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 Bernard Perlin  (1918 - 2014)

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Lived/Active: New York/Connecticut      Known for: modernist figure-genre and still life painting, poster art

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Bernard Perlin
from Auction House Records.
Vacant Lots
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Bernard Perlin showed that he was an artist from an early age, but his creative maturation was a process that played out over the many decades of his career.  Critics were sometimes confused, but in retrospect one can easily see the threads that tie together Perlin’s works from the 1940’s to the 1970’s: painstaking technique and glowing color.

Perlin’s appearance as a professional artist coincided with the United States’ entry into the Second World War.  Perlin was engaged by the Office of War Information to create posters to motivate the populace in favor of the war effort. His vigorous images propagandized for patriotism with dynamic arrangements of massive forms and figures. By 1944 Perlin was sent overseas to witness the action firsthand.  Perlin’s World War II reportage, for Life and Fortune magazines, transcended the simple function of conveying news of the war.  His artistic lens took the terrible facts before him and coalesced them into visions of color, form, powerful action and somber meditation.  Following the global conflict from Italy and Greece to Japan and China, Perlin translated anguished and destructive acts of war into detailed and forceful works of art.

Following the conclusion of the war Perlin brought his powers of observation and depiction back to the United States. His social consciousness raised by his war experience and influenced by his teacher Ben Shahn, he took to portraying precise slices of urban life. Scenes of vacant lots and decaying tenements were not so different from the bombed out cityscapes of the war.  This group of works comprised Perlin’s first exhibition, at the Knoedler gallery in 1948.  Although the subjects and treatment conveyed elements of social realism the reviewer in Art News was correct in declaring that the exhibition “plants him squarely and prominently in the romantic realist camp.” Works in this debut showing include the two paintings (in tempera) for which he may be best known, Orthodox Boys, now in the Tate gallery, London, and Vacant Lots, acquired by Mr. and Mrs. John Hay Whitney.  In them a remarkable degree of precise detail is combined with an overall mood of hazy anxiety.  Sam Hunter writing in the New York Times stated that “every metallic leaf is in place and exquisitely defined; the urban megalith is imposing in its ghostly mournful sobriety and the gamins of the street have a befitting wistful melancholy.”

In 1948 Perlin returned to Europe where the Chaloner prize and the Guggenheim scholarship allowed him to stay until 1954.  Perlin painted what he saw around him there: magnificent architecture and sumptuous landscape. Two latent influences came into play in these works, the 19th century Pre-Raphaelite painters and the art of Pavel Tchelitchew, Perlin’s slightly older contemporary.

While in Italy it was fitting that Perlin should be inspired by the Pre-Raphaelites who looked back to Italian art before Raphael’s introduction of perspective during the Renaissance.  Perlin’s neo-Pre-Raphaelitism was expressed as a greatly flattened picture plane filled with microscopically rendered verdure.  The Jacket of 1951, now in the Whitney Museum, shows a man’s sport coat, tossed onto a rich forest carpet.  From a distance the dark void of the jacket could be misinterpreted as a freshly dug grave.  The human form reappears stunningly in The Garden (Princeton University Art Museum), a modern Adam and Eve, embodying the sun and moon respectively, silhouetted against the earth which exudes a lavish lawn of plant life.

In complement to the fertility of nature Perlin bestowed the radiance of life to inanimate objects in another group of works crafted while he was in Italy.  These paintings depict monuments of Italian architecture including Rome’s Spanish Steps, the Piazza Navona and the Colosseum.  The venerable buildings are shown lavishly bathed in fantastic colors and emanating supernatural rays.  Perlin’s fantastic light show seems to have been influenced by similar technical and psychological effects in Tchelitchew’s works beginning in the 1930’s.  Perlin showed these works, and the neo-Pre-Raphaelite paintings in 1955 at Catherine Viviano Gallery, to mostly positive response from the art press.  Fairfield Porter, writing in Art News, noted that “Santa Maria della Salute is conjured out of an opalescent haze to reappear in a vision like the most intense dream.” On the other hand Stuart Preston, writing in The New York Times, stated that “the Salute in Venice and the Spanish Steps tend to evaporate into mere scene painting and their candid color is impertinent to imperious Baroque.”  

Nevertheless Preston praised the landscapes and declared the view of Capri a “masterpiece.”

Returning to the U.S. Perlin found the good life of postwar America in full swing.  Cocktail culture captured his artistic imagination and he embarked on a series of paintings set in bars and jazz clubs. In his paintings the bars and clubs were peopled with doll-like denizens staring with empty eyes, shadows and bodies layered against the picture plane, prismatic light obscuring the scene. Like his earlier urban views the moods conveyed are alternately celebration and foreboding. In response to the exhibition of these works at Viviano in 1958, Parker Tyler, in Art News, mused amused that “Perlin’s paint-magic comes from translating the artificially undersea quality of places of more or less casual rendezvous into anthropomorphic stalagmites that resemble semi-transparent fish surprised in their domestic caves by the invasion of light.”

In the late 1950’s Perlin returned to a “still-life jag” that he experienced in 1950-51: “small pictures related to nothing else before or since in my painting, dedicated to looking at things very hard.” The subjects of his examination were as simple as possible: grapes, apples, peaches, onions, potatoes, broccoli.  Rather than depicting them artfully arranged on a table Perlin showed them levitating: what could be more simple, and spiritual?  These still-life paintings comprised Perlin’s 1963 exhibition at Viviano. Stuart Preston, writing in The New York Times, reviewed the show noting that “subject matter, touched in with all the precise subtlety that Perlin has at his command, floats weightless in infinite luminous depths, imprisoned in an incandescent glow as if trapped in amber.”

The 1963 exhibition was comprised of fifteen works of which thirteen were fruit and vegetable subjects, one was a depiction of pebbles on a beach and one was a human figure, Golden Ophelia, a female nude with flowers disposed across the canvas, in a separate plane from the body floating underneath. Shakespeare’s tragic Ophelia was a favorite subject of 19th-century artists, most notably the British pre-Raphaelite painter John Everett Millais, whose painting of her floating to her death is one of the most famous in the Tate Gallery. 

Perlin’s Ophelia pointed to the direction of his next major body of work.  Throughout his career Perlin has produced drawings of the human face and form that show an exquisite sensitivity to the subjects most sensual contours.  In his paintings of the 1960s Perlin made the link between his remarkable figural works on paper and his great and glowing color paintings, resulting in a group of nudes that have both a monolithic solidity and a misty, erotic aura.  The personalities portrayed are revealed in their titles: Aphrodite, Diana, Orpheus and Euridice, Semele, Daphne, Adam and Eve.  They are not shown with any of their traditional attributes but the numinous quality of their depiction suggests their divine origins.

In his last exhibition at Catherine Viviano gallery, in 1970, Perlin turned again to his still-life examinations, this time focusing on flowers. The subjects included poppies, marigolds, roses, violets, lilacs, anemones, wisteria, daffodils, sunflowers, iris and wisteria. As in the artist’s fruit and vegetable paintings the flowers levitate amongst clouds and shadows, their colors radiating past their petals and across the canvas.  Perlin’s masterful concentration on a subject that was a classical one in art history but out of the stream of contemporary art practice showed that he had arrived at a personal sense of satisfaction with his own ideals of art. The reviewer in New York Magazine concurred:

“This is a very quiet, very personal show by an artist long conversant with the subtleties of understatement and inference. In this series of large florals, Perlin deals not so much with flowers as with the effect of their natural radiance.  Showers of light spill across these canvases like so many shimmering reflections on sunlit waters. The flowers are almost incidental.  They exist like visions in a dream.”

Perlin had left New York and moved to Ridgefield, Connecticut in 1959.  After the 1970 show, he chose to create entirely at his own pace, at his house in the country where he is surrounded by nature and grows flowers in a small conservatory.

Looking back on Perlin’s oeuvre we find a marvelous exploration of man and nature and the invisible forces emanating from them that he has made visible by art. Although he was never bestowed the status that certain of his stylistic and chronological contemporaries achieved (the popular praise that Andrew Wyeth received or the art world admiration late in his career that Paul Cadmus did) Perlin’s work speaks for itself as an extraordinary achievement and as a sublime experience for the viewer.

Excerpted from an article in the November 2012 issue of Fine Art Connoisseur?; Written by Alan Rosenberg

This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Following is The New York Times obituary of the artist.

Bernard Perlin, Painter of Varied Styles, Dies
Bernard Perlin, an American painter who displayed a mastery of light and line across seven decades and a wide range of work, including wartime propaganda posters, street scenes of New York and effervescent views of Italy, died on Jan. 14 at his home in Ridgefield, Conn. He was 95.

His death was confirmed by his niece, Janice Barson-Ryone.

Mr. Perlin worked for the government and later as an artist-correspondent for Life and Fortune magazines during World War II before he began building a reputation in New York galleries in the late 1940s.

His early gallery work reflected the realist influence of Ben Shahn, who had been a colleague at the United States Office of War Information in 1942 and 1943. Perhaps Mr. Perlin’s most notable work from this period is Orthodox Boys, from 1948, which depicts two Jewish boys discussing a Jewish text in front of a wall covered with graffiti. Lincoln Kirstein, the arts impresario, bought the painting, and it is now in the collection of the Tate Gallery in London.

In what would prove a pattern, Mr. Perlin soon changed directions. He spent 1948 through 1954 in Italy, and his work turned brighter. In 1955, he exhibited new paintings at the Catherine Viviano Gallery on East 57th Street. Stuart Preston, in a review in The New York Times, praised Mr. Perlin’s handling of light, saying of one landscape painting, Capri, “I venture to call this picture a masterpiece.” (“Capri” is now in the collection of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.)

Mr. Preston was less complimentary of some of Mr. Perlin’s architectural paintings in the exhibition, which, he said, “tend to evaporate into mere scene painting.”

By the late 1950s, figurative painting was giving way to Abstract Expressionism. Mr. Perlin shifted, too, but not stylistically. He bought a house in Ridgefield in 1959 and moved there full time. He told The Ridgefield Press last year that he had moved “to escape the artificial, ego-pressured world of artists in New York, competing with each other to make the most money,” adding, “I really hated those parties where the person who’s talking to you is looking over his shoulder to find someone who’s more important.”

In Peter Steinhart’s book “The Undressed Art: Why We Draw” (2004), Mr. Perlin was quoted as saying of Abstract Expressionism: “Their painting is millionaire art. Who else can afford it? Or live with it?”

Bernard Perlin was born on Nov. 21, 1918, in Richmond, Va., the son of Jewish immigrants from Russia. His father and grandfather were tailors. Prompted by one of his high school art teachers, his parents enrolled him at the New York School of Design in 1934. He studied there for two years, then for a year at the National Academy of Design Art School and a year at the Art Students League.

He received a fellowship to paint in Poland in 1938, then painted murals for the Treasury Department and the United States Maritime Commission. Some of his works for the Office of War Information have become well known. One was a poster of a muscular G.I. about to hurl a grenade. “Let ’em have it,” the poster says. “Buy extra bonds.”

While painting for Life and Fortune during the war, Mr. Perlin was embedded with American forces in Europe, Asia and the South Pacific.

In addition to Ms. Barson-Ryone, his survivors include his husband, Edward Newell.

Mr. Perlin largely stopped painting in the 1970s, though he had recently begun to paint again, and he long outlived many of the people who traveled in the same circles in New York in the 1940s and ’50s.

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