Just Like The Real Thing

Reviewing a career-spanning exhibition of the photorealist painter Richard Estes, Amy Henderson puts his distinctive style in its cultural context:

By the early 1960s, America’s marketing phenomenon was setting off cultural earthquakes. Social critics like Daniel J. Boorstin warned about the rise of a culture based on “simulation” and “illusion” rather than on reality. In his landmark The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America (1962), Boorstin pointed an angry finger at “Madison Avenue, Washington bureaucracy, the eggheads” for turning America into a land dominated by “pseudo-culture.”  

The idea of “simulation” had an impact in the art world as well. Warhol, after establishing himself as a highly successful commercial artist, began making “replications” of consumer products such as Brillo boxes and Campbell’s Soup cans. … By blurring the lines between commercial art and high culture, Warhol took direct aim at high-art snobs and proclaimed: We live in a supermarket world!

When Richard Estes ventured away from commercial art in the mid-to-late-’60s, he, too, carried the Mad Men brand with him. According to the exhibition catalogue, pop art amused Estes, but as “witty commentary more than art.” Instead, his lifelong love of photography led him to anchor himself in photorealism. The sense of simulation and illusion that were instrumental in his earlier career as a commercial artist would reemerge as central tenets of his photorealist art.