by Dawn Levesque
Photorealism was a major American art movement of the 1970s. It consisted of painters who used photography as their subject matter and sculptors who recreated the human body with mastery. The significant trend of the period has frequently been characterized as an offshoot of the 1960s Pop Art movement and a reaction to the Minimalist movement, although with a “grittier honesty,” using photography to encapsulate “the real.”
In a New York Times article, Vivien Raynor stated that while Photorealism was an offshoot of Pop Art, it “had the affectlessness of Minimalism and, at the same time, capitalized on the public’s fondness for exact replication.”
The Nassau County Museum of Art stages a significant group presentation, Still Life: 1970s Photorealism until November 9, 2014. Organized by Yale University Art Gallery, the exhibit will highlight leading artists such as Audrey Flack, Chuck Close, Duane Hanson, Ralph Goings, Idelle Weber among others.
Photorealist paintings portrayed the postwar American landscape, which included billboards, neon signs, cafes, cars and highways as seen in Robert Blechtle’s ‘64 Valiant and Davis Cone’s Wilkes. It illustrated Vietnam War cynicism and confronted the difficulties of working-class during the 1970s-recession era. American film directors echoed the same gritty verity. Independent film director, John Cassavetes spurred a documentary style known as “truth cinema” or “cinéma vérité” and American documentary director, Barbara Kopple, who was an advocate of worker’s rights, captured anti-war sentiments and steelworkers.
Albeit its notoriety and international exposure, the movement was principally short-lived and pushed aside in the contemporary realm of art history. Through the decades, artists have attempted to reestablish the trend. The current Nassau exhibit surveys how Photorealism has fundamentally endured to remain influential through different art interpretations. Today, various painters still seek the “conversation between photography and painting” and paint directly from photographs.
Photorealists typically worked under two-painting genres – still life and portraiture. For example, the American artist-sculptress, Audrey Flack, one of the pioneers of the 1970s movement, based her meticulously rendered still-life paintings on color photographs that she had personally taken. Utilizing the photograph as a working study and part of her process, Flack worked in saturated colors, glossy and reflective surfaces.
Another example is American artist, Idelle Weber, who was first associated with Pop Art and then Photorealism. In her 1974 work, Gutter I, Weber focuses on litter found in the street gutter. She devotes her attention to “light and color” with such accuracy that it “almost evokes the sacred,” according to the Boston Globe.
While American Photorealist sculptors like John De Andrea and Duane Hanson typically cast from life in fiberglass and polyester resin. Their works were later painted in oils combined with mixed media to appear lifelike. Photorealist sculptural works, as seen in Hanson’s 1973 Man with Beer in Chair evoked an awareness of existence, whether it was compassion or disgust, was up to the viewer.
The Nassau exhibit presents a snapshot of an almost fleeting period in art history. It poses the question as to Photorealism’s true standing in 20th-century art. The exhibit suggests that the Photorealist movement depicted life in the 1970s with a “grittier honesty” than was commonly accepted. These works have garnered renewed importance and the artistic style will continue to evolve in 21st century art history.