Upon first glance, many of the works on display at the Parrish Art Museum’s current exhibition may look uncannily like photographs. That’s the point.
From Lens to Eye to Hand: Photorealism 1969 to Today, on display through January 21, 2018, is a survey of Photorealism, a contemporary art movement spearheaded by artists who have embarked upon a new way of seeing and depicting the world. This exhibition features 73 paintings and works on paper by 35 artists—from early practitioners to second and third generation Photorealists—bringing together, for the first time in the United States, important paintings from public and private collections, and a series of watercolors and works on paper never before exhibited in an American museum.
The term Photorealism was coined by gallerist and author Louis Meisel in 1969. The style’s beginnings can be traced to 1968 and ’69 in New York and California. According to guggenheim.org, “Photorealism involved the production of images that deployed near-microscopic detail to achieve the highest degree of representational verisimilitude possible.”
Artists would use a photograph as the primary visual reference to paint “with the goal of photographic actuation [which] often included technical or pictorial challenges with a focus on surface, such as glass, reflections, or the effects of light.” Sometimes multiple photographs were used in order to “transcend the limitations of the singular depth of field of conventional photography.” Photorealism was almost immediately denounced as a fad in reaction to Pop, Minimalism and Performance Art and lampooned by critics as a betrayal of Modernism due to its return to representation.
No matter what the critics say, the works on display at the Parrish are a sight to behold, some indistinguishable from even the most high-defintion photo one could take with the most sophisticated of smartphones. If you ever owned a ’71 Buick or a ’73 Malibu, Robert Bechtle’s picture-perfect representations of those vehicles might transport you back to your own mid-’70s driveway. Even if you’ve been to the Met in New York, you’ve never quite seen it as crystal clear as Robert Neffson portrays it (see top of page). Ben Schonzeit’s “Winter Apples” look good enough to eat. You get the idea.
According to Terrie Sultan, Parrish Art Museum Director and exhibition organizer, “From Lens to Eye to Hand offers audiences an opportunity to see and experience photorealist masterworks, including spectacular paintings from the Parrish collection.”
The exhibition begins with some of Photorealism’s founding artists: Richard Estes, Chuck Close, Robert Bechtle and Ralph Goings, whose 1969 painting Jeep 40 809B (Safway Jeep), sets the stage. The exhibition concludes with hyper-realistic works by the later generations of Photorealists such as Yigal Ozeri, Raphaella Spence, Bertrand Meniel and Anthony Brunelli, all of whom reveal how recent technological advances in digital image-making can impact the painterly gesture. Taken together, From Lens to Eye to Hand firmly demonstrates that Photorealism remains, undiluted, conceptually coherent and consistently compelling.
In an essay included in the exhibition catalog, Richard Kalina notes, “What Photorealism conspicuously lacks is pretension,” which he explains, “is in direct opposition to academic art of all kinds.” It is, perhaps, Photorealism’s lack of pretension which draws the ire of critics. And perhaps its lack of pretension is what further impresses, fascinates and mesmerizes the viewer, compelling him or her to look a bit longer and deeper into each painting.
The impersonal, apolitical simplicity—save some more busy works (we’re looking at you “Wheel of Fortune” by East Hampton’s own Audrey Flack)—combined with the vivid representation and painstaking detail in the work on display is refreshing in today’s consumer-oriented, over-politicized culture in which “more is more is more” is shouted from every rooftop and Twitter handle. So forget the critics, turn off your phone and go look at some art!
The Parrish Art Museum is located at 279 Montauk Highway in Water Mill. Visit parrishart.org or call 631-283-2118 for more information.