Summary of Richard Estes
When Richard Estes arrived on the New York art scene, Abstract Expressionism had largely run its course. In contrast to the acutely personal, emotional, unstructured, and (some would contend) self-indulgent aesthetic of The New York School, Estes among others introduced a form of painting that emphasized control and an almost machine-like precision. In part, his style emphasized the craft of painting, which was central to the hard-edged, jaw-dropping verisimilitude of photorealistic art. Artists like Estes, Audrey Flack, Chuck Close, and Ralph Goings abandoned the drama of gestural painting and promoted a kind of hyper-realism that seemed more visually descriptive of the increasingly high-tech, post-war age. For Estes, the appeal of the gleaming, reflective surfaces of New York City were irresistible. His paintings, composites of multiple photographs, suggest that the modern world is a sharply articulated one of clean, intersecting lines: orderly and systematic in presenting information about itself. Rather than humans, every kind of material and object tells its own story in an Estes painting to which the artist has always been reluctant to assign symbolic meaning.
- While Estes' paintings appear to be direct, painted copies of photographs, he actually combined multiple photos, often quite loosely, figuring out his compositions in underpaintings he produced using acrylic paint. He would sometimes move elements as he began working to strengthen his compositions and more closely control visual effect. As a consequence of Estes taking these artistic liberties, when viewers have tried to match his paintings with actual sites in New York City or elsewhere, they often discover surprising inconsistencies.
- A major compositional strategy for Estes was often to bisect his paintings, producing a kind of split-screen result. This has the effect of making it seem as though you're looking at two different paintings or even worlds. This tactic probably relates to the often surprising juxtapositions of visual elements in the crowded city or, for instance, in a wilderness setting in which technology intrudes, as with his painting of a boat cutting through the icy water in the Antarctic.
- By creating his photorealistic montages that seem convincingly whole, Estes produces works in which there are multiple focal points. He confounds the concept of the mathematical or one-point perspective, the Renaissance invention that provided drawn and painted images with the illusion of depth. Instead, viewing a typical Estes painting feels like one is constantly changing vantage points; it's a bit like the effect of covering one eye, then the other and observing how that alters one's view.
- Until the 19th century, the craft aspect of painting was regarded as enormously important. Demonstrating one's skill as a draftsperson and a technically-gifted painter was as important as the subject of an individual work. With the advent of modernism, the technical virtuosity of an artist was challenged, brushstrokes emphasized, and traditional materials and methods were rejected if not dispensed with completely. Estes, among other artists, rejected the bias against craft by creating hyper-realistic paintings that recall the trompe l'oeil paintings that had for centuries provided a means for artists to display their superior technical prowess.
Biography of Richard Estes
Estes spent the first few years of his life in the small city of Kewanee, Illinois. He was the first of two children, and had a close relationship with his younger brother, Robert. His father, William, ran an auto repair shop in Kewanee.
Important Art by Richard Estes
Estes considers this piece, which depicts a young man curiously peering out of the window of a Greyhound bus, to be his first mature painting. His work from the late 1950s and early 1960s had been an experiment in looser brushwork - something along the lines of the Realist paintings of the mid-19th century. He abandoned that style for his trademark hyper-realistic paintings in which paint is applied carefully and brushwork deemphasized to the point of being invisible - almost a photograph.
At first glance, it is easy to understand why his paintings can be confused with a photograph: the reflective qualities of the car hood and windshield, and the sheen of the metal paneling on the bus, seem almost too true to life to have been painted. These "vehicle-reflection paintings" were the first successful series for Estes, who worked on them between 1966 to '69. These paintings are also evidence of the artist taking on abstraction. Using distorted light and reflections, some of these paintings are almost hard to discern. As the art historian John Perreault wrote: "in [some of] these paintings there are small patches of unreflected "reality" that anchor the images in recognizable space. These slivers of relatively undistorted space are more than ingenious; they allow the viewer to get his or her bearings."
The American modernists of the 1920s and 1930s had been powerfully moved by the monumental architecture of New York landmarks, translating it into their art with an almost religious reverence. In contrast, Estes tends to avoid postcard views of landmark sites in his paintings, preferring instead to depict the city in the way its inhabitants experienced it, while preoccupied with the demands of everyday life. Here, the iconic Flatiron Building is barely recognizable in the car's rear window. Instead of standing vertically, it appears sideways, as a warped and distorted reflection. The focus of the work thus seems to be the state of mind of the lone passenger of the bus that may similarly not appreciate the iconic value of New York landmarks.
While in many of Estes' earlier urban paintings, cities are often deserted, here the Telephone Booths are occupied. If not for the figures in the phone booths, whose bodies create a kind of middle ground in the painting, the work would potentially devolve into further abstraction controlled largely by the strong geometric components like the frames and doors of the booths. Still, the reflections of fragments of the city - from passing taxis and strolling pedestrians to shop signs - seem to compete for space in the ambiguous depth of the composition. The result is a very confusing image that seems to be flat and yet shifts back and forth between shallowness and depth constantly.
In other works by Estes that include figures, the humans are much more sharply defined in contrast to shifting, fragmented, and sometimes dissolving forms of his complicated paintings; in contrast, the figures in this work are partial to the point of being simply abstracted forms juxtaposed with other forms. The irony of the alienation and isolation of the urban experience seen in other works by Estes that include human figures is, in a way, heightened here as the occupants of the phone booths are barely distinguishable to the point of nearly disappearing.
John Updike wrote an essay on the painting in which he reflected, "By the etiquette of metropolitan crowding their persons have been reduced to mere signifiers that the booths are taken; like computer bytes or slugs of type, they fill their slots and give the information. The bleakness of this information contrasted with the richness or the visual information the painter has unstintingly imparted, makes for an utterly tender artistic irony." The image recalls the closed off, claustrophobic rendition of metropolitan life of George Tooker's Subway (1950), although it articulates that post-war anxiety in a much more matter-of-fact and accepting manner.
Double Self-Portrait is an unconventional self-portrait. At first glance, Estes seems not to be the primary focus of the piece. We first observe him slightly to the right and below the center of the canvas. He is standing outside on the sidewalk in front of a diner with a camera mounted on a tripod. His hands are on his hips, and he is dressed casually in jeans and a short-sleeved shirt. His reflection appears alongside the slender white frame at the center of the large windows at the front. His reflection is bisected at the waist by a looping yellow linoleum counter that wraps around the front windows and the food preparation area at the center of the space. Estes's 'double' is easy to miss as it is very small and there is so much other 'noise' on the canvas. But the second Estes is actually directly in the center of the canvas, in a mirror at the rear of the restaurant. He is only visible from the waist up. The scene appears to be set before the diner has opened, in the early morning. This pristine, untouched storefront brings to mind Edward Hopper's Early Sunday Morning (1930) and Estes' reflections do little to mitigate the sense of urban bleakness that seems to update the earlier classic painting.
This painting emphasizes the interplay between line, light, and reflection on different types of surface, rather than revealing information about the artist's inner life. Estes preferred to let his painting speak for itself, allowing the viewer to attribute their own meaning and interpretation. He observed, "The great artists of the past never let their feelings or personalities intrude that much. What they were really like doesn't come out in the work. What kind of man was Shakespeare, or Beethoven, or even Rembrandt? There's every point of view except his own, really." Indeed, we don't learn much about Estes and his practice here and the piece unsettles the expectations created by the title through playful concealment.
Influences and Connections
Useful Resources on Richard Estes
- Richard Estes: Phaidon Focus (2014)Our PickBy Linda Chase
- Richard Estes (2008)By Sandro Parmeggiani, Guillermo Solana, John Updike
- Just Looking: Essays on Art (1989)By John Updike (contains an essay on Telephone Booths (1968)
- Richard Estes (2006)Our PickBy John Wilmerding
- Richard Estes: Paintings and Prints (1993)By John Arthur
- Richard Estes: The Urban Landscape (1979)Our PickBy John Canaday and John Arthur
- Artnet.comOur PickBrief bio, artwork images, related resources
- Museum of Arts and Design (New York), Richard Estes: Painting New York Exhibition - 2015Exhibition Audio Guide available online
- Smithsonian American Art Museum: Richard Estes' Realism online gallerySelection of images from 2014-15 exhibition
- Is Richard Estes an Architect Disguised as a Painter?Our PickBy Justin Davidson / Vulture.com / September 11, 2015
- The Real Thing: Richard Estes and his photographic VisionBy Amy Henderson / The Weekly Standard / Jan. 5, 2015
- Painting or Photograph? With Richard Estes, It's Hard to TellBy Susan Stamberg / Morning Edition (NPR News) / Dec. 16, 2014
- Overcoming the mind at rest: Richard Estes at the Portland Museum of ArtOur PickBy Leann Davis Alspaugh / The New Criterion / Aug. 12, 2004
- An Evening With Richard Estes - Smithsonian American Art MuseumOur PickComprehensive overview of Estes' life and work, interview, and Q&A.
- PMA Presents: Richard Estes' RealismOur PickBrief overview of Estes's life and art for 2014 retrospective in Portland
- Fan-made video of Estes 2015 exhibition at Museum of Arts and Design