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Richard Estes: Keeping it real


TKTS Line, a 2005 painting, yes painting, by Richard Estes.

Richard Estes is not a photographer, he just plays one in the art world. His paintings are so amazingly real, I dare you not to think they’re snapshots at first glance.

Estes, who will turn 82 in May, is one of the founders of the photo-realism art movement. Using his own photos as models, his work focuses primarily on New York City landscapes.

Helene's Florist, Richard Estes 1971

Helene’s Florist, 1971

I first discovered the art of Richard Estes in 1980 when I was a student at Boston University. While working at the school’s library, I came across a book of Estes’ works. “Some nice photos of New York in this one,” I said to my friend Regina Loughran (who would later serve as my maid of honor). Regina laughed. “Those aren’t photos,” she said knowingly.

Looking closer, I was in complete shock and immense awe as I realized what she meant. These were paintings! Pure genius. How challenging and difficult it must be to create paintings with so many realistic details that they looked like photographs.

My favorite was Helene’s Florist. It looked like a typical New York shop with its phone number on the awning and bunches of flowers in vases on the sidewalk. As I looked at it more carefully, I noticed the fine work that made it look like a photograph. At the top left, Estes included the last two letters “OP” from the business next door, and on the other side he included the front of an innocuous barbershop. The painting had depth and you could even peek inside the flower shop.

The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum by Richard Estes, 1979.

The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1979

I admired how Estes used shading, shadows, and reflections to provide realistic elements to his paintings. Sometimes he even went beyond realism. Reflections on automobiles were so intense that if they were real photos the light and angles would have had to have been absolutely perfect in order to capture the reflections he gave them. A true artist, Estes’ works reflect his vision of how life should or could be.

Sharing our love of art, in 1980 Regina and I went to New York City to see an amazing retrospective of Pablo Picasso at the Museum of Modern Art. Afterwards, we had lunch at a little café. I looked up from the menu and there it was! Helene’s Florist Shop across the street! Exactly how Estes painted it.

Richard Estes

Richard Estes

I had just finished looking at one of the most amazing art collections on the planet, but it was seeing the real Helene’s that was the highlight of my trip. This being the age before cell phones, I don’t even have a picture of Helene’s. Regina, if you’re reading this, please give me a call.

Estes’ paintings have the added benefit of capturing New York in different eras. His work from the 1960s features diners, shops, and billboards that are no longer there. And telephone booths? What the heck are those? His more current work captures the modern essence and metallic details found in places like the New York subway system.

A sampling of Richard Estes’ paintings from the 1960s to present:

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A quotation from Richard Estes about his creative process:

I think the popular concept of the artist is a person who has this great passion and enthusiasm and super emotion. He just throws himself into this great masterpiece and collapses from exhaustion when its finished. It’s really not that way at all. Usually it’s a pretty calculated, sustained, and slow process by which you develop something. The effect can be one of spontaneity, but that’s part of the artistry. An actor can do a play on Broadway for three years. Every night he’s expressing the same emotion in exactly the same way. He has developed a technique to convey those feelings so that he can get the ideas across. Or a musician may not want to play that damn music at all, but he has a booking and has to do it. I think the real test is to plan something and be able to carry it out to the very end. Not that you’re always enthusiastic; it’s just that you have to get this thing out. It’s not done with one’s emotions; it’s done with the head.

Whenever I’m bored, I pull out my copy of  Richard Estes: The Complete Paintings 1966-1985, and escape to Helene’s and Estes’ world.

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One thought on “Richard Estes: Keeping it real

  1. Pingback: At long last, a Richard Estes retrospective | Expect the Unexpected

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