Richard Estes: Painting New York City
Museum of Arts & Design
Through September 20, 2015
The first exhibition of art at this institution originally and primarily devoted to craft consists of photorealist paintings spanning 50 years by one of the most accomplished masters of the style. And in the dispassionate way typical of this artist and the genre, they show some subtle changes that have taken place in the cityscape.
Richard Estes is one of the most successful—and to me the most interesting—of the artists who worked in a style that challenged the dominance of abstract painting and sculpture in the late 1960s and ’70s, without ever quite supplanting it. Though photorealism uses the camera, rather than direct observation or drawing, it reasserts painting’s ability to analyze, describe, and interpret its subject matter in a way that the Pop Art of the time never tried to do. And yet most photorealism, especially Estes’, is pretty deadpan. He is more interested in how we see and how the camera distorts vision than in what is goes on in the places he paints.
Estes was born in Kewanee, Illinois, in 1962, studied art at the Art institute of Chicago, and came to New York in 1958. By 1967, he had abandoned the manner of the earliest painting in the show, Seated Figures, Central Park c. 1965, which has big loose brush strokes and human figures in a landscape, for a more precise photographic style focused on buildings, streets, and vehicles.
To him, the streets of New York are one big studio. So are the subways, buses, and ferries he rides, and the bridges he crosses to discover different perspectives. But what he thinks of these places is not revealed.
There are no signs of the financial crisis of the 1970s or of the rise of homelessness. There are no graffiti-strewn subway cars. Shop fronts suggest that the owners and their patrons are doing okay.
But Estes’ pictures provide an enduring sense of life in New York—what it is like to wander the streets, be a part of a lively street scene, and yet a dispassionate observer. Estes is a modern flâneur with an acute ability to observe surfaces but little interest in what goes on beneath them.
Still, the show has some stories to tell. A painting of Union Square from c. 1975 shows cars parked on pavement where the farmer’s market now thrives. One of the Guggenheim Museum from 1979 (commissioned by the Museum) shows a rotting rotunda before the Gwathmey Siegel addition was built. A chromogenic print of Times Square in 2003 depicts the area before the pedestrian plazas were built. And a 2009 view of the Time Warner Center on Columbus Circle depicts it from a window of the museum close to the spot where the painting hangs in the show.
The exhibition, organized by Patterson Sims, who was also the curator of recent Estes shows at the Smithsonian and Portland Art Museum in Maine, is a welcome addition to MAD’s programming. It contains displays that show the craftsmanship involved in Estes’ prints. And, it provides historical background to the new painting-sized photographs and photo-enhanced paintings shown in galleries today.