Art Dictionary

Photorealism

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“. . . Village Voice critic Howard Smith asked me, ‘What are you going to call this group?’ I said, ‘I don't know, what am I going to call them? They're using the photograph, they're being very open about it. It's photographic realism. I don't know, Photorealism.” (Louis K. Meisel)

Fragments of the American urban landscape by Richard Estes; reflections in shop windows by Tom Blackwell; highly polished cars by Don Eddy; trucks, pick-ups, and trailers by Ralph Goings; the gleaming surfaces of motorcycles by David Parrish; fast-food restaurants and diner scenes by John Baeder; colorful consumer items for both children and adults, such as chewing gum vending machines or pinball machines by Charles Bell. In the late 1960s several young artists in the United States began capturing primarily everyday motifs from their immediate surroundings, expressing the “American way of life” in meticulous, faithfully detailed, large-format paintings. They based their paintings on photographs, most of which they took themselves, transcribing them precisely onto the canvas in an elaborate process involving slide projectors or working with grids.

These images of images, in oil or acrylic, done with brushes or spray paint guns, were shown in the United States for the first time in 1970 at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York; in Europe the documenta 5 was considered the first large Photorealism group show. Under the motto “Questioning reality – visual worlds today” the Kassel art exhibition, curated by Harald Szeemann in 1972, presented the new, emerging style, helping it achieve an international breakthrough. There followed more than 100 exhibitions around the world during the 1970s; countless reviews and commentaries appeared in newspapers and magazines about this highly naturalistic, realistic kind of art.

From the start, Photorealist painting immediately attracted a wide audience, luring it into a labyrinth of reality and reflection. Art critics, on the other hand, were full of indignation: Photorealism, according to most critics, was not art, but masterful copying. The style was rapidly categorized as a pale imitation of reality, an anti-intellectual, conservative, reactionary phenomenon. Yet, it was not the artists’ intention to compete with the precision of the camera lens. Rather, they were interested in the complicated relationship between the reproduction and the reproduced, the specific technical problems involved in transferring color, surface structures, points of light, and reflections to the canvas, in order to ultimately create a unique, new visual reality that referred less to a reality outside of the picture than to the reproduction of reality. The paintings look like photographs, but are works of art that have been produced through the classic means of painting. “My paintings look real, but it’s a subjective reality,” Charles Bell said. A radical change of scale—such as the frequently employed process of enlargement—took the paintings to a state where they were beyond mere copies; some artists even allowed the brushwork to be seen. Through their methods, the pioneers of Photorealism began a change in the paradigm of art history whose effects have lasted to this day.

In 1969 the New York gallerist Louis K. Meisel invented the term Photorealism to describe a style rooted in the United States. In 1972 Meisel reinforced his first definition with five points: a Photorealist uses the camera to come up with the image. He uses mechanical means to transfer the information to the canvas. A Photorealist must make his work look like a photograph. He must have exhibited as a Photorealist by 1972 and have spent at least five years in developing and exhibiting Photorealist works of art.

Most of the artists—the core group consisted of John Baeder, Robert Bechtle, Charles Bell, Tom Blackwell, Chuck Close, Robert Cottingham, Don Eddy, Richard Estes, Audrey Flack, Ralph Goings, John Kacere, Ron Kleemann, Richard McLean, Jack Mendenhall, David Parrish, John Salt, and Ben Schonzeit—came from New York, on the American East Coast, or from California, on the West Coast. However, the Photorealists were not a cohesive group, nor did they consider themselves part of a movement. There was no manifesto and they issued no statements on collective positions or goals. The Swiss artist Franz Gertsch, for example—one of the few European representatives from the pioneer era of Photorealism, who transferred his first work via a slide projector onto a canvas in 1969—was not aware of anything similar going on in America. In the meantime the founders of Photorealist techniques were united in their protest against abstract art, which dominated the globe with its often extremely subjective, passionate attitude. With those working in Pop Art they shared an interest in a kind of figurative painting devoted to the everyday subject, but the Photorealists distanced themselves from the glamorous, ironic attitudes of Pop Art.

After the first Photorealists, most of who were featured at the documenta 5, there followed a generation of artists in the 1980s and ‘90s whose origins and choice of motif internationalized the genre. Inspired by the American pioneers of Photorealism, these artists (most of them from Europe, including Davis Cone, Randy Dudley, Robert Gniewek, Don Jacot, Bertrand Meniel, and Bernardo Torrens) often devoted themselves to urban scenes. The urban views, however, no longer featured exclusively American motifs. Anthony Brunelli, for instance, was interested in the rural towns in northern New York, where he grew up, as well as in exotic places in Vietnam or Cambodia, and in international metropolises such as Prague, Paris, Monaco, and Zurich.

Today’s Photorealists, such as Roberto Bernardi, Clive Head, Ben Johnson, Peter Maier, Yigal Ozeri and Robert Neffson, are using highly modern digital technology to take realistic painting into a new dimension; their paintings’ naturalistic details are so deceptive to the eye that, more than ever, the viewer doubts the reality of the art. The razor-sharp, hyper-realistic paintings by Raphaella Spence (born in London, raised in France and Italy) are exemplary for this tendency: using a 66-megapixel camera, she photographs cities all around the world, flying over them in a helicopter—a nocturnal, brightly lit Las Vegas, for example—and then afterward transfers the motif, pixel by pixel to the canvas.

Photorealism can look back at almost fifty years of history, yet the fascination it holds for the viewer is still unbroken. “The viewer’s astonishment,” write Otto Letze and Nina S. Knoll in their essay in the book, Photorealism: 50 Years of Photorealistic Painting, “has consistently intensified over three generations as the degree of sharpness in the resolution of these works has also grown.”

Based on: Photorealism: 50 Years of Hyperrealistic Painting, Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2013

Thematic photographs:

Don Eddy, Untitled (4 VWs), 1971 (detail), F. Javier Elorza, © Don Eddy, © for the repro: 2012 Gonzalo de la Sern

November 28, 2012 Stefanie Gommel

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