Pearlstein attended Saturday art classes at the Carnegie Institute during high school and later enrolled there full time. His studies were interrupted in 1943 when he was drafted into the army. Pearlstein was first assigned to the Training Aids Unit at Camp Blanding, Florida, where he assisted in the production of signs, charts, and diagrams for the assembly of weapons and was introduced to printmaking, specifically the screenprinting process. He was later stationed in Italy. After the war Pearlstein re-enrolled at Carnegie (B.F.A. 1949), and in 1955 he earned his master's degree in art history at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York (1955), completing a thesis on Francis Picabia. He has since written a number of articles on art.
During the summer of 1947 Pearlstein shared a barn-studio in Pennsylvania with Andy Warhol, Arthur Elias and Dorothy Cantor (whom he married in 1950). Soon after graduation from Carnegie, he moved to New York City and briefly shared a residence with Warhol.
Pearlstein was a graphic designer early in his career, including a period with Life Magazine (1957-1958), which he left when he was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship for a year's study in Italy. On his return, he became an instructor at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, where he did his first experiments with lithography. In 1963 he joined the faculty at Brooklyn College, serving as distinguished professor at the time of his retirement in 1988. Known for his rapport with students, he has been invited to participate in numerous visiting artist programs, among them the American Academy of Art in Rome, Navajo Community College in Tselei, Arizona, Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine, and Yale University's School of Art and Architecture.
In 1969 Pearlstein's first color lithograph was published by Brooke Alexander. Since then he has produced many editions, working with various printers and publishers in addition to Graphicstudio, including Landfall Press in Chicago, Printmaking Workshop in New York (with Robert Blackburn), Pyramid Arts, Ltd. in Tampa, Tamarind Institute in Albuquerque, and the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
Pearlstein is also a collector of prints and folk art as well as antiquities, as well as patterned rugs, kimonos, and furniture primarily for use in his studio.
Pearlstein was selected by Clement Greenberg for his Emerging Talent show at the Kootz Gallery, New York, in 1954, and his first one-man exhibition followed the next year at the Tanager Gallery, New York (1955). Other important one-man shows, many of which traveled and several of which featured prints, include those organized by the Georgia Museum of Art, University of Georgia (1970-1971); Staatliche Museum Preussischer Kulturebesitz, Kupferstichkabinett, Berlin-Dahlem (1972), Madison Art Center, Wisconsin (1978), Springfield Art Museum, Missouri (1978-1979), Davison Art Center, Wesleyan University (1979), John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota (1981), American Academy, Rome (1983), Milwaukee Art Center (1983-1984), Amherst College (1986), and the Brooklyn Museum (1989). (Fine/Corlett 1991, 55)