At first glance the paintings arrest the viewer with their striking illusion of being "real." In their clarity of detail, they draw the observer into a tangible world, so seemingly unadorned as to become all that much more fascinating. But on closer observation, there is a skillful, manipulative hand at work, which, combined with the unsparing eye of the artist, yields some of the most extraordinary canvasses in contemporary art.
The fifty works by the American artist Richard Estes on exhibition at the Portland (Maine) Museum of Art constitute the most comprehensive retrospective of the work of this pioneer of photorealism to have ever been organized. The exhibit, jointly curated by the Portland Museum (Jessica May) and the Smithsonian American Art Museum (Virginia Mecklenberg), with the help of independent curator Patterson Sims is on view in Maine until September 7, 2014, and then continues on to the Smithsonian from October 10-February 8, 2015.
Estes has been hailed as one of the foremost practitioners of modern realism. The paintings on display span the artist's output from the 1960s to the present and traverse his journey from urban cityscapes – New York, Chicago – to European vistas to exotic studies in Japan and Antarctica, and finally to depictions of his second home on Mt. Desert in Maine and to some of his rare figurative paintings and portraits. Throughout this more than fifty years of work, Estes has remained remarkably faithful to the vision with which he began his career; the changes in subject matter and craft are subtle and slight, and there is a kind of enduring existential vision. Though Estes has painted during the heyday of Pop Art and various styles of abstraction, he has remained true to his own mode of expression and his desire to render the world of his experience through the lens of rational observation.
One of the fascinating subsections of this exhibition displays some of Estes' photographs together with the paintings they have inspired. For the artist, who once quipped that his life should be entitled I Am a Camera, photography was a tool to creating his large-scale paintings. Estes would combine various photographic perspectives into a single canvas, thereby not merely reproducing reality, but enhancing it and challenging the viewer to take a single point of view to a new multidimensional niveau.
Born in 1932 in Kewanee, Illinois, Estes moved with his family to Evanston, where he found cultural stimulation in the museums and concert halls of Chicago. He studied at the Art Institute of Chicago from 1952-1956, after which he moved to New York City to work in commercial publishing, advertising, and illustration. After some initial attempts at figurative art, in the early 1960s he began his first experiments painting urban compositions created from his own photographs. In 1968 the Alan Stone Gallery accorded Estes his first highly successful solo exhibition, and in 1969 the Whitney Museum acquired "The Candy Store," thereby helping to establish Estes' credentials as a prominent American contemporary artist.
From the 1970s Estes' work began to embrace environments beyond New York, and since that time, he has traveled annually and painted the cities and, more recently, the pure landscapes he has experienced from Europe to Asia and Antarctica. One of the special places in these travels has been Maine, where Estes purchased a home on Mt. Desert in 1975, and where he continues to spend a significant portion of his time each year.
While Estes' work has a distinctive and immediately recognizable look, still his painting needs must be viewed in the context of European and American masters from Vermeer and the Dutch realists to the American Luminists and Hudson River painters, from Velasquez to Manet, Degas, and the Post Impressionists like Cezanne, as well as the Cubists and Abstract Expressionists. In many cases the cool fa├žade of his canvasses and the analytical, almost dissecting eye, belies a subtle, even sly homage to great forebears.
In the exhibit's first gallery, one is immediately struck by this aesthetic frame of reference in the 1966 -68 painting entitled Automat. The 48" x 60" canvas depicts four diners seated at a square table from an aerial perspective that immediately calls to mind Cezanne's Card Players, albeit from a uniquely different – and disconcerting angle. The Mondrian-like geometry of the squares of flooring offset the diamond angle of the table and the circular shapes of plates and cups. The black-clad forms have a simple solidity that lends a gravitas to the composition.
The simplicity of this early work, however, rapidly morphs into the greater intricacy of some of the other paintings from the late 60s and early 70s. Escalator (1970) plunges the viewer into the painting, as the artist takes his principal perspective from the top of the moving stairs and juxtaposes the descending and diminishing sensation of the moving staircase with the viewer's glance which follows to the top of the canvas. In this painting, as Estes would begin to do with regularity, reflection plays a major role in the composition; the steel surfaces shine with dancing geometric planes of neutral colors. It is a device Estes would use over and over again in paintings such as Car Reflections and throughout the decades – a means of expanding the carefully observed reality of the canvas, itself, and of suggesting that the slice of reality captured within the boundaries of the painting is actually far more limitless than one might expect.
One recognizes the cherished device right away on the 1972 Paris Street Scene in which the bifurcated painting allows for the "real" street on the left and the reflected image in the magasin windows on the right. What strikes the viewer is how similar this urban scene is to so many of the others Estes has painted. Gone is the inclination to romanticize the City of Light. This is a somewhat anonymous image of a modern city made of bricks and steel and glass.
The same cool detachment is present in Estes' Double Self Portrait (1976) which depicts a New York diner seen frontally through the glass window. Mirrored in the glass is the artist, himself, with his camera equipment, and then far in the distance where the perspective lines converge is a second reflection of his chest, arm, and head. The image calls to mind Velasquez's painting of Las Meninos, where the artist is seen painting in the distance and the parents of the girls are reflected in a mirror. It is one of the few paintings from Estes' early years that employ figures at all.
This interest in reflections becomes a prominent feature in all of Estes' work, particularly in his cityscapes, but also in his vistas of water and sky. Ansonia (1977) illustrates the manner in which the artist had mastered the multiple perspectives and the use he made of what Patterson Sims calls "bifurcated, sliced, and skewed city views." Again, the street is devoid of people, leaving one to wonder what time of day is depicted.
For, despite Estes' careful attention to surface, texture, and reflection, his overall treatment of light has nothing of the atmospheric of the 19th century masters of landscape. His View Toward La Salute (1986) is a case in point. Though the water of the Venetian lagoon and the sky occupy two thirds of the canvas, there is little in their cool tones to conjure up then flickering pastels of the Italian city. Instead, Estes relegates to the far distance the domes and towers of the Doges' city and diverts the eye to the right occupied by the ferry boat in whose windows we then see reflected La Salute. Light, like the lens of the camera, becomes a medium for scrutinized viewing.
In more recent years, as Estes has turned his attention more and more to pure landscape, and he has begun to reintroduce figures into his work. Sunday Afternoon in the Park is one such arresting composition from 1989. The foreground is dominated by the large rock formations which jut out toward the lake and direct the eye to the city spires on the opposite shore. Seated and lying on the rocks are city dwellers enjoying their afternoon leisure. Again, these figures are anonymous, their geometric solidity virtually one with the granite. We see backs or with the recumbent figure, a head turned away, as if even these participants in the picture wish to direct the focus to the real subject, the city on the far shore.
This treatment of nameless humans, so common in Estes' work, is contradicted by a few instances of real portraiture. One of the most remarkable of these is his 2009 portrait of Clare Stone, the widow of his first gallery owner and a fellow Mt. Desert resident. Stone is shown perched on a cluster of rocks on the causeway of Acadia's Otter Creek, her head turned back toward the viewer, as if she had been interrupted in her gazing out across the water and had been asked with pose for a snapshot. The silhouette of Cadillac Mountain occupies the distance, and the calm and dark blue waters of Otter Creek the middle ground. And while her features are in shadow, she is still rendered more personal than so many of Estes' other human depictions.
The last decade of Estes' painting has continued to explore the subjects and styles that have always interested him. There are some stunning canvases from Antarctica, a few more portraits (among them one of I.M. Pei), and some intricate and dazzling technical explorations of familiar city scenes, such as Times Square (2004) or the View of Manhattan from the Staten Island Ferry (2008). Perhaps two recent images sum up the artist's thematic and aesthetic choices.
The L Train (2009) is a view from one car of New York's subway to the next through the glass windows, which also reflect the pedestrians and shops track side. The series of multiple, receding windows and the melee of intersecting angles created by the stainless steel bars and barriers add to the sense of frenetic and jolting motion associated with a subway ride. And despite the small figure on the left, the overwhelming impression is one of geometric abstraction – a riot of shapes and textures worthy of the Cubists and Abstract Expressionists.
In contrast a canvas from the same year, Beaver Dam Pond (2009), is a work of pure landscape, but in Estes' own inimitable vision. The long horizontal canvas is divided into three planes: the pond in the foreground, the mountains and shoreline trees in the middle, and the blue sky at the top. There is a serenity in the extended frontalism of the vista, but there is also, upon closer examination, an intense scrutiny of the autumn trees and foliage, as well as an emphasis of the solid geometry of the hills and their dark shadowy reflection in the water.
This retrospective demonstrates how consistent an artist Estes has been over the nearly half century of his career. His subject matter has varied slightly; his craft has, no doubt, matured, but his vision has remained steadfast. What interests Estes is scrupulous observation, painstaking structure, and meticulous focus on detail. The camera has served as a tool to record those details, but the artist seeks not to merely reproduce what he has seen, but to reshape it into a new, more complex, more prismatic reality.
For Estes, painting is not so much a passionate or emotional experience as an analytical, rational one. He has been quoted as saying, [Painting] "is not done with one's emotions; it's done with the head." In that sense, he very much reflects the existential detachment of the modern world, but for all his observation, he is not without the ability to communicate to the viewer a sense of amazement and wonder at the infinite diversity and visual and tactile pleasures of the universe in which we live.