featuresStudio visits
Sunday, September 1st, 2002

A Dialogue between Richard Estes and Gregory J. Peterson

Damon Lehrer, Portrait of Richard Estes, 2002. Collection of the author
Damon Lehrer, Portrait of Richard Estes, 2002. Collection of the author

I wanted to convince my friend, the photorealist artist Richard Estes, to consent to this interview. We were at dinner, and I said to him, “Richard, I shall lead the story by saying ‘Among the giants in the world of Contemporary Realism Richard Estes is a god.’ How does that sound?” I suppose it worked because a few weeks later I am in his apartment and we are having lunch, the tape recorder is going.

Well, what I said may have sounded like flattery, and to any other artist probably would have been, but let the truth be known, Richard Estes is a god among artists today, with legions of followers acknowledged and unacknowledged, aspiring to his masterly style (and few, if any succeeding) and decades of lofty prices in the commercial market place also attesting to his preeminence. Of course, the art itself, at its best, transcends all outward indicia of success. Only by looking at his paintings and contemplating them deeply does one find the secrets of his stature. His work is at once traditional, contemporary, and timeless. His urban landscapes capture the essence of the moment they are created without wallowing in pop ephemera.

I first became aware of Richard’s work in an art history course I was taking in the early seventies while a student at Columbia College. There we were shown a slide of his famous “Telephone Booths” painting, as the instructor introduced us to the school of Photorealism. That picture has remained etched in my mind for decades, and I always daydreamed about it and wondered where it was. Many years later I started collecting Realism myself. Then in the galleries I encountered Richard’s grand and stately cityscapes. His utterly precise, muted, portraits of Manhattan have an air of authority and definitiveness about them, their bravura technical feats hinting at the haughtiness and arrogance that typifies the metropolis they depict. What kind of man could produce works of such distinction? Would he share their cold aloofness? The thought of ever meeting him was kind of scary.

But getting to know Richard has been as astonishing as his artwork in its own way. He is an unique individual, a man of humility, openness and humanity. A gathering at his house is likely to include art world luminaries, members of the oldest, wealthiest families in America, nine-to-fivers, struggling artists and just plain strugglers, all treated with equal respect. His utter lack of arrogance, hauteur or self absorption is a jolting surprise considering how much he could get away with were he so inclined.

That is, however, unless one is on the subject of art. Go to an exhibition with Richard at your peril. His hypercritical eye can rip apart anyone, anyone, and your own eyes will never see that hapless artist the same. On a trip with Richard to see Matisse one day Matisse was taken down a notch when Richard disdainfully pointed out how the Frenchman was sloppy and inept at painting hands. Now I have problems with Matisse. When we went to the Metropolitan to see Vermeer he, well, let me spare you those cruel truths.

Richard cooks lunch and serves it in his immaculate, very grand apartment and studio overlooking Central Park. The first course dishes are washed before we’re into the second course. This meticulous side of his personality of course comes through in his paintings.

GJP: Richard, where were you born and when did you start painting?

ESTES: I was born in Kewanee, Illinois, population of four or five thousand. That was the major town, but wasn’t where we really lived. That’s only where the hospital was located. We actually lived in Sheffield, 20 miles from there. These towns are about 120 miles from Chicago.

GJP: How did you start painting?

ESTES: I don’t even remember. I always liked to draw. I was not much more than eight or nine years old when I got a Christmas present of an oil painting set. I guess they encouraged me to draw a little bit. If you go into the other room on the shelf you’ll see a little thing I did when I must have been about four years old about so big, signed “Dick Estes.”

GJP: When did you seek to become a professional? Did you go to an art school?

ESTES: I went to the Chicago Art Institute. I never really thought I’d end up as a painter, rather, I thought I would probably do commercial art or design or something like that. I didn’t think I’d be successful as a painter although I always wanted to do it. In school I concentrated on painting but I figured I’d have to face the music and do illustration when I got out, which I did for about ten years.

GJP: How did you cross over to fine art?

ESTES: I took work around and most galleries didn’t like it but finally I hooked up with a couple who did, Allan Stone, and Ivan Karp who worked at Castelli. That must have been around ’68 or ’69 when I had my first show.

GJP: Did the work have pretty much the look it has now?

ESTES: Pretty much. I had things like this picture here with wrecked cars which probably struck their pop fancy.

GJP: But your work isn’t really “Pop” at all. It doesn’t have the superficial feel of pop art. However, there was a sort of school developing at that time. Did you identify with the other Photorealists?

ESTES: I didn’t know any of the Photorealists. It’s funny, but a lot of people sort of developed it independently..

GJP: What about your Telephone Booths painting. When did you do that?

ESTES: That was one of the very first, I think I did that about 1968. Allan Stone sold it. Some investment banker bought it first, with four or five paintings from that show, but when there was a stock market crash a couple of years later and he sold all my works. They sort of saved his neck. Then Allan sold it to Thyssen [referring to the late Baron Hans Heinrich Thyssen-Bornemisza, one of the greatest collectors of Western Art of the 20th Century], he was a friend of his, and told him, “buy this”, so he did.

Estes remained with Allan Stone until about 1990 because “Allan had basically closed his gallery. He had a fight with the Landlord, just moved out and didn’t find another space for about three years. So that’s when I went to Marlborough.” Estes remains there to this day.

GJP: How do you find the subject matter for your pieces?

ESTES: I just wander around and look at things and take a lot of pictures, then if something strikes me and I think it’s interesting . . ..

GJP: When did you start figuring reflective surfaces into your images?

ESTES: Right away. At this certain point when I did those telephone booths. I went through a phase of going and sitting in cafeterias and drawing and going out and doing drawing,but I knew from all my work in advertising that the illustrators all use photographs, and I said “Why am I doing all this? It’s masochistic” It just makes it more difficult, not necessarily any better. The photographs are what makes it possible to do all these things with reflections and things that are just there for a moment when the light hits. It seemed a little absurd to get an easel sitting in the street, with the wind blowing and people stopping you to ask stupid questions. And I didn’t really want to do things just out of my mind; make up things. . . Whatever I would make up just turned out trite.

GJP: Did you ever dally with pure abstraction?

ESTES: Not really. I think abstraction is just another part of painting. You always have to have that quality, but it’s just one element of the painting. Pure abstraction is like having a lot of sound without any melody.

GJP: Mondrian doesn’t appeal to you?

ESTES: Not really. Jackson Pollock is really quite pitiful. I mean, only the 20th Century could come up with something like that.

GJP: Who are some other painters whom you admire? How about some historical figures; have you any particular favorites, or people whom you think about when you’re painting?

ESTES: Actually I like Canaletto and Bellotto a lot, people like that. You name it. That’s like asking a musician whether he likes Beethoven and Wagner, and whatever, they’re the classic ones. So it’s kind of silly to ask whether you like Michelangelo and Goya. . . .

That Richard is an admirer and follower, in a way, of Canaletto and Belotto is abundantly clear if one looks at a number of paintings he’s retained in his own collection. Hung in his dining room is my very favorite painting of his, a view of the Arno in contemporary Florence, with the Ponte Vecchio in the background. A few figures in contemporary dress indicate the period. Unlike the earlier Telephone Booths which is downright jazzy in comparison, it captures the same serenity and majesty of the above named Old Masters, without introducing any artifice or romance. The marvel of Estes greatest works is that they purport to record an empirical scene, but also hint of God-given orderliness and a enigmatic tranquility.

ESTES: (Continues) I think I like Eakins, he is what I like.

GJP: Were you aware when you started to work openly with photography that Eakins had used it?

ESTES: I always knew Eakins used photography. He was rather famous for that. Remember his association with Muybridge, for example, who did the motion photographs. Now they’ve recently discovered Eakins used photography a lot more than we thought, but it comes as no great surprise. Degas used photography a lot, Manet. . . Soon as it was invented they started using it. And Hockney says they always had these instruments for tracing images. There’s no way that way Bellotto or Canaletto could have done those paintings without the camera lucida because they’re too accurate. It’s not a matter of just approximating what everything looks like, it’s quite nailed down, down to how many windows you can see in the tower and things like that. Once I went to Venice and I had a book of Canaletto’s paintings and you can find the sites and you can go there and see how accurate they are because a lot of it is still there.

GJP: When you were in school did you feel a stigma if you were to use a photo?

ESTES: Well I never did in school, only after I got out of school and started working in advertising, then I started using photographs.

GJP: Do you remember any of the products you illustrated?

ESTES: Mostly I specialized in industrial advertising. We did power plants or tires . . . Nothing glamorous, although we did do some annual reports for corporations like IBM, things like that.

GJP: Were you freelancing all that time?

ESTES: I had periods when I worked for different studios. I worked for about a year for Popular Science Magazine. Freelanced more after that.

That left him time to do his painting.

GJP: Whom do you admire working today?

Richard declines to discuss individuals (and this is a shame, really, because his put-downs of artists he believes can’t paint can be hilarious).

ESTES: I think there are some really good realist painters but they don’t get any recognition from the press. And yet they’ll write these long articles in the New Yorker and the Times about really dreadful stuff and they don’t pay any attention to Realism. It’s sort of an ideology that’s taken over the press. It’s like the old Communists. They just don’t talk about anything they don’t agree with.

We take a little tour of the room Richard uses as his studio overlooking Central Park; an expanse twice the size of my own apartment. (His main residence is a very large house in Maine where his studio appears to have been converted from a ballroom.) All is spotless. Perched on an industrial sized easel, at the top of which are clipped an array of tiny halogen lamps, is his current opus, a study of Broadway, facing south just below Lincoln Center. Among the faint reflections in a storefront window under a scaffold is that of a large American flag. Richard has a formidable collection of artworks here and throughout the apartment which is decorated with Art Deco overtones. In Manhattan the collection includes works by Arshile Gorky, Jean Cocteau, Joseph Stella, Marsden Hartley and the exciting young Brooklyn artist Andrew Lenaghan (whose work his highly influenced by Estes and his followers) on loan from the George Adams Gallery.

Several weeks after our interview I am off to Madrid to see the Thyssen collection. Baron Thyssen has passed away, and I’m told there is black bunting surrounding the entrance to the museum. Finally, after thirty years I will get to see the famous Telephone Booths. I see the entire museum from top to bottom, dazzled by the collection, dazed in a fog of jetlag. Then I spot the Telephone Booths in a framed poster in the museum shop. Somehow I missed the actual painting. I go back and make inquiries of an official who informs me that it’s kept on the patio, currently under renovation. Telephone Booths is out of public view. Maybe I’ll see it in another thirty years!