This past Saturday afternoon I left the Art Students League to view two exhibitions of New York City paintings—constant readers will recall my interest in city subjects. Originally I thought the juxtaposition of two artists’ works, seen in rapid order, would constitute a mildly mischievous undertaking. In the event, I was impressed by similarities, as well as the obvious differences. The painters, Richard Estes and John Dubrow, benefit from venues that match their styles. Estes’ work is on view at the Museum of Arts and Design, where the glass, stone and steel of his subjects align with the building’s interior, as well as the exterior views of Columbus Circle. Dubrow’s paintings are presented at Lori Bookstein Fine Art, and on a fine April day the gallery’s doors opened onto Tenth Avenue and the High Line, an urban playground in tune with Dubrow’s paintings.
The exhibition of Estes’ works, on the museum’s third floor, is a career retrospective that includes silk screens and photographs as well as major oils. Estes is arguably our most famous photorealist; his career, included in anthologies of modern American painting, began during the height of Pop Art. At the show I overheard a mature couple, standing before an early figurative work, negotiating related aesthetics and citing both John Currin and, in the lady’s words, “Mr. America”—she meant Norman Rockwell. Their confusion summarizes the uncertainty as to where Estes’ work resides, though he is neither a biting satirist nor given to populist sentiments. There is, I think, more and less to his work than meets the eye.¼
Less, in that there’s no sly agenda. His cityscapes are straightforward in their depiction of surfaces—usually architectural but occasionally organic—and as free of social commentary as one could imagine. Nor do they go out of their way to glamorize the city. Estes’ paintings are devoted, above all, to the compositional busyness that New York’s surfaces offer. Often painted under a sunlight that is clean and flat, the shimmering exteriors of Estes’ New York appear to be immaculate replicas of their subjects. According to the museum’s notes, Estes never projects his photographic references onto the canvas, and doesn’t merely copy a single snapshot, preferring to paint a distillation of numerous photos. His paintings, entirely credible and deceptively realistic, are studio productions. They are characterized by technical excellence and a conscientious draftsmanship that belie one’s suspicions that they have been traced, or even copied mechanically from photographic sources.
In Estes’ earlier paintings brushwork is still present, if barely. Sunday Afternoon in the Park, with its Elysian suggestions, follows the flow of light over rocks, sunbathers and buildings, and the manipulation of paint, while highly controlled, is discernible. And although its title invites comparison to Seurat, nothing could be further from the artist’s radar than experiments in color vibration, either scientifically or emotively; local color, of a heightened Kodachrome sort, is empirically valid. The grey rocks in Central Park are painted with grey paint, and so on. Hotel Empire and the more recent Columbus Circle—the latter depicts the view right outside the museum—display a fascination with city views that are panoramic and kaleidoscopic. The shiny bifurcations of space caused by reflective glass that I find repellent, are the material of art to Estes. These complicated exercises in perspective evoke the intense plein air studies of Rackstraw Downes and Antonio Garcia Lopez, but with a subtle and important difference: Estes’ paintings are not given to the scrutiny of light, color and atmosphere, gained through repeated observation of the motif. Surprisingly beautiful, they are about the polished image, rather than the process of seeing. A nearly total reliance on photographic imagery, even if it is the apotheosis of that imagery, is inherently limited.
In an entirely different way, technique is also front and center in the most recent paintings by John Dubrow. The surfaces of Dubrow’s canvases are, as the gallery describes them, almost geological in appearance. Paint has been troweled onto the canvases in patterns that appear carefully designed, yet which surely shifted in the process of painting and repainting. The crusted pigment has accreted to such a density that even the hard edges of architectural planes are softened at the meeting of seams. Unvarnished, the geometric patterns have a raw tactility that belies their high-key color—a child’s sunlit shirt in Playground appears to have been spontaneously painted wet-into-wet with a brush, and the brio of the passage is welcome.
These paintings are, in one way, the realization of a painter’s dream to retain the energy of a sketch in large scale. In reproduction, TriBeCa 2 could pass for a pochade study; seen in the gallery, its abstracted shapes acquire tremendous force. Whether intended or not, one finds multiple references to modern masters: the upper right hand corner paraphrases Hans Hofmann, the arboreal shapes at upper left echo Robert Motherwell’s Elegies (in other paintings, the foliage, heavy in shape and beautiful in their subtle coloring, are reminiscent of Pissarro or Cezanne); the human interchanges of the lower half, played out in dappled light, are more subtle. These ‘samplings’ don’t come across as derivative—to the contrary, they are the intelligent improvisations of a formidable painter.
Dubrow’s painting has long played with tensions between observation and abstraction. Presentiments of the current works are found in paintings made from a studio in the World Trade Center in the 1990s, when the artist surveyed the city from great height, assembling hundreds of distant architectural slabs as one might a puzzle of brightly lit pieces. The images were composed of multitudinous small blocks of color, which through skillful drawing and precise modulation of color were also convincingly atmospheric. In this show, precision and atmosphere give way to abstraction: Playground is no longer an actual place observed, but a revisiting of an earlier composition. The design is the same, but the effect is more evanescent and more intimate. In Playground Sandbox the actual subject hardly seems to matter; the playground is the canvas itself, animated by clever pattern and sensitive color, the pigment applied like stucco. As Dubrow’s paintings literally get heavier, they attain greater lightness of feeling.
In completely different ways, both Estes and Dubrow celebrate their city, the one through consistent adherence to a type of visual fact in which mark-making is suppressed, the other in a personal survey of the stuff of painting. Both artists create their major works in the studio—Estes continues to use his photographs for reference, while Dubrow refers to memory, sensation, and other paintings. Estes’ vision has always been easily accessible, for it documents exteriors which any New Yorker may identify. Dubrow is giving voice to an interior life, one in which the city becomes a motif for joyous formal explorations, even as the role of the urban subject seems to be increasingly incidental.
What New York City has supplied for both artists, as it has for so many others, is a rich source of visual complexity. Each has distilled from the city a different and unique form of poetry.
Richard Estes: Painting New York City continues at the Museum of Arts and Design through September 20, 2015. John Dubrow: Transformations continues at Lori Bookstein Fine Art through April 25, 2015.