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Richard Estes finally is accorded a feature exhibition at a New York Museum. Bravo to the Museum of Arts and Design! In reading Ken Johnson’s review, NY Times, Friday, March 20, the critic suggests that Estes and his photo-realist colleagues revive the veneration for bravura technique associated with the era of Bougureau and Gerome, the stars of the French salon who were supplanted by the Impressionists. While Johnson acknowledges the “spirituality and morality” of Estes art, he implies that its detail and veracity contrasts with 20th century modernists who de-emphasized if not abandoned technique. My question is, what happened in between?
To many, much 20th century art looks quite casual, but I argue: try to do it. Miro, typical of his generation, worked his way through aspects of Post-Impressionism and Cubism to achieve a signature style whose look was arrived at through editing- knowing when to stop, balancing the forms compositionally, and modulating color into a limited palette that communicated his objectives. What may be mystifying to the non artist is how surrealist automatism, which can appear as child-like doodling, comes to be adapted into a meaningful visual language. Miro achieved his ends by constant practice, exploring certain configurations, developing some and dropping others. DeKooning’s image making is inextricable from his painterly approach where paint handling varies from thick to thin, texturally enriched by a deliberate program of slashing marks, undulating shapes, drips, splatters, imprinted forms, erasures, deletions, pentimenti (from the dried pigment of residual forms overlaid) and other ghost images. Pollock’s lace-like skeins of dripped pigment, done in successive overall patterns in a given color, each over the one before, affords glimpses of intervening layers, paintings within paintings that could arise from no other technique.
I propose that these artists, and many other modernists, have a far more varied technique than Estes; their fascination with paint itself, and technique as an impetus to image making, demonstrates not that technique was killed by modernism but that it was given renewed life and an unprecedented emphasis. It just wasn’t the same technique that had been used in the past. Modernists demonstrated much more of an interest in developing and changing their ways of making art than prior periods where technique was the outcome of academic training and time honored studio practice which was manifested by a mostly common agreement among professional artists. In that scenario, technique evolved, but that pace was glacial. Ultimately, and along the way, innovations arose when this mold was broken by an individual or group, the more thoroughly the better.
However, the technique of Estes and his colleagues actually has little to do with Bouguereau or Gerome. The common element is that it looks hard to do from the standpoint of a non artist. Nonetheless, it appears similar to the academics in that paint handling tends to be very smoothly executed without much built up of pigment or gestural evidences of the artist’s hand.
Nineteenth century academics used the term “lick” their brushstrokes which deliberately suppressed such effects. Estes practice, however, differs from these seeming precursors. He builds his color into predefined outlines and has a different manner of mixing his pigments. His work bears little evidence of the 19th century emphasis on glazing areas of moving tone, the defining practice of salon exhibiting academics. And above all, they would be horrified by the degree to which his works would suggest the real, something they were not seeking at all (to that generation, the word art emphasized the artificial, and narratives of goddesses and kings were the rule). That this exhibition shows samples of Estes working approach will add fascination to any viewer’s experience and enrich much to what has been discussed heretofore.
Estes is a significant artist; for the 20th century realist revival, a game changer, and possibly the first to be favored by critics and institutions, and his primacy in the movement unquestionable. The motivations behind photo-realism, however, have little to do with an impulse to revive academic realism, and also differs strongly from the attitude of such realists as Wyeth. Photorealism has much more to do with Pop (of which it is a latter day form). The reductive process behind its making, the use of images, unmodulated, as found in the real world, and the investigative character of the total endeavor have much in common with minimal and conceptual art, the contemporaneous movements most typically cast in opposition to realism.
What they indisputably share is the artists’ assertion of a verifiable truth, in contrast to the 70’s era of perceived deception. While the tendency to equate photorealism with its technique is striking in its appeal, this temptation is unfortunate to the extent that it diverts discussion away from the ultimate meaning and significance of the movement.
Above: The Plaza, 1991, Oil on canvas; 36 x 66 in.; Courtesy of Louis K. Meisel Gallery Below: Bus with Reflection of the Flatiron Building (1966-1967) Oil on canvas 36 x 48 in. Private collection Photo by Luc Demers Courtesy of The Museum of Arts & Design