Philip Pearlstein, a key figure in the development of what has been variously called New Realism, Sharp-Focus Realism, and Post-Abstract Realism, grew up in Pittsburgh. During his high-school years he studied art at Taylor Allderdice High School and attended Saturday morning classes at Carnegie Institute. He first received significant recognition as an artist when Scholastic Magazine's Annual High School Art Exhibition, then held at Carnegie lnstitute, awarded him first and third prizes in painting for Merry-Go-Round and Wylie Avenue Barbershop. These pictures received national exposure in the pages of Life magazine. Pearlstein repeated his triumph the following year, winning first prizes in painting and colored ink drawing. These early works reflect the then-popular realism of such artists as Reginald Marsh (who served on the Scholastic exhibition jury) and Thomas Hart Benton.
Pearlstein studied art at Carnegie Institute of Technology, then moved to New York in 1949 with his former classmate Andy Warhol. During the 1950s he experimented with the Abstract Expressionist style, but his paintings at this time, for all their bold brushwork, "were masquerading as Abstract Expressionism," and his sense of form remained essentially representational. ln the early sixties he took up the subject with which he is most closely identified, the nude, and began to evolve a highly finished, coldly objective, naturalistic style utterly opposed to the subjective, painterly, emphatically two-dimensional qualities of Abstract Expressionism. Pearlstein, however, has frequently pointed out that neither he nor contemporary realists like Chuck Close, George Segal, and Alfred Leslie have turned their backs on modernism. Their aesthetic "has to do with taking realism as an art idea and using it for its own sake, rather than as a vehicle for social comment or any other kind of literary statement...we all use realism as a vehicle, but we could have been abstractionists just as well, or conceptualists."