Rarely do splashy and big describe an art exhibit that’s also thoughtful, historic, and dramatically paced, but the Rose Art Museum’s "Double Take: Photorealism from the 1960s and ’70s" turns contradictions into complements. Curator Stéphanie Molinard looks back to that era in American art when Photorealism argued with Abstract Expressionism (Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell, Willem de Kooning): figuration instead of abstraction, detachment and objectivity rather than romanticism and subjectivity, technique supplanting playful experimentation. And the Photorealists had on their side Pop Art, which also aimed at separating artistic production from its makers’ personality. Drawn largely from the Rose’s own substantial holdings, "Double Take" re-examines an entire movement.
The Photorealists took as their source not reality but photography. The camera had absolved painters from having to copy the world; Photorealism set out to turn that freedom on its head. But "real" describes only a few square inches in this show’s oil paintings and silkscreens. And 40 years later, the photographic source seems beside the point. What resonates is the power, peculiarity, and melancholic force of this movement. Photography was the Photorealists’ springboard into the unreal.
You could argue that nothing is more photoreal than Audrey Flack’s 1972 Shiva Blue, with its palpable array of dizzyingly precise oil-paint tubes, or Ben Schonzeit’s 1973 Cabbages, which could be the contents of a vendor’s truck in Haymarket. These two paintings certainly stand out for their uncanny exactitude. Yet they’re neither photographic nor real so much as gargantuan. Shiva Blue measures 36 inches by 50 inches; Cabbages is 80 by 108. Since when did oil-paint tubes grow to the length of a packing crate? What’s the last time you laid your eyes on a three-foot head of cabbage? Their precision is undercut by their flabbergasting dimensions — they’re real in the same way the Giant in Jack and the Beanstock is real.
Then there’s their content and their composition. A number of the paint tubes in Shiva Blue look used — freshly squeezed. Fingerprints indent the bases of the red, yellow, and blue tubes in the foreground. Yet not a smudge of paint appears anywhere; the caps are spotless, the labels are legible, the table top on which they topple lies unblemished. The tubes pile up as bright and crisp as newly minted coins. (Anyone who’s visited an artist’s studio knows they’re not tidy.) But beyond these subtle if deliberate inconsistencies and the canvas’s otherworldly dimensions, Shiva Blue is a set-up, a stage, a make-believe scree. What ought to be a mess of bent and crusted objects is transformed into the glistening contents of a treasure chest. In the foreground, the mirrored table on which the tubes lie piled is indistinguishable from the pure play of light. You don’t know what you’re looking at. Photo-like, sure. Real, hardly.
Photorealists wrest the improbable from the commonplace, the complex from the simple. In David Parrish’s Yamaha, a plexiglass windshield rises at an angle from the handgrips of a bright, new motorcycle. The windshield refracts light and distorts perspective in so many directions, you’re both convinced of the picture’s accuracy and disoriented. Kaleidoscopic colors and shapes derived from the motorcycle merge with the objects beyond it. Are we looking at or through these surfaces? A distant row of parked cars appears reflected on the machine, once in a chrome headlight and again above on the surface of the windshield. This is verisimilitude in the service of the imagination.
And though Photorealism like Pop appropriates icons and images from pop culture, there’s a tremendous difference in mood and subject matter. Warhol did soup cans; the Photorealists took on the whole supermarket. At the Rose, you get a sense of their desire to reclaim public space, no matter how denuded. They focus on our paved, advertisement-riddled, automobile-crowded city streets; empty cars abound, emblems of human absence as well as shells of human industry. In John Salt’s Lunch Room, a beat-up sedan sits parked in wintry darkness before an abandoned building whose boarded windows and graffiti hint at decay. But even decay isn’t straightforward. Abutting the boarded part of the building, a pair of functional, intact aluminum doors appear under a Lunch Room sign; in the morning, people will be eating breakfast there. Like the human body, a city block dies by degrees.
Robert Bechtle’s 1973 Malibu also centers on an empty, parked car, but his is spiffy, a brightly polished white-walled affair shaded by a carport. In the background, trimmed hedges and a high cedar fence attest to well-tended middle-class bounty. Yet Bechtle’s sanitized, overdetermined suburban scene is as just as forlorn and abandoned as Salt’s grittier urban counterpart. Despair knows no class boundaries.
Ron Kleeman’s Gas Line, Noel Mahaffey’s Night Times Square, and John Baeder’s Market Diner — all silkscreens made in 1979 — likewise tap into homespun alienation. The ghost of Edward Hopper hovers above these works with their vans and cars and taxicabs stalled before nondescript buildings on unpeopled thoroughfares. In contrast, the silkscreens from Richard Estes’s Urban Landscape series celebrate the monumentality of contemporary public interiors. An escalator seen from below looks like the pinnacle of the Chrysler Building; the 1981 Bus Interior suggests the sleek geometry of a spacecraft; Subway from the same year enjoys a similar detached grandeur. Seen from an empty platform, an open subway car leads to a spotless, austere, vacant interior of muted tones and rectilinear patterns.
One of my favorite works is a classic American still life — objects on the Formica top of a diner booth. Ralph Goings’s 1978 Still Life with Sugars includes a chrome holder stuffed with white sugar packets, salt and pepper shakers, a glistening amber ashtray, and, smack in the middle, a bottle of Heinz catsup. Dimly visible in the dark background are the keys and the speakers of a jukebox. The clarity and proximity of the objects combine with the light that bathes them — think of a Vermeer window — to produce an unsettling combination of consumerism and passion. The everyday artifacts of an unsophisticated place are also intimate artifacts. And perhaps it’s that understanding — of the close and ironic connection between the commercial and the personal, the prefabricated and the heartfelt — that’s the Photorealists’ greatest legacy.
Issue Date: July 1 - 7, 2005
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