PORTLAND, Maine — Richard Estes might be the most neglected major American artist working today. Widely regarded as the father of photorealism (also known as hyperrealism), a movement that peaked in the 1970s, he is a more sophisticated and satisfying artist than either of those fraying, outmoded labels suggest.
This summer, he is the subject of a first-rate retrospective — according to the organizers, the biggest of Estes’s career — at the Portland Museum of Art. It will travel to the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C., in October. The show’s 50 works were selected by Patterson Sims, an independent curator, and Jessica May, a curator at the Portland Museum of Art.
More than half of the works are privately owned, and thus rarely if ever seen in public; 14 are from the artist’s own collection. Institutional lenders include the Museum of Modern Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Arkansas.
Bursting as it is with panoramic vistas showing, among other uncannily clean, freshly shucked locations, the Seine, Times Square, Tokyo, and coastal Maine, it’s a show that is sure to be hugely popular. But it should also generate some new thinking on the nature of Estes’s achievement.
Best known for paintings like “Telephone Booths,” a 1967 image of four stainless steel-framed telephone booths in New York (alas, it’s not in this show), Estes has always excelled at capturing the complexity of reflections off gleaming city surfaces. In taut compositions of exemplary legibility, he did in paint — slowly and painstakingly — what photographers like Lee Friedlander and Garry Winogrand were doing on the fly with hand-held cameras.
They all wanted to convey the fractured hall-of-mirrors feeling of the big city, with its echoing light sources, its proliferating typography, its surfaces in differently textured materials with shifting degrees of transparency and reflection, its accidental, almost Cubistic layering of multiple vantage points.
But Estes’s loyalty to paint, his apparent lack of interest in painting people (at least until lately), and his fastidious concern with symmetry and surface tension meant that his paintings captured little of the actual energy of the city — its syncopated rhythms, its gyroscopic shifts in perspective, its speed, its slur, its disquieting moods — both private and collective.
Instead, he sought something stiller, more impersonal, and in a way, more daunting. If the street photographers were channeling the honky-tonk energy of the Beat poets, Estes seemed to be chasing something not so much poetic as musical. Tightly cropped and marked by flattened, almost claustrophobic space, his early pictures (from 1966 to 1971), had a mathematical rightness, an imperious anonymity that recommended them to minds in search of order.
Estes was born in Kewanee, Ill., in 1932. He moved with his family to Chicago, where he studied for four years at the Art Institute, before settling in New York in 1959. He worked for several years as an illustrator and designer in commercial publishing and advertising. He began to paint from his own photographs in the mid-1960s, and was given his first solo show at the Allan Stone Gallery in 1968.
Critical acclaim came his way in the 1970s, when he was regarded as the finest of a new crop of painters who were basing their works on photographs. But in the ’80s, their style — perhaps because of its apparent conservatism at a time when neo-expressionism, “bad painting,” and various modes of graffiti-inspired street art had come to the fore — fell out of fashion.
Estes was still a recognized name, but his work was rarely seen. The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston gave him a substantial career survey in 1978, but retrospectives in the ensuing years were few and far between. One was organized by the Portland Museum of Art in 1991. Another, “Richard Estes: The Sensuousness of the Real,” was held at the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid and the Palazzo Magnani in Italy in 2007.
This new show includes 10 works from before 1975. The earliest painting, “Automat,” stands out from every other work in the show by offering a bird’s-eye perspective. The view is of a square table at which four soberly dressed people sit with cups of tea and cakes.
The tiles of the floor form a perfect grid that is aligned with the frame. The table, by contrast, is set on an angle, so that the almost-but-never-quite congruent positions of the humans and their idiosyncratic gestures animate the otherwise impersonal composition. A study in browns of various shades, the picture has few highlights and nothing that counts as a reflection.
Everything that follows does. “Bus With Reflection of the Flatiron Building,” which Estes painted as he was working on “Automat,” takes the scrubbed metallic surfaces of a bus and a car, cropping them so that the world beyond finds expression only in distorted mirror images on the trunk and rear windshield of the car.
In “Escalator,” from 1969, Estes seemed to be perfecting a melancholic image of soulless modernity. But the images that followed, for all their anonymity, have a livelier quality. They communicate Estes’s infectious appetite for light, and for the wonder of the city’s teeming visual stimuli.
We’re all familiar with the experience. Standing on a street and peering at the window of a diner or storefront, you register dissonant visual phenomena: the window itself; the outside world it reflects (sometimes a world containing other reflections), and whatever is on the other side of the window. The human eye, with its filtering brain, instinctively flips between internally coherent visions; it struggles to see all three views at once.
The challenge Estes set for himself, and which he met in one dazzling painting after another, was to get all of it down in the one painting, without letting the image disintegrate into chaos.
Obviously, photography — with its indiscriminate, mechanistic eye — was a crucial aid. But, as a small selection here of photographs taken by Estes makes clear, his reliance on the camera wasn’t as straightforward as many assume. He used composite photos, not unlike those marvelous photo-collages composed by David Hockney. This meant, among other problems, multiple vanishing points that had to be ironed out or otherwise resolved by Estes’s own compositional manipulations.
In works like “Double Self-Portrait” (1976) and “Paris Street Scene” (1972) and, more recently, “Times Square” (2004) and “Checkout” (2012), he cranked up the visual noise to levels almost unprecedented in the history of realist painting, yet still arrived at images of extraordinary clarity.
One of the deepest pleasures of the show, beyond the obvious preoccupation with detail (never more charming and engaging than in the 1975 painting “Bridal Accessories,” a storefront scene that doubles as a nostalgic anthology of typographic styles), is the clarity and richness of Estes’s color and his heightened tonal contrasts. Combined, these give his images a dense substantiality missing from even the most sophisticated photographic prints.
They also, however, give his pictures a clean-scrubbed feeling that washes away some of the gritty atmosphere we associate with reality. One begins to feel this as a problem in some of his scenic views of Venice, Paris, Florence, London, and even Maine, a subject he has turned to increasingly, after beginning to summer there in the late 1970s.
These compositions — often with deep perspectives and oblique views that lead the eye off to left and to right as in the “grand machines” of Constable — are never less than impressive. But many lack that precious quota of freedom, accident, or evanescence that can call out to our heart in a great picture, and which Constable’s pictures never lacked.
Still, one turns from these to small masterpieces like “The B Train” from 2005, or “The L Train” from 2009, or to a bigger set-piece like the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden’s “Waverly Place” from 1980 — a painting which, for all its cool mastery, has grit and atmosphere in abundance — and you can really only shake your head in wonder. A compelling proposition, dazzlingly achieved; a great painting.Sebastian Smee can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.