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Pearlstein’s Art Attracts ‘A Sophisticated Public’

At age 81, painter Philip Pearlstein still produces between eight and ten paintings a year, enough to maintain a steady schedule of biannual shows, says Betty Cuningham, whose Manhattan gallery represents the artist. Cuningham will be staging an exhibition of new work, perhaps as many as 15 paintings, next fall. At about the same time,

NEW YORK—At age 81, painter Philip Pearlstein still produces between eight and ten paintings a year, enough to maintain a steady schedule of biannual shows, says Betty Cuningham, whose Manhattan gallery represents the artist. Cuningham will be staging an exhibition of new work, perhaps as many as 15 paintings, next fall. At about the same time, the Tweed Museum of Art, of the University of Minnesota, Duluth, will show approximately 20, mostly recent, pieces.

Pearlstein works in different sizes, creating smaller (30-by-24-inch, for instance), medium-sized (48-by-60-inch) and large (72-by-84-inch) paintings. Cuningham reports the average price for smaller pieces is $75,000, while the largest go for $125,000/150,000, and those in the middle sell for about $100,000. The artist also produces watercolors in two sizes: small, 20-by-30-inch pieces that sell for $28,000/30,000 and large, 48-by-60-inch ones that sell for $40,000/42,000; and pencil drawings that fetch $12,000 on average, and in sepia ink that go for $15,000.

Pearlstein left the Robert Miller Gallery to follow Cuningham into her new gallery venture last fall. Their association dates back to 1982, when she worked first at Hirschl & Adler Galleries and later at Robert Miller.

She calls Pearlstein’s collectors a “sophisticated public,” but adds that “the market needs to be broader.” Prices for the artist’s work have been “rather flat,” and she aims to widen his appeal, especially to younger and newer collectors, through museum exhibitions.

Cuningham acknowledges that a problem in broadening the audience of collectors is Pearlstein’s work itself, which refuses to be decorative and gives no quarter to the viewer. “His work is confrontational, tough, with a deadpan sense of humor,” she says.

Pearlstein’s paintings have appeared periodically at public sale, though the top prices date back more than a dozen years and do not equal the prices realized in gallery sales. The highest auction price to date is $57,750 for the 5-by-6-foot painting Two Nudes on Mexican Blanket, 1972, which Sotheby’s had estimated at $40,000/45,000 for a 1990 sale.

Other top prices include $49,500 (estimate: $30/40,000) for the 1970 oil Two Nudes on Yellow and Blue Drapes at Christie’s in 1989, and $46,200 (estimate $30/35,000) for the 1990 Male and Female Models with Circus Poster and Bambino at Christie’s in 1992.

Cuningham claims that auction results do not offer a fair assessment of the value of Pearlstein’s art: “If someone came to me and said, ‘There was a Philip Pearlstein selling at Sotheby’s for $50,000, and you’re selling new ones for $140,000,’ I’d say to them, ‘Why didn’t you buy it?’”

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