By: Dick Kagan
The large painting on the easel is still somewhat inchoate. But it already evinces an impressive form and scale. It is the jagged outline of a majestic summit in the Himalayas. “I was trekking for several weeks last November in Nepal and Bhutan,” says Richard Estes in his matter-of-fact way, not acknowledging that such vigorous activity is at all out of the ordinary for a 72-year-old.
Doing things out of the ordinary is nothing unusual for Estes. In the 1960s, when the angst and energy of Abstract Expressionism were beginning to yield to the engaging glitz of Op and Pop, Estes didn’t join the trend. Instead, abandoning the sketchy, loosely drawn figure studies that were in vogue at the time, he turned to precisionist city views and became an acknowledged master of Photorealism.
“I couldn’t have cared less about either Pop or abstract art,” he recalls. “I didn’t want to be doing what everybody was doing, and then come up with theories and philosophies to justify it. I’d rather do something more straightforward without all the attached academic profundities. Photorealism seemed more of a challenge; abstract painting looked too easy to me.”
The hard-edged structures and streets of New York became Estes’ primary subject. While the stunning crispness and clarity of his paintings were suggestive of photography, they possessed a technical virtuosity and luminosity, as well as a striking sense of detail and perspective, that no camera could convey so felicitously. Estes’ paintings never ape photography, they go beyond it; they create a hyper-reality of their own.
One of the conspicuous elements that runs through Estes’ work, particularly the New York cityscapes, is shimmering reflective surfaces: light bounces, turns, twists and refracts off the gloss of glass and metal office towers, shop windows, shiny vehicles and river water. As John Wilmerding, professor emeritus at Princeton University, wrote in his 2006 book Richard Estes, these “reflections become agents of the most
subtle perceptual ambiguity and visual complexity—bending, expanding and contracting” images in an engaging manner.
Estes himself comments that he finds reflection “visually interesting,” especially in the way it creates “a jumble of shapes, colors and spaces. It makes more of a pattern or composition.” In a rather puckish footnote, he adds, “It’s a way of being abstract without being abstract.”
To Estes it’s all part of his workmanlike artistry. He disputes what he calls “the popular concept of the artist” as a person who throws himself into painting with “passion and enthusiasm and super emotion. It’s not that way at all. Usually it’s a pretty calculated, sustained and slow process by which you develop something. It’s not done with emotions; it’s done with the head.”
As a traveler Estes’ purview has extended beyond New York. He has not only found subject matter in Chicago, Florence, Miami, Paris and Venice, but increasingly has turned from the fabricated terrain of cities to the topography of the natural world.
He began in the late 1990s with the rocky coast of Maine, where he has had a summer home for the past 20 years, and more recently has painted the icy magnificence of Alaska and Antarctica. Ironically, when Estes first settled in Maine the allure of its rugged landscape eluded him. When asked by a local arts organization to contribute a Maine-related painting to a show, all Estes could offer at that time was a New York scene with the memorial column at Columbus Circle that commemorates the sinking of the battleship Maine.
Among the 31 paintings featured in a show of his most recent work last fall at Marlborough Gallery in New York, 22 were either penumbrous Maine woods, remote stretches of New England coastline or the frosty vastness of Antarctica. It’s been said that there’s a “wow” factor to Photorealism, and it was audible one afternoon during the month-long run of the show. The most fervent acclaim was for the crystalline Antarctic scenes, with their snow-shrouded peaks and glacial expanses rising grand and aloof above the coruscating ripples of the ocean’s waters. More importantly, in describing the Antarctica paintings, Janis Gardner Cecil, a Marlborough director, called them “austerely beautiful. In a way they’re very elegiac; they’re portraits of a world we’re losing.”
Asked if environmental concerns had anything to do with his interest in the natural world, Estes responds, “I’m really not on any mission. I’m all for saving the environment, but I don’t think I can do that with my paintings.” He explains that some of the impetus for his travels to the more inaccessible parts of the world in recent years was to explore the possibility of “new things to do. I don’t want to be pigeonholed (as a painter of cityscapes). Why should I do the same thing over and over again?”
The Antarctica paintings were the result of a three-week South American cruise Estes took from Rio de Janeiro to Santiago. The Antarctica portion of the journey was actually less than a week and “it was gloomy and overcast most of the time,” he says, “and quite cold. You never knew what the weather was going to give you. There was one day that the sun was out for about four hours, and a couple of dozen paintings came out of that brief period.”
Estes uses a digital camera, and on a long trip, such as his latest to the Himalayas, will take as many as 800 photographs. He does not choose one to copy onto canvas, but will use as many as four or five as references for the final image he paints. Although his paintings are vivid and sharply focused, his intuition has as much to do with the final product as any photograph. “I try for a wide-angle view in my paintings,” Estes explains. “But I try to correct the distortion of a wide-angle camera view by making things in the background larger than they ordinarily might be. I try to organize the space and make it a balanced composition. When the eye looks at a painting, it doesn’t take in everything at once, so you don’t want it to get stuck in one place.”
In New York Estes’ studio is in what was formerly the dining room of his apartment in a handsome Art Deco building on the Upper West Side. The room, strikingly bare save for a massive oak easel by a multipaned window overlooking Central Park, adjoins a large living room that reflects the artist’s varied interests, tastes and travels: A substantial collection of pre-Columbian figures is massed on a tabletop, a 17th-century English walnut cabinet purchased in London stands in a corner and the raised ceiling has a soigné Art Deco frieze covered with hand-applied aluminum leaf. The hand that applied it was Estes’.
On the walls are a number of paintings, including several by Estes. One is of an archaeological site in Turkey near the ancient Roman city of Ephesus; another depicts a bridge across the Guadalquivir in modern-day Cordova, Spain. “I’m fascinated by bridges and water,” says Estes. “I always feel a comfort when near water; it has a calming quality.”
There is also something soothing about the verdant Cézanne-like landscape that hangs over the fireplace. It was done by Arshile Gorky in the 1920s, “when he was going through his Cézanne period,” Estes notes. The painting will be included inCézanne and American Modernism, a show this fall (Sept. 3–Jan. 3, 2010) at the Montclair Art Museum in New Jersey.
Estes’ own paintings have been the subject of major shows at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Isetan Museum of Art in Tokyo; and the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum of Art in Madrid, among others. Born and raised in northern Illinois, he is a graduate of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and today has work in the institute’s permanent collection as well as those of other museums such as the National Gallery of Art in Washington; the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City; and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. One of the Antarctica paintings was acquired by Alice Walton for the forthcoming Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, Ark.
Although Estes’ cityscapes and his more recent works might at first seem to be disparate endeavors, they are unified both by his meticulous style and by their underlying serenity. Despite their almost kinetic visual dazzle, the urban scenes have a moody, contemplative quality. There are few people on the streets, and vehicular traffic seems to purr rather than roar. The landscapes are empty of fauna, except, perhaps, for a few people gathered at the prow of a ship, as in the Antarctica paintings. Discussing these works recently, Wilmerding observes that they depict “not structural architecture, but the architecture of nature. They’re romantic, too, in their apt rendering of the last sublime wilderness.”