Richard Estes, born in 1932 in Kewanee, Ill., has been called the father of Photorealism (a.k.a. Super-realism), a Pop Art-inspired, photo-derived style of painting that emerged in the late 1960s. He occupies a seat alongside Chuck Close and Robert Bechtle in the arts pantheon, with works that echo Edward Hopper, Thomas Eakins and George Bellows.
“Richard Estes: Painting New York City,” on view at the Museum of Arts and Design (MAD) at Columbus Circle through September 20, is the first solo exhibit of the artist’s work at a New York museum. It’s also the first solo painting show at this institution. More than 40 paintings and works on paper — silkscreen and woodcut prints, plus photographs — are presented here, with display cases illustrating the artist’s technique.
In 1958, two years after graduating from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Estes moved to New York, where he has lived in an apartment on Central Park West near MAD for nearly five decades. He worked as an illustrator and graphic designer for ad agencies and magazine publishers before turning his talents full time to painting in 1967.
From then on, he dedicated himself to documenting the city’s streets, storefronts, bridges, buses, subways, diners, movie marquees and waterways in exacting, almost clinical detail, based on his own photographs. Manhattan has always been his main focus. Detours along the way include European cities and the Maine coast.
Estes typically paints the quotidian — within ordinary places and spaces, but around some famous landmarks too — with a laser focus on architecture, light and reflective surfaces. Buildings and the urban landscape dwarf — even obscure — the people in his canvases, many barely discernible behind sheets of plate glass. Works such as “Brooklyn Bridge” (1993), with the Twin Towers and Lower Manhattan’s skyline in the distance, boast no people at all (and no cars either). Everything is stripped away to showcase light, stone and steel girders. As Estes explains in the audio tour, he’s not interested in storytelling, “just visual” documentation. The solitary figures in other paintings — the grim diner in “Horn and Hardart Automat” (1967), for instance — invite comparisons with Edward Hopper’s iconic depictions of lonely characters (think “Nighthawks,” from 1942, or “Automat,” from 1927).
Photorealism bears some similarity to trompe l’oeil painting, so it should come as no surprise that Estes’ works have a deceptive quality, prompting visitors to question what they are seeing: Is it a photograph, or is it a painting that just looks like a photograph, because the details are so precisely rendered? In fact, Estes shoots dozens of photos of a particular scene and then stitches together a selected few to form a composite image that mimics but does not exactly reproduce the scene. In the painted translation, colors change, pedestrians are excised, perspectives shift. Craftsmanship underlies and informs the art. As Glenn Adamson, MAD’s director, writes in the catalog, Estes is “a world-class artist who is also a consummate artisan.” He has advanced from cameras on tripods, hand-held analog cameras and slides to digital technology and printouts.
The show is subtly and beguilingly self-referential. One of its signature images, “Columbus Circle Looking North” (2009), is a view of the museum from Eighth Avenue, with the monument to Columbus and the Trump International Hotel & Tower in the distance. The picture is hung next to a window that opens directly onto the traffic circle, a literal merging of art and reality. And while Estes typically edits out his own reflection as it appears in the source photos, the exhibit opens with a sly self-portrait from 1976 in which his reflected image beside a tripod alights not once but twice in a painting of a glass-fronted diner otherwise devoid of human beings (its title: “Double Self-Portrait”). Thirty-seven years would pass before he painted another notable selfie, a shadowy image of himself standing on the deck of the Staten Island Ferry, his face obscured by his camera.
This longtime Upper West Sider takes frequent walks in the neighborhood, camera in hand. Recent paintings of two Broadway fixtures, “The Eye Man” (2014), picturing the eyeglass shop at 81st Street, and “Corner Café” (2014-15), memorializing the quick-eats spot at 94th, meticulously document glass facades that mirror the area’s buildings and offer detailed interior views alongside pavement views of signage and scaffolding. As guest curator Patterson Sims quotes the artist in the catalog, albeit skeptically: “I don’t enjoy looking at the things I paint, so why should you enjoy it? I enjoy painting it 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.”
“Richard Estes: Painting New York City” at the Museum of Arts and Design (MAD), 2 Columbus Circle; now through September 20. www.madmuseum.org/