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This survey is the most comprehensive exhibition of Richard Estes’ paintings ever organized. Encompassing over 45 works, the show spans from Estes’ first mature New York City facades and scenes of the late 1960s, to panoramic views of Manhattan and environs, and the numerous other cities and natural sites around the world where he has traveled up to the present moment. In particular, the exhibition will offer a perspective onto Estes as a painter both of the urban and natural world, balancing his interest in the dense urban fabric of New York and other large cities with his close attention to the coast of Maine and the woods of Mount Desert Island, where he has spent part of each year since the late 1970s. Most recently, Estes combined the sunlit luminosity with images of New York City at night; the painter’s new night scenes are as brightly rendered as glistening, blue-skied daylight. Selected examples of Estes’ rare portraits will also be included in the exhibition.
Born in 1932 and raised in the Chicago area, Estes studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago from 1952 to 1956. In 1959, he moved to New York City, where he has resided ever since. Through 1966 he worked in commercial publishing and advertising doing paste-ups, layouts, and illustration. By the late 1960s, in the aftermath of Pop Art, and in strong reaction to abstract painting, his art developed based in Dutch, Venetian, and American traditions of urban architectural representation. Originally working as a figurative painter, starting around 1967 Estes focused upon everyday scenes of urban vernacular streetscapes devoid of human figures. By the early 1970s, he emerged among a group of U.S. painters who unselfconsciously returned to sharp-focus realism, using photographs as the source of their images. He was soon celebrated as the premier painter of American cityscapes.
Over the last 45 years, Estes has widened his subjects to include the human figure and images of epic natural landscapes inspired by Maine and his wide travels abroad. His compositions are incredibly precise, yet surprisingly painterly amalgams of the multiple photographs he takes for each composition. His brilliant transcriptions of light, reflection, and shadows layer and merge the multiple viewpoints of his densely detailed scenes. Though figures are often present in his work, they are—like most passersby in public spaces— anonymous and uncommunicative.
Estes purges all angst and privation from his tidy and unlittered streets. His mastery revolves around his dramatic and complex —to the point of ambiguity—compositions. His suave, seemingly effortless technical finesse immaculately captures the intricate geometries of the city, the subtle contours, nuances, and tones of landscapes, and the shimmering and amorphous properties of water. Estes’ realism has become a compelling record of the appearance of the late 20th and early 21st century urban environment, modern existence, and nature.
Richard Estes’ most recent American museum survey of paintings was his 1991 exhibition of urban landscapes, also presented by the Portland Museum of Art in Maine. Previously, a 1978 survey organized by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston traveled to three other U.S. museums. In 2007, the Palazzo-Magnani, Reggio Emilia organized a slightly smaller retrospective of Estes work which also traveled to the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid but did not travel to the United States. Richard Estes’ Realism is accompanied by an exhibition catalogue with critical essays on Estes practice by curator Patterson Sims and Jessica May, Curator of Contemporary and Modern Art at the Portland Museum of Art, Maine.