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The​ retrospective of Richard Estes’s work (until 8 February) is dazzling in more than one sense. From the late 1960s, when he established his mature style, his paintings of New York make use of hard, reflective surfaces like plate-glass shop windows, car bonnets, fenders and windscreens to fragment, distort and multiply images, replicating something of the visual complexity, speed and energy of the city streets. Estes is often associated with Edward Hopper, and the influence is evident in some of his earliest work, but by the mid-1960s, it was waning. In Estes’s Horn and Hardart Automat (1967) day-lit multiple reflecting surfaces bring an apartment block, traffic and signage pouring through the plate glass into the interior of the cafeteria. This seems far away from Hopper’s Automat (1927), one of his moody, psychologised city works, set at night and populated by an isolated figure. Estes now calls Hopper’s paintings ‘romantic’ or ‘period pieces’.

Estes is identified with the photorealist school of painting. With their glossy, often hard finish, an almost enamelled quality, and photographic degree of verisimilitude, his work looks at home in that context. But it might be more useful to compare his pictures with those of the veduta painters of the 17th and 18th centuries, with Vermeer’s View of Delft and The Little Street, or the views of Venice by Canaletto and the Guardis. The Smithsonian exhibition includes two canvases of Venice from 1980, View towards La Salute, Venice and Accademia, Venice, that are reminiscent of 18th-century Venetian painters even if they show the buildings of the city reflected, multiplied and distorted by the glass windows of vaporetto stops. Piranesi’s detailed etchings of Rome – The Colosseum, for instance – seem a probable influence but Estes, who is most definite about his likes and especially his dislikes (Pop art is ‘silly’), regards drawings, etchings and lithographs as ‘incomplete’ because they are not coloured. As for his interest in reflection, it seems to have been ignited by the pictures he saw at the National Gallery during his travels as a young artist: small Turner watercolours ‘with distorted reflections in windows – or mirrors perhaps’, Van Eyck’s The Arnolfini Portrait, in which the mirror behind the couple reflects two figures at the door and The Rokeby Venus by Velásquez, in which she admires her own reflection in a mirror – all these pictures, Estes says, ‘seemed to open up a lot of possibilities for painting’.

‘Columbus Circle at Night’ (2010)

‘Columbus Circle at Night’ (2010)

Estes had already taken a great deal of photographs before he arrived as a student at the Art Institute in Chicago. He was drawn to Degas, Thomas Eakins and Hopper and to the quotidian and ordinary as subject matter. He originally wanted to study architecture, and buildings, rather than the human figure, take precedence throughout his work. ‘I was connecting more to the city than to any person,’ Estes said of his time in Chicago. ‘That’s where I felt most at home … Everything impressed me … I’d get on a bus, the L, or the streetcars, and explore the city, the grand old movie palaces with lobbies the size of churches and several balconies of seats, the loop with its skyscrapers.’ He finds the presence of the human figure in most painting ‘anecdotal’ and a ‘distraction’. New York School photography from the 1930s to 1960s – Levitt, Frank, Klein, Croner, Vestal, early Leiter – seems to be of little interest to him, perhaps on account of the human presence and social content, and also because they are black and white. But Atget’s photographic documentation of Parisian streets and buildings is a major influence. Paris Street Scene of 1972 is one of the first pictures in which Estes used an oblique perspective, with the plate-glass windows of the shop or office in the foreground reflecting the buildings and cars on the other side of the street, which is devoid of pedestrians or traffic. This seems to me the most convincing of his foreign city paintings: he captures the grey Parisian light and the texture of the 19th-century street with an intimacy he doesn’t usually quite manage in cities other than New York. Other city paintings in this exhibition, though pleasing, feel merely picturesque, as do his nature paintings of Antarctica and Maine, where he has lived since 1975.

‘Times Square’ (2004)

‘Times Square’ (2004)

After Estes graduated from the Art Institute of Chicago in 1956, he moved to New York where he worked as a commercial artist. The process of paste-up and layout, along with the habit of using photographs for quick sketches, clearly influenced his work. For several years he painted at night and when he’d saved up enough money travelled to Europe to look at Turner and Velásquez. By 1967 he had enough work to put together a portfolio of paintings and went searching for a gallery; in February 1968 Allan Stone gave Estes his first solo show. His paintings sold out and have sold briskly ever since.

Estes works differently from most of the other artists identified with photorealism. His choice of camera has changed over time but not the manner in which he works: from a photograph, or more usually, a set of photographs – a single one doesn’t provide enough of the visual information his eye encountered out there on the street. He doesn’t project the photograph onto the canvas but sketches in the details freehand and then uses acrylic paint, which dries fast so he can make changes easily. He finishes the painting off in oil. Many realist painters, like John Sloan and the Ashcan School, render architecture in a more or less gestural fashion. But Estes is fascinated by architectural form and the way it can be used to frame interiors and the reflections contained within those interiors. In his work the edges of buildings are very clearly rendered with rulers and T-squares, as are the details of fenestration, fire escapes, balconies, ledges, awnings, ornaments, façades, signage and the rest. His earliest city landscapes are frontal, and are usually of stores: beaneries, pharmacies, florists, far busier than but not so far away from Hopper’s world. By the early 1970s the gaze of his camera widens, taking in larger views. He also begins to approach the material from different angles. In his more panoramic paintings Estes sometimes bifurcates a canvas with an architectural support or angled expanse of glass that separates the scene and its reflection, lending the canvas a diptych-like effect: Paris Street Scene works this way.

Estes recoils from emotional suggestion of any kind, as from storytelling or narrative. One of his enduring models is Eakins, who in his quest for accuracy used a magic lantern-like device for detailed transcriptions and tracings from photographs.

When I look at Eakins – the painting, the colour and the forms – everything is so beautiful that I’m not really concerned about who the people are or what they’re doing. The portrait of his wife at the Metropolitan: he could have spent months adjusting the values of that hand. It has nothing to do with hands, or the woman, or anything emotional. It’s just beautiful painting, and it’s about painting.

Estes paints almost exclusively in daylight, although there’s a very handsome recent canvas in the current show, Columbus Circle at Night (2010), in which shop fronts and office lights reflect off one another and on to the street. When Estes was living on the West Side of Manhattan in the 1970s many of the cityscapes were done early on Sunday mornings when there were few cars or pedestrians to interfere with his sightlines. Two panoramic paintings of Midtown, Times Square and 43rd and Broadway, the former on a wet day, are so exuberant in their controlled frenzy – the light, artificial and natural, in beguiling conversation; the reflected images of buildings, vehicles and signage; this pedestrian and that, bouncing off one another, multiplying and refracting visual information – that I’m still vibrating here in California two weeks after I saw them.

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