If there’s one artist missing in the Yale University Art Gallery’s traveling exhibition, “Still Life: 1970s Photorealism,” it’s Richard Estes — in the opinion of Currier Museum of Art curators, anyway.
On view at the museum now through May, the Yale show transports viewers back to days of muscle cars and road-side diners through 37 photorealistic print, oil and sculptural pieces. But for Currier curators, there was a clear gap. Estes, an important artist in this movement, was nowhere to be seen.
“Richard Estes is really a pioneer in photorealism,” said Currier Museum of Art curator Kurt Sundstrom during a gallery walk-through. “It was very weird that they didn’t have an Estes in the show.”
So, shortly after the “Still Life” opening, museum curators created a complementary exhibition alongside it: “Painterly to Precise: Richard Estes at the Currier,” which is on view now through June 15.
The stars in this small show are the museum’s two newest acquisitions by the artist — “Baby Doll Lounge” (1978), a painting of a TriBeCa street scene, and “Qualicraft Shoes (The Chinese Lady)” (1974), a screenprint of a storefront. As with all the “Still Life” paintings, looking at them is like stepping back in time. (And if you look really closely, you’ll find treats, like in “Baby Doll Lounge,” which has a car whose license plate displays Estes’ name and the month in which he painted it.)
Estes, now 82, used photos like sketchbooks — he’d take hundreds and then use those images to construct a composition. A great deal of thought went into every detail.
“If you think about it, when you look at something like this,” Sundstrom said, gesturing to “Baby Doll Lounge,” “there’s so much information. You couldn’t possibly sit on the street and sketch everything out. He’s trying to capture a moment. … There’s a lot of artistic thought that goes on. It’s not a rote copying of the image.”
And even though they’re realistic depictions, you’ll notice things you won’t in real life. Reflections, for instance.
“He talks about how the eye can only focus on one thing — either it’s the reflection or it’s the interior of the building. But he says that in photography or in painting, you can do both,” Sundstrom said, pointing to “Qualicraft Shoes (The Chinese Lady),” which depicts two storefronts whose windows display not only what’s behind the window, but also what’s behind the viewer.
Also in the show are sketches and older paintings that show Estes’ artistic development. Sketches line the walls and demonstrate his favor of realism over the more dominant 1970s art trends — abstraction, pop and minimalism. The earliest — “Reclining Man” and “Reclining Figure in White Leotard” and “Figures on a Bench” — contain figures, but eventually, in order to place more emphasis on the space, light and architecture of the cities he was painting, he’d remove them in later years.
“Estes has put figures in his recent work, but he says that if you can see a figure in a painting, the viewer often identifies with that person. What is that person doing on the street? Is he or she going shopping? Out to eat? To meet friends?” Sundstrom said. “You separate yourself from the object more.”
Estes is a Maine artist — another reason museum curators felt so strongly about his inclusion — and Sundstrom hopes to try to get him to visit the museum before the show’s close.
As seen in the March 26, 2015 issue of the Hippo.