In the Republic of Realism
Picturing America is the first exhibition in Germany in thirty years to dedicate itself to the Photorealist painters. It celebrates an art movement that began in the late sixties to record everyday motifs in painting with painstaking detail. On the occasion of the show at the Deutsche Guggenheim, Mark Gisbourne embarks on a journey back to the seventies-the heydey of Photorealism.
||Old arguments of period art criticism always seem quaint in retrospect
since such commentary is renowned for having a remarkably
short shelf life—like certain fruit. So it is hard today to imagine the
conflicting arguments that swirled around Photorealism during
its formation from 1968 to 1973. Not the least contentious was
what to call the meticulous paintings of this new realism: "Photorealism"
(coined by Louis K. Meisel in 1968), "Super Realism"
(Malcolm Morley, 1965), "Sharp Focus Realism," "Radical Realism,"
"Hyperrealism" (Isy Brachot, 1973), even "Magic Realism" (used
by Alfred Barr, 1942), and subsequently "Romantic Real(ism)."
Why does this still matter? It matters because when Photorealism
first appeared, there were vehement arguments as to whether
it represented artistic progression or retrenchment. Politically it
emerged in the wake of the Vietnam War and the United States'
humiliating withdrawal beginning in 1973. Critic Max Kozloff provides
a well-known example of this argument in his May 1973
Artforum essay American Painting and the Cold War. Did the
movement's advance reflect a loss of confidence, a retreat into
nostalgia for Americana? Many writers in the 1970s, for example
Sam Hunter and John Jacobus, saw Photorealism against the background
of 1930s, Depression-era American realism (Precisionism
and Regionalism), when the nation had withdrawn into semiisolationist
Now, in retrospect, the emergence of
Photorealism is framed by a series of events in the 1970s that led
Americans to lose confidence in their government, many of which
unfolded during Richard Nixon's presidency (1969–74). Of particular
importance, the oil embargo resulted in the quadrupling of
oil prices in 1973, while the Watergate scandal (1972–74) forced
Nixon's resignation in the face of likely impeachment. These and
other critical economic and political affairs along with the dystopian
discourses that they inspired shadowed Jimmy Carter's
administration and eventually culminated in the 1979 Iran hostage
Another contemporary criticism was posed by the supporters
of Minimalism, who sought to reinforce the idea that all serious
art was nonobjective, conceptual, idea-based, and tied to the
complexities of a continuing modernism as represented by Minimal
and Conceptual art.
The so-called triumph of Abstract Expressionism
and hard-edge abstract painting saw aesthetic dominance
pass from Paris to New York in the postwar years. Serious
artistic practices were predicated on the pursuit of abstraction
and an antagonism to literal realism. Descriptive realism was indirectly
tainted by association with regressive forms of post–World
War II Social(ist) Realism, which made heavy and predictable use
of visual similes.
Photorealism had loose affinities with American Pop art, since
both often presented the world of scale and representational
things, especially consumerist objects. American Pop art was not
sympathetic to photographic literalism, but rather favored the
celebratory iconic consumerist status of indexical objects, ideas
that connected to the semiotic structuralist and post-structuralist
concerns of the 1960s and '70s. Conversely, Photorealists often
thought Pop art superficial in its execution, and at times illustrative.
As artist Chuck Close noted in a January 1970 interview
with Cindy Nemser in Artforum: "I am not making Pop personality
posters like the ones they sell in the Village."
The increased institutional and historical autonomy of photography
also played its part. Using photographs as mere source
material and mechanically transcribing photos into paintings were
often seen as regressive. American empiricism perhaps contributed
to a tendency to confuse photographic reality with the painterly
real, or in other words, to focus on what was literally depicted
rather than what is meaningfully implied.
In America, a critical establishment of Photorealism was an
uphill battle as it was neither obviously phenomenological (body-,
space-, or perception-based) nor structuralist (dealing with semiotic
signage), both of which increasingly dominated theoretical
discourses of the 1960s and '70s. However, commercial success in
America, coupled with the European embrace at
in 1972, aided intellectual acceptance. This exhibition, the first with
an independent creative director, curator Harald Szeemann, has
become famous for primarily championing Conceptual art.(One
should note that an intellectual antagonism among America's
foremost academic critics has remained: after all, the recent
acclaimed textbook Art Since 1900 (Modernism, Antimodernism,
Postmodernism) extensively discusses documenta 5 with no
mention of the Photorealists.) Szeemann titled the exhibition
Questioning reality—pictorial worlds today and located Photorealism's
American patriotism in a completely different frame than
previous presentations had done.
In the United States, dealer Ivan Karp tried to establish some
form of theoretical foundation for Photorealism, but it was gallerist
Meisel who coined the term in 1968 and set about defining
the practices and limits of what constituted a Photorealist work.
In 1973 Meisel's five-point program, along with a long museum
tour of the exhibition he organized, Photo-Realism 1973: The
Stuart M. Speiser Collection, inaugurated the American public's
acceptance for the work that continues to this day. The Speiser
Collection was eventually donated to the Smithsonian Institution,
and Photorealism has retained its appeal in the American heartland,
with numerous solo and group museum exhibitions presented
across the States over the last 30 years.
The first of Meisel's five principles asserted that the Photorealist
uses the camera to gather information, replacing the imagination,
drawings, and studies. Quite simply, the Photorealist work
cannot exist without the photograph. For example, in the early
1960s Audrey Flack adopted photographic images as sources for
her paintings in part out of an unwillingness to define what constituted
The second principle was that the Photorealist uses mechanical
or semi-mechanical means to transfer the image to canvas.
Common procedures included slide projection, grid-transfer, or
the use of photo-sensitized canvas or paper. Intellectually, the
Photorealists argued for mechanical reproduction in progressive
terms in light of Walter Benjamin's essay The Work of Art in the
Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1935) in Illuminations, originally
published in German in 1936 and released in English in 1968,
at about the same time as these artists began basing their paintings
on photographs. To a European audience (particularly in
Germany), it was utterly familiar, since Benjamin was a seminal
figure in the postwar Frankfurt School.
The necessity of mechanically reproduced images in the Photo
realist method underscored the importance of two-dimension
ality and hence "flatness," which was understood as a central
characteristic of high modernist painting thanks in large part
to the writings of Clement Greenberg, the influential postwar
American critic and champion of Abstract Expressionism.
Arguably, the more realistic the translation, the more abstract
they became in terms of their reproduction. The displacement
implied a form of abstraction (though some might argue mere
The third principle stated that Photorealists must have the
technical ability to make the work appear photographic. This explains
why artists like Gerhard Richter in the 1960s could never
be fully seen as a Photorealist, though Swiss artist Franz Gertsch
was certainly included. The fourth principle contended that the
artist must have exhibited work as a Photorealist by 1972 to be
considered central to the movement. This typified a late modernist
notion of manifesto and group identity. Artists like Mel
Ramos and others deemed to be operating between Pop art and
Photorealism were excluded.
The fifth and final principle insisted that to be recognized as a
Photorealist, the artist must have devoted five years to the development
and exhibition of such work (the period 1968–73 constituted
the five years). This last point was revised by including
many other later Photorealist painters in Meisel's large publication
Photorealism Since 1980. In the years following, many of the
genre's material ideas (large scale, flatness, and social referents)
have been re-appropriated by the rapid technological advances
in photography. These are typified, perhaps, by the works of Jeff
Wall and the Düsseldorf School of photographers like Andreas
Gursky, Thomas Ruff, and Thomas Struth.
Over time, certain benefits flowed from the founding of Photorealism.
Artists like Robert Bechtle, Charles Bell, Tom Blackwell,
Robert Cottingham, Don Eddy, Richard Estes, Audrey Flack, Ralph
Goings, John Salt, and Ben Schonzeit have become psychological
mirrors of the country in the 1970s. They expressed the
popular iconography of America at a time when the purported
avant-garde dwelt elsewhere—within Minimalism, Conceptual
art, and Land art. If they reflected the doubts and introspection
of late '70s America, they are no less valuable for that. They gave
a heightened and immediate access to a cultural interpretation
that photography may have left behind in the form of a simple
record—revealing the manifest real as distinct from reality.
The Photorealists stood against Greenberg's formalism—with its emphasis
on shape, color, materials used, proportion, etc.— which
pervaded art criticism in America into the late 1960s. They also
critiqued earlier Western realisms, which they deemed to be merely
impressionistic. Like their Minimalist contemporaries, though
directed to very different ends, they argued for an impersonal
uniformity of technique throughout the complete work. Today,
with our greater clarity, it represents a unique socio-cultural view
of capitalist America in the 1970s—its tastes, pleasures, desires,
and materialist aspirations. Photorealism was never critically
embraced by the New York intelligentsia. But if nothing else—
after eight years of George W. Bush—we understand that it may
capture the mental, if not literal, heartland of conservative, smalltown