The Pleasures of the Pursuit: Talks by William Kentridge and Philip Pearlstein in Jerusalem
Report From… Jerusalem
Two famous artists with nothing in common spoke about their work to invited audiences in Jerusalem in recent weeks, and both were happy with their audiences. “You couldn’t get 200 people like that in New York,” Philip Pearlstein told a friend after his talk at the Jerusalem Studio School, where he found himself surrounded by fans. Packed audiences are a regular occurrence for William Kentridge, who spoke at the preview of ‘Five Themes’, his exhibition that opened at MoMA a year ago and is now at the Israel Museum – but he said he really enjoyed the responsiveness of this audience.
As a fellow South African, I am familiar with Kentridge’s Johannesburg, but I have an outsider’s view of Pearlstein’s New York. Listening to Pearlstein, and later talking with his wife Dorothy, also a painter, threw light on a few mysteries – which could all be covered by one question: What makes Pearlstein closer as an artist to his old friend Andy Warhol than to the painter with whom he is usually compared – Lucien Freud? In other words, what is so different about painting in New York and London?
Asked how he relates to Freud, Pearlstein said: “I don’t know anything about him but when we went to London in the 1970s, someone said ‘Why do we need Pearlstein when we’ve got Freud?’ “ Then he said with a smile: ” All I know is, since MoMA bought Freud, my work is in storage.”
Dorothy Pearlstein used the word ‘pragmatic’ about the American approach to art. And she said that for Pearlstein it is very important not to “leave a bit of himself on the canvas” – brush marks, fingerprints, or lumps of paint, in the way of European expressionism.
Pearlstein’s decision to make huge paintings was pragmatic from the start – he had to, he said, or they wouldn’t be noticed. His interest in the gleaming nudes that he paints, with the translucent light and shadow moving over them, is unashamedly skin deep. And yet Pearlstein speaks about the people he paints with pride and admiration for their achievements – off the canvas.
He creates a smooth, impeccable, impenetrable surface that removes all evidence of the artist from the work and keeps the viewer at a distance. Elizabeth Taylor’s projected image comes to mind: seamless glamour devoid of irony, simplistic to the point of hick. But it’s New York hick, that moves easily from hick to cool to very sophisticated, and seems so enviable and unattainable to non-New Yorkers
For Kentridge, art is not about making an object to be treasured. His theatricality and love of trickery give a feeling of circus entertainment to his show. He made his audience rock with laughter at a split screen film interview between himself as two competing personae of the artist: the fumbling creative side and the scornful self-critic – while also expressing some of the most pertinent comments about the making and viewing of art.
Self-portraiture is at the heart of Kentridge’s work – a dramatised, evolving self-portrait that he uses in rather the same manner as an author like Philip Roth, where the main protagonist is not exactly him but reflects him; and where real life intertwines with fiction. In his early videos, based on charcoal drawings, Kentridge depicts himself in a pinstriped suit, or vulnerably naked, taking the part of two characters whose names, he says, came to him in a dream. Felix is a romantic lover and Soho is a heartless tycoon, but both are lonely figures in an unreliable world. The charcoal itself is vulnerable, smudgy and ephemeral, adding its own sense of romance and nostalgia.
At the preview, Kentridge repeated the remarkable speech he gave when he received the Kyoto Prize for Arts and Philosophy in November 2010, in which he expressed his strong feelings for Johannesburg, the city where he was born, and where he still lives and works. He has made his home and main studio in the graceful colonial family house where he grew up, on the crest of a hill overlooking the leafy suburbs. There is a buzz of creativity in Johannesburg, embattled though it has always been by politics or crime – but free, gutsy and self-ironical in terms of its people and its culture. Kentridge plugs into this creativity, working with local artists and musicians, and capturing and expressing the fun as well as the toughness of it in his work.
What does link Pearlstein and Kentridge – apart from being hard working, ambitious and impeccably professional – is that both communicate their enjoyment of making art.