the beginning—he had two paintings reproduced in Life magazine before finishing high school. The war years interrupted Pearlstein’s college art education; he started at CIT in 1942 and in 1943 was drafted into World War II. He never saw combat, but was able to see the artwork and monuments of Italy while producing instructional drawings for the military—diagramming how to disassemble a rifle, for example, the kind of work that foreshadowed his later commercial art career. While Pearlstein was in the same class at CIT as Warhol, he was older and returned there on the G.I. Bill, and Cantor was one year behind.
As these artists absorbed and reflected the cultural shift from the social realism of their instructors’ era to the burgeoning abstraction of the 1950s, they sought out their own stylistic paths while looking over each other’s shoulders. For the meticulous painter Pearlstein would become, his linear drawings are better than his early paintings (and really, his later paintings almost feel like drawings). Local artist and CIT instructor Robert Lepper haunts this exhibition’s trilogy, because the force of his creative classroom assignments is as strong as the work these young artists did to fulfill them. (The inspired pedagogy reminds me of poignant moments in The Art of Corita Kent.)
We witness the eclipse of Pearlstein’s early success, trumped as it was by Warhol’s ease, graceful wit and gestural economy. In fact, one of the interesting undercurrents of this exhibition, as well as Pearlstein’s autobiographical reminiscences in the catalogue essay “My Warhol(a) Experience, 1947—1959 and a little beyond,” refers to how things in life seem to come to some people almost magically, while others doggedly hammer out work and are met with rejection. This “charmed” condition is expressed in the cheerfulness of Warhol’s colors and subject matter as compared to Pearlstein’s more brooding work. For example, Warhol’s painting of children exuberantly swinging on a playground is juxtaposed to one of Pearlstein’s depicting teenagers in a racially divided street fight. This likely hints at why Warhol’s commercial art career took off before Pearlstein’s in the era of 1950s optimism—Pearlstein was perennially holding up the barefaced underbelly.
It is also a matter of circumstance—while a cockroach crawled out of Pearlstein’s portfolio during a commercial art interview in New York City and he was summarily excused, the same thing happened to Warhol, then Pearlstein’s roommate—Warhol received sympathy and a job. What I love about this exhibition is that patience proves itself out, and sticking to one’s own innate talents leads to authentic success. Both Pearlstein and Warhol parlayed their first New York City commercial art careers into painting careers that notoriously forced open the fingers of Abstract Expressionism’s stranglehold, but each in their own way. Warhol’s gestural economy and easy wit shaped Pop Art’s visual lexicon and Pearlstein’s figurative realism captured the tightly woven detail of everyday bodies and things in paintings that feel so of their own time.
If you are by now wondering where Dorothy Cantor is in all this, you are not mistaken in your perplexity. While the introductory wall text states that Cantor’s work is “a revelation,” she comes into the story late, figuring first in a series of photographs of student camaraderie—the CIT gang hamming it up both in Pittsburgh art studios and lawns, and on New York streets and beaches—and only later we see her own work: a 1948 painting of her family’s Seder dinner at the far end of the gallery. This may be the result of available student material, but once we come to her work, she eventually dominates one end wall and its surrounding area, offering some of the exhibition’s most elegant visual treats—a series of crisply painted abstractions of Pittsburgh bridges and roadways. The wall text claims that this is the first museum presentation of Cantor’s paintings—ever.
Providing a glimpse of Cantor working more loosely, one sheet of impromptu cat sketches captures the Siamese kitten Warhol gave her and Pearlstein, whom Cantor married in 1950, and at the very end of the full suite of her work, we see a similar series of intimate head studies of her newborn son William. The story the exhibition tells is that, after both she and Pearlstein earned graduate degrees in the mid 1950s, Cantor gave up painting in 1957 to raise three children.[Cough.]
This leaves the viewer with an unsatisfying cliffhanger. Where is the rest? Why is the story not the same for Pearlstein, who raised the same three children? I know, I know, it was a different era, but these are far from conventional people, as Pearlstein’s rollicking autobiographical sketch reveals in the catalogue. A version of this essay appeared last year in ARTnews as “Watching Warhola Become Warhol,” and the exhibition catalog was a rich opportunity to reprint the brief memoir in its entirety. It is incredibly fun to read about Pearlstein and Warhol living a comically squalid life before fame came down on gossamer wings, and yet Pearlstein’s essay clearly was not meant to include Cantor in the same way as Warhol, and she is missed in this exhibition’s overall narrative.
So, where are the autobiographical details for Cantor, who is still married to Pearlstein? Did she not have feelings about the decision to quit painting that might have been discussed more than matter-of-factly in the exhibition alongside the narrative dominated by her male cohorts? Of the three, she is quiet, even stoic, and compelled to produce rationally engineered paintings of bridges and architecture while the men are emotionally messy. The paintings and works on paper come from her own collection, and yet there is no attempt to tell us the intimate details of their making or her personal artistic struggle the way there is for the guys, and one has to imagine that for her as a woman it was a particularly interesting one. I want to know why Cantor was drawn to different subject matter than Warhol and Pearlstein—bridges, subways, and engineered architectural spaces—and what drew her to spend so much time in New York City subways capturing the tunnel’s steps and swooping hallways, devoid of people? When exactly, and how, did Cantor manage to be down there, successfully removing any trace of human presence?
We know Cantor was successfully exhibiting at the cooperative Tanager Gallery in New York in the mid 1950s, so why did she decide to give her art career up abruptly (as the exhibition suggests), and watch Pearlstein and Warhol achieve self-actualizing success? I am grateful for this opportunity to see her work and excited that Cantor is receiving this attention so long after she reportedly made her last painting, yet it is as if Cantor is presented in the same manner as Pearlstein’s famous nudes—cold and matter-of-factly, and without any direct confrontation with the female subject.
And this brings us to the final stage of the exhibition—the inclusion of Pearlstein’s most recent paintings, as well as some of his signature works from the 1980s. This grouping reveals his latest shift where female nude sitters wear antique animal masks and confront the viewer. At first I cringed. But I have to ask: why are these props any kitschier than the painting I really like nearby that includes a transparent inflatable armchair, neon Mickey Mouse light, and patterned rug? It leaves you to ponder what constitutes good and bad taste and how those lines blur, all while admiring the classic Pearlstein painterly touch, that, even in his 91st year, is still strong and sure.
Catherine Walworth is a writer living in Pittsburgh. View more articles by Catherine Walworth.