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Thursday, June 13, 2013

Richard Estes

Broadway at 68th Street, 2012, Richard Estes.
It's not a pretty picture. It was never meant to be. It's Richard Estes, 2012, eighty years old, based on a photo the average photographer or tourist would probably discard shortly after first viewing it. The painting is about three feet by five feet; one's first impression being, gee, that's a pretty big photo. It's not, but the fact we mistake it for one says as much about us, as viewers, as it does about the artist. Once you realize it's a painting you just as quickly realize the artist. If it's quite large, dominated by one-point perspective; if the painting is clean looking, but not uncluttered, with many metallic objects; if reflective surfaces play a featured role; if it's largely devoid of any human presence; there can be little doubt it's Richard Estes.
Staten Island Ferry Docking, 2011,
Richard Estes
The description above relates to Estes' Broadway at 68th Street (top), but could just as easily reflect virtually any of the artist's work now or in the past since he first began rendering such scenes around 1967 (below, left). The scenes themselves are seldom eye-catching, so ubiquitous to urban living we would hardly notice them except for two factors, first their size, and second, the very fact that they are paintings. The word Estes uses is evanescence--a momentary passing effect having a lifespan of mere minutes...sometimes only seconds. His painted series, Staten Island Ferry Docking (right) has the effect of stop-action photography. Estes takes the photos himself, his aesthetic judgments not those of a photographer but a painter, knowing that in painting his photos, he elevates them to a different plane than that which they would occupy as "mere" printed photos. This factor plays into two of the oldest elements in American art, size, and the work ethic. If it's big, and if an artist has been willing to spend the hours, days, weeks, months in so supernaturally rendering the scene--so accurately that the viewer debates, at least momentarily, is it Kodak or Estes? then it has to be great art.

Horn and Hardart Automat, 1967, Richard Estes
Critics and art historians have been trying to categorize the art of Richard Estes and the art movement to which he was a major contributor every since he started contributing. I, myself, have been a part of this effort, referring to Estes' art as "Super Realism" (06-25-11). Others have termed it neo-realism, sharp-focus realism, photo-realism, radical realism, and several more hyphenated terms all ending in the word "realism." Perhaps we should simply cease the search for an adequate delineator and just think of it as the logical progression from the 19th century definition of the term to where and what Realism (with a capital "R") has become in the instantaneous, digital photography, art world of today. It's a world in which the painter feels free to "shoot" rather than sketch evanescence as the impressionist tried to do 150 years ago.

Manhattan--1981, Richard Estes in his purest form. One could almost title it
"A Tribute to Mondrian." Here he uses oils and acrylics in the same painting.
And I thought I was the only one who did that.
The evanescent scene is momentary. Unlike with the impressionists, Estes' capturing it on canvas is not. Estes puts it this way: "I think the popular concept of the artist is a person who has this great passion and enthusiasm and super emotion. ...the real test is to plan something and be able to carry it out to the very end. Not that you’re always enthusiastic; it's just that you have to get this thing out. It's not done with one's emotions; it’s done with the head." What Estes describes is persistence. Art is not always fun. In fact, more often than not, it's not. It's work--trying, intensive, and focused. Persistence is a valuable trait in any endeavor, but in art it's particularly vital and all too often it's rare. On a personal level, it's a trait Richard and I share. Though his art is not near the top of my list of favorites, I do find it fascinating, and I do admire his thinking, which may be more important than his art itself.
Murano Glass, Venice, 1976, Richard Estes. Since, as you're reading this,
I'll be in Venice, I couldn't resist including Estes' take on the city.

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