This exhibition is eye-popping. Richard Estes’s hyper-realistic art is somehow more than real. In the introductory panel, Estes himself sets the stage by teasing, “What is real?”
Co-organized by the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Portland Museum of Art, the retrospective explores Estes’s 50-year career, and it is the most comprehensive exhibition of his paintings ever. Like Andy Warhol, Estes began working as a commercial artist in New York in the 1950s; like Warhol, he was significantly influenced by the visual culture of the “Mad Men” era. These were the years when Madison Avenue and the new medium of television combined to transform America’s identity as a consumer nation. Commercial television depended on advertising, and Madison Avenue merrily invented endless ways to pitch products into living rooms.
By the early 1960s, America’s marketing phenomenon was setting off cultural earthquakes. Social critics like Daniel J. Boorstin warned about the rise of a culture based on “simulation” and “illusion” rather than on reality. In his landmark The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America (1962), Boorstin pointed an angry finger at “Madison Avenue, Washington bureaucracy, the eggheads” for turning America into a land dominated by “pseudo-culture.”
The idea of “simulation” had an impact in the art world as well. Warhol, after establishing himself as a highly successful commercial artist, began making “replications” of consumer products such as Brillo boxes and Campbell’s Soup cans. He displayed his first sculpture, Brillo Boxes, in 1964. They were not merely copies of the cardboard consumer product, but constructed silkscreened replicas made out of plywood. By blurring the lines between commercial art and high culture, Warhol took direct aim at high-art snobs and proclaimed: We live in a supermarket world!
When Richard Estes ventured away from commercial art in the mid-to-late-’60s, he, too, carried the Mad Men brand with him. According to the exhibition catalogue, pop art amused Estes, but as “witty commentary more than art.” Instead, his lifelong love of photography led him to anchor himself in photorealism. The sense of simulation and illusion that were instrumental in his earlier career as a commercial artist would reemerge as central tenets of his photorealist art.
This exhibition of 46 paintings shows the range of Estes’s work, from such early examples as Bus with Reflection of the Flatiron Building (1966-67) to later cityscapes like Columbus Circle at Night (2010). There are a number of landscapes, particularly of Maine, where he owns property, and of such European locales as London, Paris, and Venice.
But the art that makes Estes special are the cityscapes. He paints them with intricate, jaw-dropping detail. Yet what elevates his work from craft to art is the magic by which he transforms “captured moments” into dazzling reflections of those moments. To create his New York street scenes, he wandered through the city on Sundays, when the streets were empty. He took myriad photographs, then sifted through his stash to find appealing subjects. Ultimately, the highly layered reflections he created from these shots reveal themselves on canvas as more real than the actual sites he had photographed.
Reflections dominate his best work. They convey his idea of reality dipped in wonder and evoke his sense of playful delight. The catalogue essay (“Richard Estes’ Realism”), by curator Patterson Sims, quotes Estes in 1968 explaining that, with reflections, “you’re looking at what isn’t there—the tactile and the visual reality do not coincide—they overlap. Since all objects reflect—glass and chrome only more so—perhaps you show the ways things look the less you show how they are or how we think they are.”
Storefront façades are a favorite Estes subject, notably Horn and Hardart Automat (1967), Central Savings (1975), and Times Square (2004). As Sims points out in his essay,
The business storefront is Estes’ original and defining urban motif. It exemplifies the city’s essential fuel of commerce and displays the enormous range of what one can see. . . . His storefronts turn viewers into ocular consumers.
Bridges are also a theme, but they are always used in a context that connects them to cities, as in Accademica, Venice (1980), Pont Neuf, Paris (1985), and Tower Bridge, London (1989). The most powerful of these paintings, unsurprisingly, is Brooklyn Bridge (1991), in which the enormous structure becomes a muscular conduit feeding directly into New York’s maw.