Upon further reflection

Richard Estes’ photorealism at the PMA
By NICK SCHROEDER  |  June 6, 2014

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'BUS WITH REFLECTION OF THE FLATIRON BUILDING' Oil on canvas; 38" by 48"; 1966-67

The Portland Museum’s summer exhibit is a comprehensive look at the painter Richard Estes, a primary figure in the crisp, cool movement of American painting known as photorealism, which emerged in the late ’60s and early ’70s from Pop Art, abstract expressionism, and minimalism. On a technical level, the show is magnificent, charting the artist’s progression from a reservedly impressionist young figurative painter to one who discovered, through scrupulous replications of urban (and later, pastoral) life, an original and boundless form.

By several accounts, young Estes was a shy character, an architecture student who dropped out of his studies, and a keen photographer who was only interested in the craft as a means to collect “data” for future paintings. The show’s early paintings support this, with the Mondrian-influenced “Automat” and several smaller works mounted alongside their original photographs.

Once Estes discovered glass, there was really no stopping him. As a young man in New York City, the Illinois native shot run-of-the-mill urban infrastructure — restaurants and storefronts; dormant automobiles; vacant city squares; towering high-rise apartments — with his camera, and transubstantiated the images onto diffuse, exquisitely detailed large oil canvases. Glass surfaces were the key, as the reflections Estes caught allowed him to capture multiple tableaux within the same frame, expanding the subjective range of his paintings and opening them to metaphor, wit, and sentiment far subtler than what could have been achieved in traditional landscapes.

The first of this mature period, the slick “Bus with Reflection of the Flatiron Building” (1968), depicts multiple reflections of a young man looking out of the window of a commercial bus on the surfaces of an automobile, its rear window also projecting the foreboding skyscraper. In “The Candy Store” (1969), a display of nuts and sweets is seen through a plate glass window, a panorama of limitless options. Historians have called this piece the closest Estes got to Pop Art, but whatever cultural commentary the artist was making was far more nuanced: In the window just beyond a sign offering “mixed party nuts,” we faintly see the reflection of a young, pregnant African-American woman wearing a pin reading NIXON’S THE ONE.

For a painter working in one of the most intensely commercialized climates, and who in the ’60s supported himself with jobs in the ad world, Estes’s paintings hardly played along. He rebuked art directors who tried to get him to make celebrity portraits, and once in the early ‘70s exposed his true feelings about the locations he chose: “I don’t enjoy the things I paint, so why should you enjoy it? I enjoy painting because of all the things I can do with it. I’m not trying to make propaganda for New York or anything. I think I would tear down most of the places I paint.” Such a statement may be hard to buy given the vibrant energy and painstaking detail Estes poured into his work (and observing the natural environments he went on to paint in later years in Paris, Antarctica, and coastal Maine, also included at the PMA, he undoubtedly did enjoy some). But it’s important to note that while the high commerce of New York was undeniably featured in his work, Estes gave it no more attention than its dingy curbs, intricate scaffolds, or gloomy queues of parked sedans.

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