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The Maine paintings of Richard Estes seem to exist outside of time. The landscapes he chose to paint remain more or less the same to this day; they could recall in viewers a vacation from 40 years ago or a day hike from last week. Even his Maine pictures with human subjects have a timeless feel: Clare, a 1990 portrait of his friend Clare Stone, is one such work. In the painting, Jones sits on a warm, lakeside rock against a prototypical Maine backdrop — Estes’ first attempt to paint the landscape here — while dressed classically in a striped cardigan and navy shorts. It’s an image that exudes affection for its subject, and passes that on to viewers. No matter how old you are, if you have spent any time in Maine, then this is a person and a place that you have known. And this will likely remain the case for decades to come.
Conversely, the New York City paintings tell of a city in transition, and of the progression of human life. His 1960s work showcases a metropolis of chrome diners, phone booths, and storefronts that hark back to another era (as with Bridal Accessories). His 1970s and ’80s work conveyed a city in hard times; the famous lack of human figures in his New York cityscapes is particularly poignant in work from this period; the boxy cars of 1980’s Waverly Place and the Twin Towers looming in the background of 1991’s Brooklyn Bridge catch your eye.
Even though the lakeside sunbathers of 1989’s Sunday Afternoon in the Park make that work a nice companion piece to Clare (which was painted the next year), the Central Park image feels not timeless but of a bygone era, which is suggested in everything from the bicyclist with the point-and-click camera to the outdated assemblage of skyscrapers sprouting up on the horizon. This and the other New York paintings in Richard Estes’ Realism document places that no longer exist, and to browse them all in one visit is to travel through time. As anyone who has been to Williamsburg, Brooklyn in both 2004 and 2014 can attest, time in New York City can pass jarringly quickly.
I lived in New York from 1999 to 2005 and spent much of that time working in an office building on 38th and Broadway. Now at the PMA, I find myself returning to Estes’ 2004 work Times Square (and its companion, the 2005 piece 43rd and Broadway) with regularity. It so captures the look and feel of Times Square in the mid-2000s that I’ve more than once scanned the deep-focus detail to see if Estes caught me on my lunch break. That particular snapshot of buildings, advertisements, and fashion never fails to fill me with happy nostalgia — for example, I spent a great deal of time in that (now gone) Virgin Megastore, and even saw Prince at the Madison Square Garden stop of the Musicology tour, which is advertised on that billboard.
If you have similar memories of Maine or New York City—just two of the many locales in Richard Estes’ Realism—then the exhibition is simply not to be missed. It is the largest retrospective of Estes’ work in America in over 20 years, and brilliantly serves as a five-decade, life-spanning summary of the world through the eyes of one highly talented artist. However, when I survey his work, I cannot help but come to the conclusion that he is not only documenting his life, but all of ours.
Richard Estes’ Realism is on view at the PMA through September 7.
Robert is a native of Winslow, Maine, and a graduate of Boston’s Emerson College. After spending years as a screenwriter in New York City and an arts journalist in Santa Fe, he moved back to Maine to raise a family in 2008. He currently lives in Portland’s Back Cove with his wife, who owns a business up the street from the PMA, and two young sons.