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I Am Almost a Camera

By (January 1, 2015) No Comment

Richard Estes’ Realism
Curated by Patterson Sims and Jessica May
At the Smithsonian American Art Museum 
through February 15th, 2015

Robert Estes came of age at a time when representational painting was not just unpopular; it was dead on its feet. Closet abstractionists like Edward Hopper were considered tolerable, TheBTrain2005Estesbut the Salon could give us nothing but plaster casts, the National Academy had no more clout than a flying saucer, and the venerable Art Students’ League could offer little more than a bleak recidivism. When Jackson Pollock—who had studied at the League—had had enough, so did the world-at-large.

The First World War turned everything upside down; after the Second, we turned upside down with it. After 1918, the old power structures could no longer be taken seriously. Kings and queens had been knocked about so much, they were little more than lonely figureheads we could finish off at our leisure. After 1945, America the Brave was absolutely triumphant. Whatever Americans happened to do—for good or ill—nobody wanted to miss out on it.

It has always been the case that instead of looking at the world, painters and photographers look into it. But by the 1940s Abstract Expressionists like Jackson Pollock openly averred that they cared nothing for replication. Energy was subject enough for them – the raw energy that was released when peace settled upon the land and everybody wanted to take up where they’d left off. When the movement’s own energy began to ebb, PopArt emerged. Replication was “in” again,but protected itself from kitsch by means of a double-fingered irony. The fiercely funny young artists who made their names painting Brillo boxes wanted to reveal nothing about what was underneath and everything about the string-courses and surfaces that were, after all, the only guide to whom we had become and where we might be going.

Into this ferment, Richard Estes played both ends—the out and the in—against one another and came up with a captivating solution. He would make paintings of the stuff people see out of the corner of their eyes, the things they are unable to process because they’re moving along at such a steady clip, but could be made to see if someone else did it for them. And since representational art was no longer relevant, Estes used the camera as sort of go-between. The camera made representation “cool”—in both a literal way and a socially desirable one. If mediated by a camera, we could look at representational painting – a lesser Guilty Pleasure, but a potent one – and we could like ourselves for it once again.


Robert Bechtle, Alameda Nova, 1978

Robert Bechtle, Alameda Nova, 1978

Estes was not the first photorealist, but he is perhaps the most enduring. Audrey Flack’s politics have a certainly pungency, but, because of the anaesthetizing barrage that characterizes our culture, we are no longer shocked by them. Robert Bechtle’s California-style panoramas are now merely charming. (Raymond Chandler was not thinking of such places when he was wrestling with amorality, Depression-style.) Robert Cottingham is the more appropriate choice, but his focus – on the strictly ephemeral aspects of American consumerism – limits the intensity of his belonging.

Yet Estes’ images, for all of their in-your-face monumentality, grip us, not only with the sheer abundance of their detail, but by a comprehensive reality that is awe-inspiring. He somehow knew that his drop ceilings and nickel-plated chairs were the perfect successors to soup cans, heroic lettering, and American flags that dripped and curdled – and would eventually crack.

Richard Estes was born in 1932, which makes him a Pop Artist by dint of chronology if not personal allegiance. Estes thought – and thinks – like a painter, even if he is not a pure one. In choosing the camera, he also chose to be regarded as a Pop Artist first and a painter second. Like a kid who presses his face against a picture-window, Estes is, for aesthetic and personal reasons, out there. He’s wise enough to know that the conceptual piece of glass that separates him from “pure” painting is not going to go away. In the spirit of a true idolater, he has chosen to camp outside and wait for his ticket for as long as it will take. He may eventually get in, but it will, in all likelihood, happen – as such things do in the art world and out of it – after he is gone.

Richard Estes is a photo-realist, but his work, like that of his contemporary Chuck Close, is always straining at the periphery of the discipline. He once said that whenever he captured the arrested movement in a photograph he was painting “the symphony of nature.”

I’ve pondered this phrase many times and always been puzzled by it. What, I’ve wanted to ask, does a photograph have to do with nature, which it may represent and reproduce, but only in two dimensions, which provides a suggestion and not a fleshing-out. When you take a picture of something, that something exists as a sort of echo or palimpsest. And if you show it to somebody, he or she is likely to think that the photograph is its subject as well as a photograph of that subject. Why?

Estes Six Views of Edo Shinjuku I , 1990The psyche wants it that way. Or thinks it does. I’m not prepared to say whether it is right or wrong. Photography maintains and reinforces distance. It is like the perfect little short story, which allows us to confront the catastrophic and/or unfamiliar without flinching. We can see a picture of a man who’s about to be shot, and while the picture is disturbing, our fight or flight instincts are rarely activated. We will study a dangerous photographic moment whereas we will flee that same moment in real life. We know that it is a message in a bottle, in which case it is insulated by a mechanical process that, while it might capture something, does so at a certain remove.

Photography may not provide us with a perfectly objective experience, but it is far enough away that it is not experience itself. It tells a story in capsulated form, though epic photographs (Ansel Adams comes immediately to mind) do exactly what an epic painting does, which is to evoke grandeur, as it were, in miniature. (Though monumental in scale, paintings by the 19th century romantic Albert Bierstadt are, when likened to nature itself, trifling objects.) And while a picture may be worth a thousand words, photography has, often as not, been embedded in prose. One may not “explain” the other, but they are irresistibly synergistic. Pictures may stand alone, but we are more than comfortable reading about them.

Estes has also said that, because he doesn’t enjoy his subjects, why should anybody else? How’s that for ambivalence?

I think I know why he said it. Estes may not “enjoy” his subject matter, but he is fascinated with its translation. He revels in the notion that the third dimension can be compressed by a photograph and subsequently enlarged in a painting. If anything drives the man, it’s what can be accomplished, not only by an acutely observant eye, but by a mechanical one that is re-observed and, as it were, translated.

Photography is not the kind of illusion for which painters ultimately strive. And if photography distorts through parallaxes and other optical anomalies, it does seem to be real. We may never come to a precise understanding of why we are both ambivalent about, and seduced by, the photographic lens. We deplore its lack of selectivity while wanting more of its inclusiveness. And while we are a species whose reach generally exceeds its grasp, we are also crazy about the idea of having everything we want right now. As long as we don’t ask it to be “human”, photography seems to provide that. And photo-realism delivers in a way that is warmer and friendlier; bigger and more “beautiful”; full of the twinkliness we guiltily crave, but served up with a virtuoso’s fingers and a steadily beating heart.

EstesBridalAccessoriesWhen William Fox Talbot, who was arguably the inventor of the photographic process, exposed his salt-treated paper to natural light, he became process-oriented. “Behold!” he exclaimed. “This is a stone wall and these, Gothic traceries.” But what Talbot and so many of his successors were getting at was a mechanical reproduction of something that was transformed inside (so to say) of the box. We can pass, for example, Estes-style subjects without giving them a thought. But processed by a camera, and, finally, by Estes himself, they have a kind of hypnotic majesty—no matter what the scale of the actual painting. (A lot of Estes’ pictures are very large. But that is not what we remember.)

It was through this mechanical process that Richard Estes found his voice. Malcolm Morley had done a few paintings from photographs, but they were created in an impish sort of way. Here, said Morley, I’m going to reproduce something so incredibly banal that I’ll bet you anything that, once it’s finished, it will have a pink-bottomed, pullulating, puckish life of its own. People might be struck by a postcard image, but when it’s blown up, as it were—when it achieves the dubious distinction of High Art—nobody will be able resist it.

To a certain extent, he was spot-on. Yet Morley’s intentions were essentially ironic – as were those of every Pop artist who succeeded him. Warhol’s silkscreen portraits are ego-planetariums whose subjects (or victims) are smarmily reproduced in broadest technicolor. These single or multiple images could be duplicated endlessly. Are four Marilyn’s more banal (or striking) than just one? Hard to say. Their electric shimmer is such that one doesn’t think of personality so much as process. Which is what so much of photography is about. Warhol wanted to create, as Estes does in his work, a breathless distance between viewer and subject. The result? A glamorized/glamor-hating portrait—which is the antithesis of what portraiture should be. Warhol took the solemnity out of official portraiture and substituted a kind of glaring superficiality. Rembrandt cannot be sought, or found, inside of a Warhol. Just as one looks in vain for a Constable or Monet in Estes’ work. That just ain’t what it’s about.

43rdandBroadwayEstes2005What Estes’ work is about is not only the laborious reproduction of a photographic cosmos, but of a subject that is often as glitzy as the machinery of the camera itself. Estes’ claim to fame his ceiling-high windows, his nickel-plated surfaces, his confounding of interior and exterior spaces, as originally interpreted by a photographic lens. No one has ever done it better and no one should possibly try. If anyone has a Book about a street-scene which is both observed and reflected, it is Richard Estes. If anyone has wished to dwell on the inside of something, but yearns for an exterior world, Richard Estes will provide it. And if one must feel claustrophobically annihilated by a multitude of soul-deadening planes and surfaces, he or she will want Estes to do it to (or for) him.

Starting in the early 1990’s, Estes began to muck about in nature —though nature, for Estes, has never been, as it was with Frederick Church, nature with a capital “N”. We see him gliding across a glassy lake or harbor, with the boat and its wake visible off to the side. We see, in the shimmering distance, Mt. Katahdin, a Hudson River School icon—of which Estes, a moderately erudite painter—is acutely aware. We are introduced to forests primeval, with their rat’s nests of bough and tendril; of fallen tree-forms; of a million-leaved spectacle that’s so lush we want to keep moving inside of its dankish bloom. (These forest interiors have no impasto, as you would see in a Winslow Homer, but they have tremendous vitality—if of a contained sort. It’s as if Estes wants us to know that, if he weren’t so hopelessly gone on glamor, he could have been—and is in these pictures—a pretty darned good naturalist. Neil Welliver, pastoral realist extraordinaire and a contemporary of Estes, never captured a forest interior’s sprocketed grandeur the way Estes has—and in formats that are Welliverian no less.)

Estes’ early paintings are not very good, but they are to the manor born. In Bus with Reflection of Flatiron Building, we have a passing moment, but an accelerated one. The bus is there for as long as the light is red. When it goes, the reflection changes. Only a photograph, as one might say, could do it justice. Or a painting from a photo that must do some initial justice to that impression. Few Estes’ paintings could have been done en plein air. After the bus is gone, the reflection in the car mirror can be studied no longer, while the casual, I’m-daydreaming sort of poses people assume when they’re on the way to something would be well-nigh impossible to remember. Cityscapes lend themselves to photography— not to mention the second-hand sort of job in which Estes has come to specialize. They’re wildly complicated, spatially dizzying, and we can’t get them out of our heads. An Estes’ painting is, however, so ready to explain so much that people (as they were doing when I saw the Smithsonian’s recent exhibit) can’t believe their eyes. They weren’t even saying what people always say when they see something that looks hyper-real: “That looks just like a photograph.” And it does. It really does. Because it essentially is. All Estes’ paintings have a family tree, with Photography as Paterfamilias, Estes’ Studio as The Mother of All Things, Estes’ Steady Hand and Mahlstick as Father Time, and the Sleek Surfaces of his “paintings” as the Children of his Labor.

Estes Water Taxi, Mount Desert 1999Estes’ urban panoramas have necessitated a personal shorthand, which consists of Canaletto-like blobs and striations, which are brushed in with a consciousness of edge as well as sculptural form. This is what makes Estes a painter even if he may be “copying” a photograph. Estes’ paintings are photographic improvisations—even if they stick to the tune and don’t deviate from the “song’s” structure. They are made of innumerable sleights-of-hand, as if the painting were a conjuring act that must eventually settle, like concrete, into something that will repel anything you might want to throw at it. They abound in stark repetitions and plodding intersections. They are rich in gift boxes and miniaturized notepads. Estes loves window-frames, brick-courses, Italianate moldings, and spit on the sidewalk. And he re-creates these things as lovingly as any copyist ever has. Because he is not afraid of being himself, he has devised a symbolic equivalent for every man-made thing. For light to be properly “read” on a nickel-plated surface, it has to be brushed. For there to be some sort of separation between a window, its reflection, and what’s behind it, fast-fading strokes, which soften edges, are as crucial as the harder edges of stone-courses and window-sills. Being able to shorthand nature—which, for a painter, is anything that can be visualized—is no small thing and Estes is to be congratulated for it. Pre-photorealist paintings are about mass, into which color and texture are inserted or superimposed. If the painter wants to suggest a little mortar, he or she will scumble a dash of it over a tonal glaze. His or her windows won’t reflect everything, but, by means of a careful daub, light will seem to bounce off of them.

In Brooklyn Bridge, his largest offering, Estes shows us what a typical pedestrian sees when crossing that legendary structure – with, of course, photographic intervention. Estes was being awfully brave. He knew that everybody had painted the Brooklyn Bridge and Estes Brooklyn Bridge 1991from every conceivable vantage. He also knew that some of these vantage points might not be extant – or possible – today. Yet in spite of – or perhaps because of – his many predecessors, he decided that he would do something so blandly monumental that it would speak to a non-romantic perspective, which does not thrive in the open air. Even so, Brooklyn Bridge stands in for an experience of monumental proportions.

Estes gives us the factory-knitted cables Roebling invented and the wide planks that feel like a more ancient structure. The great Gothic towers are rendered as maquettes: every brick is accounted for while all the proper indentations are quietly and accurately observed. Yet because of these cumulative “quotations”, the Bridge’s iconic majesty is somehow, given the size of the painting as well as the angle at which Estes’ camera chose to see it, incomplete. Estes is no Albert Bierstadt, who, in spite of the impressive accumulations in his work, is a perceptual painter. His universe is ordered according to planes and edges. It is calibrated to evoke a definitive foreground, middle ground, and background. And, as with so much traditional painting, it has the spatial depth that can be unsatisfyingly compressed in a photograph. Estes is not interested in his ancestor’s unabashed romanticism. His Brooklyn Bridge is shorn of its associations, stripped of its romantic core, and presented to us as if it were a full-scale model of the same thing. Who but Estes could pull that off? And why on earth would anybody else want to?

And yet I probably looked at this painting for a longer period of time than any other. Estes’ supernatural grasp of mechanical things is, because he has invented a kind of personal calligraphy to express it, more virtuosic than a camera’s. I still remember the way the two cables that stretch from anchorage to anchorage arc into the tower. They are punched, perforated, and angle-ironed. And Estes shows us the whole shooting-match, as if he had been personally invested in how the bridge was made as well as its far-famed durability.

In this regard if in no other, Estes work has a heroic cast. Its heroism is, however, stunted. We may say “Wow!” when we first see it, but we wonder why, after a whole gymnasium-style roomful of his paintings, we want to get away from them.

At least I do.

In fact, before I left the building, I popped in on a few of my favorites. One, a Homer seascape, had been taken down for a newer exhibit. But my Edward Hopper was there and it glowed magnificently. I was pleased to study its crudely slathered forms, its “inelegant” impasto, its (compared to Estes) dogged minimalism. And I felt some sense of connection, not only to its subject, but the painting’s physicality; this painting was no more process-oriented than it had to be. It said what needed to be said and put everything else aside. I felt emotionally snared—which was not anticipated and cannot be faked. And I felt a sense of gratitude that I could have seen this when I did, rather than in the reverse order. The Hopper gladdened me; all those Estes’ paintings, while incomparable in their own way, failed to lift my spirit.


Estes Paris Street Scene 1972

Richard Estes’ Realism – which was curated by Patterson Sims and Jessica May, chief curator at The Portland Museum of Art (with local coordination by Virginia Mecklenburg) – will be at The Smithsonian American Art Museum until February 15, 2015
The Smithsonian American Art Museum is located at Eighth and F Street, NW.
It is open every day except December 25th from 11:30 a.m. till 7 p.m.
For more information, call: (202) 633-7970 – or go to americanart.si.edu.


Brett Busang has contributed articles, reviews, and profiles to such publications as New York Press, The Bloomsbury Review, Footnotes, Loch Raven Review and numerous others. He is also a painter whose work has been widely, if haphazardly, collected.