I went to the Richard Estes exhibition with the idea of disliking it, but it only took ten minutes for me to change my tune. I found the paintings to be complex, interesting and, above all, beautiful executed. I am sure that over my last forty years as an art critic I have seen a painting or two of his, either in New York or elsewhere, but to see fifty, at the same time, is a different matter. His paintings reproduce poorly in magazines and books. You need to see them in person to appreciate their scale and surface. I have, by nature, a strong aversion to photorealism; perhaps this is due to my background as both a photographer and painter. Photography is an art in its own right and paintings of photographs are, to my mind, to use a Platonic argument, one step more away from the idea—the ideal. Estes is, on the other hand, a painter who uses photographs, his own, to make beautiful paintings.
Estes claims that there is no hidden meaning or symbolism in his art. His is purely art for art’s sake. His paintings are, to him, about painting. Much of the art that has made him famous is about reflection and I mean that literally. Many paintings in the exhibition are of reflections in commercial windows such as Double Self-Portrait (1976), Murano Glass (1976) or Times Square (2004). Other iconic images featuring reflection are of cafés and diners: Jone’s Diner (1979), Diner (1971) and Central Savings (1975), which is a combination of a window reflection and a cafe. What makes these and all of the paintings in the exhibition interesting is the artist’s willingness to change the photographic image to make the painting better. Sometimes he blends several different photographs together for a single painting. This is what separates Estes from run of the mill photo- realists. To him, the photograph is just a means to an end.
Estes’ early work is evocative of the early 20th century French photographer Eugène Atget, who photographed reflections in shop windows and empty Paris street scenes. It is an influence that the artist freely admits. I do get the same kind of feeling from both of the artists’ work, and that is one of loneliness and emptiness, but it is spiritual nonetheless. The subject matter of his New York City paintings is mundane, but it’s transformed into something far more interesting through the mastery of his painting technique. Drab lower Manhattan storefronts become magical because of his attention to detail and his perfectionism of execution. Estes carefully under paints his canvas in acrylic before laying finishing layers of oil paint which results in practically an old master look that is seldom seen in contemporary painting.
What I wasn’t really familiar with was Estes’ more recent figurative and landscape paintings that are very different from his cityscapes. He has lived in Maine for part of the year since 1975, which makes the Portland Museum of Art an appropriate partner in putting together this exhibition. However, he really didn’t painting Maine landscapes until the late 1990s, but once he did, they became central to his art. Many New York artists have made Maine their summer home. It’s a natural escape from the City’s hot humid and sticky summers. Some of his Maine landscapes are quite small lake A Trail in Acadia National Park (2006) which is a mere 18 7/8” by 12 3/4” and show an inmate side of the artist that is lacking in larger works. Another larger landscape from the same year, Forest Scene, reminds me of another American contemporary artist’s Maine landscapes, the late Neil Welliver who died in 2005, but Estes’ paintings are more precise but there is a resemblance nonetheless. They both illustrate an obvious love of nature and of Maine.
Perhaps my favourite painting in the exhibition is Water Taxi, Mount Desert, 2004. It is a large, 33” x 66 1/4”, figurative work of a mother and daughter, friends of his, on an inter-island Maine ferry. It is beautiful lit by late afternoon sunlight and show his ability to masterfully paint water.
There are some of the artist’s photographs in the exhibition, but they are more there to show his process and thought than as works of art. They are pretty good photographs in their own right and Estes likely could have become a first rate photographer rather than a painter. The major point of this retrospective is that the artist has become better and better with the passage of time. The late paintings in the exhibition, painted in his 80s, are as good, and, in my mind, better, than the works done nearly half a century before. Art can be a fountain of youth for artists and proves that there is something to be said for maturity in youth-centred society.