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Painting Or Photograph? With Richard Estes, It's Hard To Tell

Richard Estes, Jone's Diner, 1979, oil on canvas. (Private collection.) Click here for a closer look. (Courtesy of Marlborough Gallery/Smithsonian American Art Museum)

American painter Richard Estes has made a career out of fooling the eye. His canvases look like photographs — but they're not.

"You can't see my paintings in reproduction," the 82-year-old artist says. That's because, in reproduction, the paintings — especially his New York cityscapes from the late 1960s — look like photos. He's called a photo-realist, or hyper-realist — an intense observer of the built environment. But he doesn't paint the view from his apartment window.

"His window is a photograph," says Jessica May, co-curator of Estes' current show at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C.

Estes uses photography as a starting point for painting. He goes out and takes dozens of photographs of the same thing from different angles — street corners, diners, reflections on plate glass windows — then he cuts, pastes and manipulates the pictures. Finally, at his easel, he tries to make his painting as faithful to the photos as he can.

"Often he's putting two and three photographs together in order to create a complete image, and then basically compressing them into the compositional size and shape that he's looking for in a finished painting," May says.

The result is a city street you know you've walked on but that doesn't really exist. "He'll raise the height of a building," May says. "He'll move a car a little bit. He'll transpose the location of a street lamp or light post. ... He composes it."

But why doesn't Estes just stop with the photograph? "I don't know," he says. "I get more money for the painting, I guess." He laughs when he says that, but his paintings are part of some major museum collections.

Painting A Clean, Pure Reality

Estes studied art in Chicago in the '50s, then moved to New York where he got a job as a graphic artist. "I worked in advertising," he says. "That's where I started using photographs to make illustrations. I saw all the other people were doing it, all the other illustrators. They didn't put a model in front of them and make a careful drawing."

Estes applied those ad lessons to large canvases, producing meticulously painted buildings, windows and sidewalks, and almost no people, except for those reflected in his windows. Also: no traffic jams, dirt or menace, unless you're chilled by the unreal purity and perfection of the streets.

Jessica May points out that he does show graffiti and uneven pavements on occasion. In his 1979 canvas Jone's Diner, Estes reveals a yellow curb that has been scuffed by too many passing cars. "Richard has told me that it takes a long time to paint peeling paint," May says. "It's the hardest thing to paint."

Estes takes chunks of reality — a hyper-realistic reality that's clean and pure — and combines the chunks into something that doesn't really exist except on his canvases. And here's the thing about those canvases, and why Estes says you can't see them in reproduction: They are canvases.

"You get up close and they're really paintings," May says. "In photographs, when they're reproduced in books, they often look like photographs. But when you get into this exhibition and you see them as paintings, you see how very present the paint is on the surface."

The brushwork, the gesture of paint applied to cloth, the human touch — it's all there. In person (the Smithsonian show runs through Feb. 8), the clarity, precision and sheer meticulous labor of the work becomes mesmerizing.

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Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

The American painter Richard Estes has made a career out of fooling the eye.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

His canvases look like photographs.

INSKEEP: Except they're not.

MONTAGNE: And then again, they are. An exhibit of his eye trickery is on display now at the Smithsonian's American Art Museum in Washington.

INSKEEP: NPR special correspondent Susan Stamberg went to the show a skeptic. So let's find out if the exhibit changed her mind.

SUSAN STAMBERG, BYLINE: Pristine, precise, perfect, soulless? I had mostly seen photographs of Richard Estes'S work.

RICHARD ESTES: You can't see my paintings in reproduction.

STAMBERG: The 82-year-old artist is right. In reproduction, the paintings, especially his New York cityscapes from the late 1960s - streets, buildings, diners, storefronts - look like photographs. He's called a photo-realist, or a hyper-realist, an intense observer of the built environment. But he doesn't paint the view from his apartment window.

JESSICA MAY: His window is a photograph.

STAMBERG: Jessica May is co-curator of this Estes show.

MAY: Richard has been so consistent throughout his career of using photography.

STAMBERG: He uses it as a starting point for painting. He goes out, takes dozens of photographs of a street corner or reflections on plate glass windows from different angles. Then he cuts and pastes and manipulates the photos. Finally, at his easel, he tries to make his painting as faithful to the photos as he can.

MAY: Often he's putting two or three photographs together in order to create a complete image and then basically compressing them into the compositional size and shape that he's looking for in a finished painting.

STAMBERG: The result - a city street you know you've walked on, except it doesn't really exist.

MAY: He'll raise the height of a building, he'll move a car little bit, he'll transpose the location of a street light or a lamppost.

STAMBERG: He composes it?

MAY: He composes it.

STAMBERG: This is a very old question and I don't want to bore you with it, but why wouldn't you just stop with the photograph? Why go on and paint?

ESTES: I don't know. I get more money for the painting, I guess. (Laughter).

STAMBERG: It's probably true. He's in major museum collections. Estes studied art in Chicago, moved to New York and got jobs as a graphic artist.

ESTES: I worked in advertising. I mean, that's where I started using photographs to make illustrations. I saw all the other people were doing that, all the other illustrators. They didn't put a model in front of them and make a careful drawing.

STAMBERG: Moving the ad lessons to large canvases, he shows meticulously painted buildings, plate glass windows, sidewalks and almost no people - except reflected in his windows. No traffic jams, no dirt, no menace, unless you are chilled by the unreal purity and perfection of the streets. Co-curator Jessica May, she is from the Museum of Art in Portland, Maine - Estes splits his time between Maine and New York - Jessica May points out that he does show graffiti on occasion and uneven pavements. In his 1979 canvas "Jone's Diner," a yellow curb has been scuffed by too many passing cars.

MAY: Richard has told me that it takes a long time to paint peeling paint. It's the hardest thing to paint.

STAMBERG: What he's done is sanitize it all. I mean, there are chips of something there. Maybe it's trash of some sort - white - but they're white. It's sparkling, that little heap of whatever it is. And the paint, too, it's pure. It's rarefied in a way.

MAY: It's almost glamorous.

STAMBERG: I wouldn't go that far.

MAY: (Laughter) But there is this - a kind of elegance, I think.

STAMBERG: He's taking chunks of reality - hyper-realistic reality - so clean, so pure and combining the chunks into something that doesn't really exist, except so realistically on his canvases. And here's the thing about those canvases and why Estes says you can't see his canvases in reproduction - it's that they are canvases. Again, Jessica May.

MAY: You get up close, and they're really paintings. In photographs, when they're reproduced in books, they often look like photographs. But when you get into this exhibition and you see them as paintings, you see how very present the paint is on the surface.

STAMBERG: It's true; the brushwork is there, the gesture of paint applied to cloth - the human touch. In person - the Smithsonian American Art Museum show runs through early February - the clarity and precision and sheer meticulous labor of the work becomes mesmerizing. I'm Susan Stamberg, NPR News, Washington.

INSKEEP: Sort of like Susan's stories. To see some eye-tricking paintings, go to npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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