FOR many people the urban landscape assaults the senses, a jumble of signs and glass, chrome, cars and colors that numb the eye. But not if you're Richard Estes.
"A lot of people have said they never noticed any of these things until they saw my paintings," says Estes, the 42-year-old American realist whose eye-boggling "Urban Landscapes" go on view at the Hirshhorn Museum this Thursday.
What 19th-century American painters like Albert Bierstadt, Frederick Church and Thomas Moran did for the Rockies, Richard Estes is now doing for New York City -- showing people something they've never seen before.
His task, however, is somewhat more difficult. Though not many people had seen the American wilderness when Bierstadt and others began to paint it, no one denied its beauty.
Estes has chosen to take late 20th-century Manhattan -- something most people know and many loathe the look of -- and render it beautiful in paint. The marvel of his work is that he succeeds.
Despite the radically different subject matter, Estes is in many ways heir to this 19th-century landscape tradition. For just as the prototypical American landscape has now shifted from Yosemite to Yonkers, so has "landscape" art -- at least some of it, including photography -- shifted its focus to the city.
Many other artists, like Estes, are using super-realist, post-Pop, commonplace banal city images -- Robert Bechtle and his cars, Ralph Goings and his trucks and trailers, Robert Cottingham and his neon signs. But of them all, loner Estes is surely the most profound.
Like many "New Realists" -- as well as old realists like Thomas Eakins -- Estes uses photography as the source of his paintings. He does not, however, project slides or grid off photographs. Rather, he loosely draws the image onto the canvas, makes adjustments in the composition, and then fully develops the painting in acrylic before finishing the details in oil.
"I don't believe the photograph is the last word in reality," says Estes. And, indeed, there is far more to Estes' paintings than the literal reproduction of a photograph, though it takes some looking to see the difference.
First of all, the artist simplifies and clarifies the chosen scene, making order of the visual chaos. The adjustments might be very slight -- the deletion of a sagging sign, a change in the relationship of the height of two buildings, the addition of curtains at a window. In the end, he calms the scene, tames it and locks it into a composition in which visual order and stillness prevail. This silent stillness, heightened by the manipulation of color and purification of the light and atmosphere, snuff out not only the visual noise but all other sounds of cars and people, leaving the viewer alone in the urban landscape -- a rare and precious moment. In Estes' painting it always seems to be a clear Sunday morning before anyone else is up, and that is, it turns out, when he does his photographing. "There's just too much traffic during the week," he explains.
What makes Estes a "new" realist, as opposed to a traditional realist, apart from the subject matter, is his post-modernist point of view. Though the surface patterns are tightly knit, there is no single, dominant focal point within the picture, no "main event." Each object is painted with equally meticulous care, thus seducing the viewer into exploring the entire surface by the sheer virtuosity of the painting.
"When you actually look at a scene, you tend to scan it. Your eye travels over things. As your eye moves, the vanishing point moves. To have one vanishing point or perfect camera perspective is not realistic," explains Estes. This is a post-modernist view of the painting surface and gives the paintings their elusive but distinctive look.
In his very best works, the reflecting surfaces of glass storefronts and windows and chrome phone booths come under the close scrutiny of his brush, becoming subjects of sheer virtuoso illusionism. In several works, beginning with "Bus Window" for example, the viewer sees not only the glass window and the reflection of the street outside, but also the interior within. "In reality," says Estes, "the eye tends to focus either on the reflection or on the interior, but both can be painted with equal emphasis." Here Estes is presenting simultaneous experiences not usually perceived simultaneously. This is a cornerstone of his art, and one of the many ways his paintings offer more than either the eye or the camera can perceive at once.
After studying at the Art Institute of Chicago and a stint at advertising and freelance illustration, Illinoisborn Richard Estes took up painting full-time two years before his first solo show at the Allan Stone Gallery in New York in 1968.
In the decade since, he has garnered both public and commercial success without a previous museum show or critical acclaim. His reputation has been justifiably based on a 1971 portfolio of silkscreen prints, "Urban Landscapes I." A forthcoming edition of 100 portfolios including eight new silkscreen prints has already sold out, sight unseen, at $9,000 per portfolio.
Five of these new silkscreen prints will be shown for the first time at the Hirshhorn show, which was otherwise organized for the Boston Museum of Fine Arts last summer by Boston University Gallery director John Arthur. This is Estes' first museum show and includes 30 paintings from 1965 to the present.
In the present climate of what might best be called urban pessimism, Estes' view is a refreshing one. Leaving his viewers alone to explore within these scenes, Estes seeks only to make it possible for us to see what he sees and to share his exaltation in the simple act of just looking around. His paintings reward our attention, offering a kind of instant urban renewal.