RICHARD ESTES Painting New York Cityby David Carrier
Museum of Arts and Design, New York
March 10 – September 20, 2015
“Fascinated with buildings—with their spaces, the light that plays around them, their human uses…” the paintings of this artist, which are “works of great poetic beauty, carry an apparent objectivity.” I quote from Gary Schwartz’s account of the Dutch 17th-century painter Pieter Saenredam, which applies also word for word to Richard Estes’s pictures. Saenredam, Giovanni Canaletto, Bernardo Bellotto, and Camille Pissarro: these—the great cityscape masters—are Estes’s true peers. Saenredam’s paintings of Dutch churches, Canaletto’s scenes of Venice and London, Bellotto’s images of Dresden, and Pissarro’s depictions of central Paris: they all deserve comparison with Estes’s documentations of contemporary New York.
The earliest work in this exhibition, “Seated Figures, Central Park” (circa 1965), demonstrates the style Estes was using before he moved into his photorealist technique. Then, in the rest of the paintings, using color photographs and slides as starting points, he presents the storefronts, the transportation system, and the public spaces of New York City in his trademark style. His paintings present vanished institutions, like the Horn and Hardart restaurant in “Horn and Hardart Automat” (1967); the waterfront in “Staten Island Ferry Arriving in Manhattan” (2012); and a dazzling array of reflections in “Bridal Accessories” (1975). And he shows the site of this retrospective, the Museum of Arts and Design, in two pictures, “Columbus Circle, Maine Monument” (1989) and “Columbus Circle Looking North” (2009). The exhibition also includes a number of his silkscreens and information about the technique used to make these images.
Estes has been well known for decades—and his art is in the historical survey texts. But as yet, photorealism is not remotely as famous as minimalism or Pop Art. The problem, I suspect, is that unlike artists involved with these other movements, Estes and the other photorealists did not inspire an esoteric theorizing. Like a photograph, and photographs are always the source of Estes’s art, these photorealist paintings show “what you see.” And yet, just as Saenredam, Canaletto, Bellotto, and Pissarro do not simply show their subject cities in a mechanical way, but provide selective visual records which fascinate the social historian, so the same is true of Estes. The cars in “The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, summer 1979” (1979) today come from another era; in “Brooklyn Bridge” (1993) we see the twin towers of the World Trade Center in the distance; and “Apollo” (1968) depicts a now destroyed theater near Times Square. Estes is attracted by reflections, as in the dazzling double reflections of the church in “Holland Hotel” (1980) or the reflections in the car hood in “Kentucky Fried Chicken” (2007). Reflections also give him an opportunity to put himself in the picture, as he does in “Double Self-Portrait” (1976) and “Self-Portrait” (2013).
The paintings are impressive, but the third floor of the Museum of Arts and Design is a notoriously difficult space for a painting exhibition. The far wall of the awkwardly shaped main gallery room is curved; to preserve the art on paper, the windows, with the magnificent views on Columbus Circle, had to be covered. And the catalogue, a desultory affair, fails to offer a lucid historical perspective. Richard Estes is a great artist who has not been properly supported by this museum exhibition.
Notes: Gary Schwartz & Marten Jan Bok, Pieter Saenredam: The Painter and His Time (New York, 1989).
DAVID CARRIER is co-author with Joachim Pissarro of Wild Art (Phaidon, 2013). His next books, with Joachim Pissarro, are Aesthetics of the Margins / The Margins of Aesthetics and Aesthetic Theory, Abstract Art and Lawrence Carroll.