Movie Review: ‘Actually, Iconic’ Profiles Richard Estes, Photo-Realistic Painter

Telephone Booths, 1967, by Richard Estes. Acrylic on masonite.
(Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza. Richard Estes/Courtesy of Marlborough/ASG)

Photo-realism’s most esteemed practitioner is a master of ‘what’s just in your world.’


don’t write about film, but today I’ll review a new documentary by filmmaker Olympia Stone called Actually, Iconic about Richard Estes (b. 1932), the American pioneer of photo-realism. It’s a school of painting I’ve always liked, and he’s not only one of its founders, along with Audrey Flack and Chuck Close, but one of its philosophers. I recommend the one-hour film for many reasons — it’s good art history, jargon-free, both jazzy and smooth — but most of all because it demystifies the making of art and the class of humans we call artists.

Estes became famous in 1968 for Telephone Booths, now at the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum in Madrid. His paintings of everyday scenes, many in New York, have a meticulous, metallic look, so crisp they suggest photographs, but that neither does them justice nor is correct. Photo-realism, with Estes at the helm, salvaged American painting from its unnatural, counterintuitive affair with the kind of abstraction practiced by Pollock, Rothko, de Kooning, and Motherwell and returned it to its roots in realism and the material, tactile world.

Making artists mysterious, haughty, and inaccessible is an art historian’s favorite and worst conceit. I hope I’ve never practiced this. It’s a power grab since it makes the art historian the medium, the keeper of the keys to understanding. It leaves the art lover a slave to the art historian’s interpretation. Both art and artist become vehicles in which the art historian drives us to his own concerns, causes, and grudges. It’s a racket.

Actually, Iconic lets the artist speak. It’s refreshing and conversational. Estes is quietly confident. He’s far from a mood-swing artist. When the artist does the talking and touring, we get not only a different point of view. It’s as though we’re hearing a beautiful new language. Kudos to Stone since it takes patience, charm, and, I assume, wiles to get artists, and the good ones are reticent, to speak so honestly and movingly.

Stone spent hours with Estes, who lives mostly on Mount Desert Island in Maine now, working in his studio in Maine but also on the streets in New York, where Estes still has a place, on the Upper West Side, and where he worked for years. Estes is broadly known as a New York artist, though he paints Maine seascapes, too, as well as luminous, sparkling views of Venice, but it’s fair for Stone to start in New York. The first part of the documentary takes us, with Estes, on a walk-through of Manhattan looking for subjects.

It’s a lovely start since the viewer becomes not only an observer but the artist’s companion. Estes is self-effacing and low-key, a nice guy doing his job, as are most artists, who, on one level, are making things. Estes takes us, camera in hand, on a bit of a scavenger hunt for subject matter.

Estes became famous in 1970 when the Whitney did a show called “22 Realists.” He was discovered a few years earlier by Ivan Karp, who worked with Leo Castelli and was an early proponent of the careers of Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, and Robert Rauschenberg. In 1968, the visionary dealer Allan Stone added Estes to his list of artists and gave him his first one-man show, where every painting was sold.

People’s Flowers, 1971, by Richard Estes. Oil on canvas. (Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza. Richard Estes/Courtesy of Marlborough/ASG)

Fifty years is a long time, and though Estes’s work from that period still feels fresh, Manhattan doesn’t look the way it did when he painted these pictures. It’s lost lots of its everyday, working-class panache. Estes loves the quotidian: automats, old yellow-cab clunkers, one-off non-brand billboards, movie marquees, and shop windows. It’s not nocturnal New York — that’s Hopper — but gleaming, daytime New York, a city of delectably shiny surfaces and abundance. There aren’t lots of people in Estes’s paintings, but the mood isn’t anything near Hopper’s loneliness or moodiness.

When people say, “Oh, I don’t like contemporary art,” I tell them, since my diplomatic filter is nearly gone now, “Well, that means you don’t like life.” Provocative and hyperbolic, I know, but it’s done to promote thought. Art, for Estes and for almost all artists, is, as he tells us, “painting what’s just in your world, trying to understand it by looking at it.”

“What’s just in your world” means the core things that concern us, in our time. For many years, that was religion, but for the United States, which never had much of a demand for explicitly religious painting, the material world — things — concern us most. We’re materialists, and guiding our national aesthetic are things we can see and touch. We’re making, buying, and selling creatures, but this aesthetic does spring from a religious belief that’s Puritan in origin.

God, in the Puritan and, I suppose, Protestant mind, made every object, however mundane, to serve a purpose. Its integrity — its contours, colors, details, and weightiness — is to be respected. Disguising or manipulating the form, simply, meddles with God’s handicraft. This is why abstraction — whether in fancy, free brushwork or, at its most extreme, Pollock’s poured paint or color-field painting, what seems like art without a subject — isn’t the default American style. It’s realism.

In painting, this begins with John Singleton Copley’s portraits, which are faithful representations down to the wrinkles on the subject’s face or the shine on his brass buttons. The American landscapists liked topographical accuracy, with wiggle room allowed. Eakins was a great realist, as was Homer. The Ashcan artists such as Sloan and Bellows loved everyday city life, as low life as it is. Americans liked Charles Sheeler’s grain elevators and number paintings because they were crisply, clearly rendered things. They celebrated the prosaic.

Abstract expressionism is, as a movement in American art, an aberration. Actually, Iconic gives us a launch from this post-war episode, which lost steam starting in the mid-1950s, to pop art. All it takes is comparing a Pollock action painting from the late 1940s with a Warhol Brillo Box to see that pop art, based on consumer products, including movie stars, comic strips, and mass media, was the big “welcome back” kiss for what Americans like best, aesthetically.

Even in the late 1960s, academics, critics, dealers, artists, and collectors looked at abstract expressionism with awe for three reasons. After 1945, it helped make New York the center of the art world, and lots of people made lots of money from it. Abstraction also defined what was avant-garde.

Richard Estes painting, July 2018. (Richard Estes/Courtesy of Marlborough/ASG)

Estes grew up near Chicago and studied at the art school at the Art Institute of Chicago. He moved to New York in the late 1950s and worked, as did many of the best American artists, in magazines and commercial illustration. This trained his eye for the beauty of the everyday and design that stressed no-nonsense essentials. Lots of American artists worked in the newspaper industry, which, like magazines, are about things that change. News is what’s happening now, much like advertising is about what’s new to buy. Andy Warhol was a well-known commercial illustrator in the 1950s before his pop-art career.

Estes says abstraction is “like writing music without a melody.” It takes Americans out of our comfort zone — the tactile, the everyday, and what the honest eye sees — and takes us to the impractical, unreliable world of dreams, subjectivity, and iffy, squishy thinking. That’s the philosophy.

Central Savings, 1975, by Richard Estes. Oil on canvas. (Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. Richard Estes/Courtesy of Marlborough/ASG)

Of course, within those parameters there’s endless room for invention. Estes’s subjects aren’t the touristy icons of New York like the Empire State Building but the things that are actually icons, New York’s mood makers. The outside of diners or the windows of florists and fishmongers are no Taj Mahal, but they’re quintessential New York. New York isn’t the place we go to look at old things. That’s Rome. New Yorkers are always on the make, and New York is constantly remade. People go there to remake themselves. So Estes likes eye-grabbing, shiny surfaces and clear, blue skies.

This doesn’t bar ephemerality, though. Estes loves it. Things come and go, and that’s ephemerality, but, for Estes, the magic of ephemerality is reflection. He’s the master of reflections, and that’s part of New York. It’s a city of reflective metal but also glass. We see things in fragments since the things that make city life are usually on the move, whether people, cabs, buses, or trains, but often we see just the reflections of things. These are like snapshots, but, depending on light and the surface, a reflection can be faithful or it can distort. Sometimes, in a single painting, the same object, often a person, is reflected multiple times. That makes for a twist on what’s real. Bright neon lights are ephemeral, too.

Estes admits that he became famous during “the hangover from abstraction” and that painting is itself an abstraction since it depicts, or abstracts, what’s real, using paint and a canvas. I visited him in his studio in Maine earlier this week and saw his latest work. They’re small, beautiful, close-up paintings of fallen trees he saw in the woods in Acadia National Park. These paintings present a feast of linearity in fallen trunks and a network of bare limbs, but his focus is so sharp, nearly microscopic, that these dead things seem animated.

In a way, they are, since rotting wood in a forest feeds life, but the textured, craggy surfaces look like they have a pulse. As Estes has gotten older, his work is more painterly. He’s less immersed in city life, which demands the frank flatness of acrylic paint, and he uses oil paint to evoke the lushness of nature. Estes has been working for over 50 years as a star artist but still experiments. The forest pictures are examples. A contemporary from the 1960s, Alex Katz, does the same subject matter he did 40 years ago. He paints what the market wants to buy. How boring.

Estes is a fantastic painter of water. New York, of course, is a waterfront town, as much as we think of it as a place for metal, concrete, and asphalt. Estes, we learn from Stone’s film, was always attracted to public transportation because that’s one ubiquitous, practical feature of city life, but it keeps people on the move. He paints ferry scenes that are simultaneous looks at the indoors of boats but also the water on the outside, so the view is bifurcated.

View of Manhattan from Staten Island Ferry, 2008, by Richard Estes. Oil on canvas. (© Richard Estes. Courtesy Marlborough Gallery, New York)

His water has zip. “You just scribble in the lines, and it always looks great,” he tells us, but that’s too modest. Water has depth, but it sparkles and reflects. It’s a rich material. Estes paints the best scenes of Venice since Canaletto, and he has the same feel for microscopic detail. Canaletto didn’t focus on everyday Venice life, though, or at least not after the 1730s. His later work depicted spectacles and tourist views. Estes tends to paint views from vaporettos. They’re picturesque since it’s Venice, but they feel like anecdotes or arbitrary glimpses.

When I was in Chicago a couple of weeks ago to write about two new exhibitions there, I visited one of my favorite paintings, Gustave Caillebotte’s Paris Street, Rainy Day, from 1877. Estes, of course, went to the Art Institute’s school and knows the painting well. Like many of Estes’s scenes, Caillebotte is a master at cropping, which means condensing, and relies on line rather than brushstrokes with body.

I often write about flaneurs, the city slickers who famously walked through Paris to see what they could see. Often flaneurs are spies for their own enjoyment but the impressionists found their best subjects, the off-the-beaten-track conflation of light, people, and architecture that presented both a compositional challenge and a view that evoked some aspect of city life. Estes is a modern flaneur.

The film interviews not only Estes but friends, dealers, and subjects, giving the viewer a saucy taste of the art world. It’s a documentary, and a good documentary convinces the viewer he’s there, with filmmaker and artist as teachers. There’s the world of art dealers. We learn that Karp liked Estes’s work, but his boss, Leo Castelli, wouldn’t work with him because “old-fashioned realism,” as Estes calls it, wasn’t a hothouse, critic- loved style. The big bulls of the art world like Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Kenneth Noland, Frank Stella, and Motherwell defined the market. Stone, a dealer who embraced eclecticism but uncannily spotted the next great thing, agreed to represent him. Even Stone was surprised that Estes’s first show sold out.

There’s good material on the power of art critics and academics, who, of course, can tank careers. I’ve doused them already with my own bile. Abstraction, to many intellectuals, evokes “complexity” — high falutin’ sophistication — while “old-fashioned realism” is not only more accessible, but it’s part of the America’s aesthetic heritage. As the ghosts of Columbus, Robert E. Lee, Booker T. Washington, and even Cervantes have learned in recent weeks, some people just don’t like history.

Estes’s work doesn’t have pop art’s irony, either. It has nothing to do with feminism or grievance culture. That said, as movements go, Photo-realism and the Pictures Generation — the emergence of photographers such as Cindy Sherman — herald together a return to a lineage that started with Copley.

This hasn’t affected Estes’s prices, since he’s an extraordinarily successful artist, but a class of eggheads thinks that American realism doesn’t have depth when, of course, it does. In any event, Estes did not get a New York retrospective until 2015, and then not at the Whitney, the Guggenheim, or the Museum of Modern Art but at the Museum of Art and Design, which did a lovely, thorough show.

Dealer Lou Meisel is in the film. He specializes in Photo-realism and fortifies Stone’s honest view of a working artist. “Estes and the other realists worked hard,” he tells us. They were painstaking craftsmen. “No booze, no drugs, no scandal. . . . They just worked eight hours a day.” Technically, Estes is seriously proficient. He uses photographs taken on the scene but likens them to a sketchbook. He doesn’t like plein air painting but, rather, works in his studio. “Working on the street in New York is impossible,” he says. “Too many interruptions, and I’d never get anything done.”

He’s anything but a copyist. He looks for scenes that inspire him to tackle a challenge, mostly a design challenge. He often works from memory and almost always supercharges his views, through color, often, but sometimes, like the dead trees he’s painting now, by zooming in so closely.

Sand Beach, 2010, by Richard Estes. Oil on canvas. (Private collection. Richard Estes/Courtesy of Marlborough/ASG)

In Stone’s film are wonderful moments by Estes’s easel. He uses an easel with wooden grips to steady his hand as he paints details. He’s not, after all, applying paint with a broom. He discusses his palette, intriguingly limited to about a dozen colors. These are burnt sienna, crimson, cadmium red scarlet and red orange, yellow ochre, cadmium yellow lemon, chrome oxide green, ultramarine blue, Prussian blue, burnt ochre, ivory black, titanium white, and emerald green. It’s a lovely palette, and learning about it helps make Actually, Iconic a film for artists as well as generalists.

It’s a film for scholars, too. I read the catalogue for the 22 Realists show. It’s online. These old catalogues don’t weigh a ton and are short on production values, among them glossy color illustrations, but the writing is often succinct and good. It’s art history’s first take on a movement. Estes, Philip Pearlstein, William Bailey, Robert Bechtle, and Close and Flack are well known today, Jack Beal and Arthur Leslie less so, but I didn’t know Richard Joseph and Maxwell Hendler. Sidney Tillim was an iconoclast painter, but I know him mostly for art criticism. Personally, and I’m not school-manic, I see Estes and Pearlstein as part of a heritage that also embraces Fairfield Porter, John Koch, Rackstraw Downes, and even artists such as Yvonne Jacquette and Lois Dodds. They start with subjects we know and surprise us from there.

Stone specializes in documentaries about art figures. Her film on her father, Allan Stone, was an incisive look at a giant in American taste-making and in the art market from the 1960s through his death in 2006. Stone discovered Wayne Thiebaud, Estes, and John Chamberlain and dealt deeply in the work of John Graham, de Kooning, Joseph Cornell, and Arshile Gorky. She’s also made films about artists Dave Beck, Elizabeth King, James Grashow, and the outsider artist Richard McMahan. I don’t known many filmmakers who are more adept in coaxing artists to reveal themselves in their own language. It’s a talent, and Actually, Iconic is a treat.

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