This Woman Sat for Warhol, and 36 Years Later She Sat for Philip Pearlstein
Andy Warhol, Portrait of Helene Verin, 1980. Courtesy of Helene Verin.
In 1980, on a midsummer day in Manhattan, a 25-year-old woman, Helene Verin, ventured into Andy Warhol’s legendary Factory to have her portrait made. Thirty-six years later, she had her likeness captured again, this time by Warhol’s dear friend, the influential painter Philip Pearlstein.
Today, both canvases hold pride of place in Verin’s New York apartment; she considers them complements of one another. An award-winning designer, author, and professor, Verin reckons she’s the only person to have been portrayed by both artists.
“The person who likes Philip wouldn’t necessarily like Warhol, you know?” Verin puts it matter-of-factly. “It’s a different taste. And yet, they came up together, and lived together.” The Warhol is done in his signature style: a silkscreen of a flawless (yet timid) young woman, her pink, stoic face framed by jet-black hair and punctuated with shiny red lips. The contrasting portrait by Pearlstein exemplifies his own realist style, featuring a waist-up view of Verin (with her shock of purple hair), viewed from above. The composition directs the viewer’s focus to its subject’s round brown eyes.
Despite becoming close friends and collaborators as they attended Carnegie Mellon and then fled Pittsburgh for New York together in 1949, Warhol and Pearlstein diverged somewhat drastically in their respective careers in the art world. And as Verin tells it, the two portrait experiences were quite different.
Photo by Vas Kozyreff.
Photo by Vas Kozyreff.
Her session with Warhol came through her husband at the time, artist Rodney Ripps; he was swapping one of his own paintings in return for the opportunity. “It was exciting,” Verin muses. “It’s funny to say, but I knew at the time that this was so important—coming to New York and getting your portrait done by Andy. He was already very famous.”
Upon arriving at the Factory, she was whisked off to Rupert Smith, who did her makeup. “He puts a big, big layer—like an inch thick—of pancake makeup on you, which erases all of your wrinkles and everything,” she says.
Warhol was earnest and insisted she did not smile—not a easy feat for Verin (“I’m always joking around”). She sat for no more than a half hour, as Warhol shot off a series of Polaroids. “He was a really nice guy, very shy, very unassuming,” she says.
With each of his silkscreen portraits, Warhol would make two versions, keeping one for his personal archive. Verin was traveling in Europe when her husband went to retrieve the finished work. “He picked this one, which is very classic, you know like the way he did Liz Taylor and Liza Minnelli; the other was very brushy and turquoise.”
While Warhol was flourishing downtown, Pearlstein was furthering his own career uptown. He settled on the Upper West Side with his wife, fellow artist Dorothy Cantor, a painter and classmate of Pearlstein and Warhol at Carnegie Mellon (a 2015 exhibition at the Andy Warhol Museum focused on their generative friendship). Pearlstein was mastering his much-lauded figurative paintings—massive realist portraits that deftly convey both an emotional and physical weight.
It wasn’t until the late the late ’90s that Verin befriended Pearlstein and Cantor (Warhol died in ’86). She first met the couple at a Thanksgiving dinner hosted by Beth Levine, Verin’s mentor and Cantor’s first cousin. They became fast friends.
It was during a 2011 trip to the couple’s lake house in New Jersey, that Pearlstein first did Verin’s portrait—a watercolor painted over the course of a day. But last summer, after New York gallery Betty Cuningham put on a show that explored the friendship of Cantor, Pearlstein, and Warhol (which included Verin’s Warhol silkscreen), Pearlstein felt compelled to paint Verin again. “Philip said ‘You know, you don’t look like the portrait I did of you before—let’s do a real one, an oil painting,’” she says.
Now 93, Pearlstein maintains an active practice, painting live models in his Hell’s Kitchen studio on a daily basis. For 15 weeks last year, Verin was one of them, though she admits that their friendship certainly affected the typical artist-model dynamic.
Photo by Vas Kozyreff.
At the first sitting, Pearlstein asked Verin how she preferred to be portrayed: face or full body? nude or clothed? She left it up to the artist. He procured a wicker chair and a pillow, had her sit, and set up his easel less than a foot away. Verin had chosen to wear a white pleated shirt for the sitting. (Regrettably, her purple hair dye would bleed onto the shirt, and she would end up having to dry clean it every week.)
Each evening session lasted some three hours, and would begin with Verin cooking dinner for Pearlstein and Cantor. (“I think the portrait went on for so long because he loves my food so much,” she laughs.) Then Pearlstein would select a CD from his vast collection, and set the theme of the evening. From there, he would paint. She notes that he was strict, sensitive to her every movement; given his meticulous attention to detail, it’s easy to see why.
While working, Pearlstein would recount stories from his life and formative years in the New York art scene. “Philip has such an amazing memory, and he knew everybody,” Verin says. He told her tales of his 10th Street studio; his time as a Ph.D. student at NYU, where he wrote his dissertation on Picabia; his love of music; and of course, his memories of Warhol. Verin took a tape recorder with her to each sitting, to keep a record of Pearlstein’s recollections. “There’s a story about Andy’s mother saying ‘Can you find Andy a nice Jewish woman?’” she laughs. (She would later write a text, which formed the exhibition catalog for Pearlstein’s current show at Betty Cuningham. That show features the portrait of Verin.)
“It was the opposite experience of sitting for Warhol,” she says, noting that, unlike his late friend, Pearlstein never uses a camera. “That’s the whole point of his art, it’s all what he sees in front of him.”
She quickly adds with a laugh, “Also, Philip makes me look a million years old and Andy made me look forever young.” (That’s not to say she doesn’t like the Pearlstein painting: “I love it.”)
Photo by Vas Kozyreff.
Over the years Verin has become accustomed to having artists portray her, from painters she’s met during travels in Italy, to young artists she meets in New York, like Austin Lee. (She has a direct connection to the next generation: Verin’s son is artist Ryder Ripps.)
The Pearlstein and Warhol works have a unique place in her home in Manhattan, though; they form a special, somewhat cosmic diptych (she says they stare at one another). “They’re both so personal to me,” she says, emphasizing the friendship between the two men, who essentially cut their teeth as artists side by side. “They were so different, and yet so connected, and that’s what makes it cool,” she adds. Verin—who affirms she’s not the sort of wealthy collector who can afford to commission portraits from such prominent talents—is honored to have sat for both artists.
Many visitors to her home are drawn to the Warhol, and have trouble understanding the Pearlstein, Verin says. “They’ll say, ‘Oh, that’s so ugly!’” of the realist painting. “But that’s the point of art. It’s not about whether it’s pretty or ugly.”