Keeping It Real
Keeping It Real
In 2006 a traveling retrospective of Robert Bechtles paintings, drawings and watercolors completed its cross-country tour at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, in Washington, D.C. The show, which originated at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 2005, included at least two dozen of the photorealist works that established this Bay Area artist’s reputation in the late 1960s and early 1970s: suburban scenes of cars parked in front of stucco houses and people standing in snapshotlike poses, all bathed in sun-bleached California light. Today his strikingly true-to-life scenes are remarkable not only for their well-crafted detail but for the sense of nostalgia they elicit. “Probably more than any other exhibition at the Corcoran during my tenure, the Bechtle show was loved virtually uniformly,” says Jonathan Binstock, formerly a curator at the museum and now an art adviser at Citigroup, in New York. “Artists, collectors and the general public all seemed moved and impressed.
Janet Bishop, a curator at SFMOMA who organized the Bechtle show there, observes that the retrospective has had a ripple effect on the artist’s reputation. “When I was initially visiting museums with Bechtles in their collections, the works had not been seen for a long time,” Bishop says. “Now he is slowly having a presence in those museums’ galleries.” She also notes that one of the works in the show, Watsonville Chairs, 1976, was the cover image of Christie’s First Open catalogue from last February; it was the top lot in the sale, bringing $396,000, close to the artist’s record of $408,000, paid for ’62 Chevy, 1970, in November 2006, also at Christie’s.
It’s not just Bechtle but also other photorealist artists who are being reevaluated, says Bishop, and not only in the salesroom. “This is a moment when photorealism is ripe for reconsideration,” she says. “Fellow curators are certainly interested.” The idea of photorealism as a movement fizzled, Bishop says, because the technically accomplished works gained such broad popular appeal “that the art world became suspicious. Now they are circling back with the realization that these are extraordinary paintings.”
In the early 1970s, artists such as Bechtle, Chuck Close, Robert Cottingham, Richard Estes, Audrey Flack, Ralph Goings and Philip Pearlstein strove to render scenes from daily life with optical precision. Their bravura paintings were termed photorealistic because of their technically daunting resemblance to photographic images, sometimes heightened by the use of an airbrush to create a seamless surface. Estes is known for visually complex urban scenes that shimmer with meticulously detailed reflections, like those in the glass-and-aluminum doors of his Telephone Booths, 1967. Cottingham focuses on signage from retail stores and theaters, which he often depicts in extreme close-up and on a large scale. Goings’s suburban streetscapes feature parked cars and pickup trucks and are presented as matter-of-factly as his meticulously painted arrangements of diner condiments—bottles of ketchup and hot sauce, jars of relish—on gleaming Formica tabletops. Pearlstein and Close concentrated on the human figure and portraiture, respectively, treating the flesh and features of their subjects in frank, unidealized ways. Flack is known mostly for still lifes in which paint tubes, brushes and other symbols of art making are arranged alongside traditional vanitas objects such as fruit, flowers, skulls and candles.
In its lens-sharp clarity, viewfinderlike cropping and happened-upon moments, photorealism reflected the new pervasiveness of photography in contemporary life. By the 1960s, the latter medium had altered the way people saw—and framed—the world. More and more, commercial photographs appeared in color; the Polaroid, meanwhile, brought color home to the personal snapshot. Even serious photographers were taking life’s most ordinary, incidental moments, both domestic and public, as their subject matter. In the late ’60s, the term “snapshot aesthetic” came to denote the commonplace quality that characterized these images, but the roots of the style can be traced to the previous decade and the work of Robert Frank. Frank’s photographs in the book The Americans were initially dismissed because of their raw, informal look. At first glance they seemed amateurish, but they possessed the same spontaneity and modesty as the work of the Beat poets and writers with whom he associated. Frank’s documentary approach paved the way for photographers like Diane Arbus, Lee Friedlander and Garry Winogrand, whose pictures reflected their personal experience of the world.
The similarities between the work of the photorealists and that of the photographers may not be deliberate, but in retrospect the two groups seem ineluctably connected. Ralph Goingss McDonald’s Pickup, 1970, depicts a suburban street with a pickup parked in front of the fast-food restaurant and a palm tree nearby. The precisely rendered image makes the painting photographic, as does its construction: the middle ground point of view, objects placed at an angle to the picture plane, the inclusion of peripheral details. The work brings to mind Friedlander’s Texas, 1965, which also features a pickup truck, despite the photographer’s overt concern with the properties of his medium, evidenced by the presence of his shadow in the picture, reminding us that he was there to capture it, and the knot of juxtaposed elements that keeps our eyes moving through the frame. It is worth noting that Stephen Shore and William Eggleston, pioneers of color photography in the early 1970s, borrowed, consciously or not, from the photorealists. Their photographic interpretation of the American vernacular—gas stations, diners, parking lots—is foretold in photorealist paintings that preceded their pictures. At the same time, artists such as John Baldessari, Robert Rauschenberg, Gerhard Richter, Ed Ruscha and, of course, Andy Warhol were exploring the photographic image in other, more conceptual terms, taking pictures of their own, as well as using found images, and incorporating them into their work.
Considered in this art-historical context, photorealism seems inevitable, yet it has been generally dismissed as a conceit. For more than 30 years, critics and scholars have, for the most part, written it off as an example of style trumping substance—of trompe l’oeil bravado. Many 20th-century painters, too, regarded the camera as a mere tool, without the potential for creative expression. The photographic image, they thought, lacked the ideological grandeur—never mind the artistic validity—of painting. The photograph’s optical fidelity to reality may have possessed its own magic, but the use of the camera to create a shorthand of objective representation was just too easy. What’s more, to paint from a photograph was one thing, but to establish a photographic vocabulary within the realm of painting was quite another. The photorealists did just that and were accordingly deemed to have crossed a line. For their audacity alone, no doubt, they were scorned. Perhaps as a result, the artists, most of whom are still actively making and showing their work, have distanced themselves from the style—and its negative associations—despite having essentially defined it. Some of them have evolved a looser, more textured and brushy technique while continuing to portray similar subject matter. Interestingly, by the late 1970s, Close had begun to explore a more experimental approach in his large-scale portraits and has enjoyed a broader success than the others.
Today, however, many experts give photorealism more credit. “Not only do these artists have great technical skill, but they are the great depicters of pure Americana,” says Barrett White, a former contemporary specialist at Christie’s who is now the director of the New York branch of Haunch of Venison gallery. “This is not a gimmicky art but in fact a very important movement. It is the conclusion of Pop art in the same way that color-field painting is the conclusion of Abstract Expressionism.”
New York dealer Jeffrey Deitch recalls that when he first arrived in New York, in the early 1970s, the art world establishment had turned its back on photorealism, but “artists found it fascinating.” And continued to do so. He remembers hearing artists during the 2004 exhibition “The Photorealist Project,” at New York’s National Academy of Design, “talking about the work. Even radical, nonfigurative artists were sharing their enthusiasm for it.” Deitch notes the current trend to representational painting but believes that photorealism still needs a critical sifting to single out the top works. “Then there should be a great American exhibition that shows the great [photorealist] works. It’s going to happen.”
Photorealism was grounded in a host of conceptual ideas. As Estes famously said, “I don’t believe the photograph is the last word in realism.” These painters weren’t copying photographs or just documenting their surroundings—not even a photograph shows you the world with the complexity of an Estes painting. Rather they were concerned with larger questions about the nature of perception.
New York dealer Louis Meisel, who first represented many of the photorealists in the early 1970s at his SoHo gallery, is credited with coining the controversial label. Meisel has an inventory of 50 or so “early major works” by Estes, Goings, Bechtle and others. “I loan them for museum shows from time to time,” he says. “For over 20 years, I was trying to convince people to buy Bechtle. The works were going for $25,000 to under $100,000. After the SFMOMA show, the prices skyrocketed. There hasn’t been a blistering Estes on the market for 10 years, but today one could easily command $500,000 to $1 million.”
The market finally matters for photorealism,” says Barrett White. In 2003, Christie’s sold Goings’s Blue Chip Truck, 1969, for $320,000, and in 2006 his Still Life with Hot Sauce, 1980, sold for more than $400,000. “Those kinds of results have encouraged people to start letting their own paintings go. Today, if you had a great photorealist work come up for auction, like a perfect Bechtle, it could command $1 million. It’s a matter of the right material being available,” White explains. “You will see another step up in the market when that happens.
Several works do appear each season, mostly in day sales, and prices have climbed to the six-figure range. At Christie’s last November, Cottingham’s Billy’s, 1980, brought $253,000 (est. $80,000–100,000), a record for the artist. The same month at Sotheby’s New York, Goings’s Relish, 1994, sold for $481,000 (est. $300–400,000), and Estes’s Ticket Window, 1969—which just two years earlier had fetched £96,000 ($173,000) at Sotheby’s London—realized $265,000 (est. $200–300,000). In the same sale, Cottingham’s Ode, 1971, was snapped up for $241,000—a significant jump from the $69,600 garnered by the work just two years earlier at Christie’s.
Collectors ask me if there is an inventory of work from the period,” says Robert Fishko, director of the Forum Gallery, in New York, which represents Cottingham. Fishko adds that such inquiries have increased in the past two or three years, explaining, “An interest in photography, which is much greater today, has had a lot to do with it.” Most recently, it is the black-and-white documentary pictures from the 1960s and 1970s—a source for photorealist painters—that have gained considerable attention from collectors and curators alike.
In The Photographer’s Eye, the late John Szarkowski, longtime head of the photography department at the Museum of Modern Art, writes: “More convincingly than any other kind of picture, a photograph evokes the tangible presence of reality. . . .The photographer’s vision convinces us to the degree that the photographer hides his hand.” In their own way, the photorealist painters aspired to hide their hands and let the plain facts be their subject. To have represented a 35-millimeter universe in painting was a serious artistic achievement. What is photographic about their work may seem deceptively simple. But in fact, they identified a significant cultural force—the mitigated image. “I photograph to see what things look like photographed,” Garry Winogrand once said. We might say that the photorealists painted to see what life looked like photographed—an undertaking perfectly relevant to our much-documented contemporary world.
"Keeping It Real" originally appeared in the January 2008 issue of Art+Auction. For a complete list of articles from this issue available on ARTINFO, see Art+Auction's January 2008 Table of Contents.