A McDonalds branch on a highway somewhere in the American South; in a parking lot out front, a white pickup truck in the merciless noon sun. Projecting vertically are a lonely palm tree and a flagpole with the Stars and Stripes hanging limp. It's a typical American motif that Ralph Goings depicted in his painting from 1970 titled McDonalds Pickup. Yet despite this, his hyperrealist work seems strangely ambiguous: not a single person can be seen, either in the parking lot or in the fast-food restaurant. Not a single car on the street, not even a discarded hamburger wrapping. The square format shows a purified, nearly clinical version of reality and offers up the McDonald's branch as a symbol for a thoroughly homogenized American society.
Ralph Goings is one of the most important figures in Photorealism, the American art movement beginning in the late 1960s that depicted everyday motifs with painstaking verisimilitude in richly detailed paintings. In Picturing America: Photorealism of the 1970s, the Deutsche Guggenheim dedicates a comprehensive exhibition to these painters. The exhibition was organized by Valerie Hillings, curator at the Guggenheim Museum in New York. Thirty-two paintings and ten lithographs provide an overview of this striking art movement of the 1960s and '70s. The show is divided into four sections, three exploring key themes of Photorealist painting during the 1970s-Reflections on the City, Culture of Consumption, and American Life-and a fourth dedicated to a portfolio of lithographs made on the occasion of documenta 5 in 1972. Nostalgic and yet still incredibly fresh, the works in the exhibition testify to a very special era in American history between the student revolts, the oil crisis and the Watergate scandal.
On view at the Deutsche Guggenheim, of course, are the large-scale iconic portraits of Chuck Close as well as Richard Estes' slick cityscapes. Less famous artists are also on show, however, including Robert Cottingham, Audrey Flack, and Malcolm Morley. Picturing America is the first major exhibition in thirty years in Germany to present photorealist painting. These works attracted considerable attention early on: the Photorealists were represented in large numbers at Harald Szeemann's legendary documenta 5, and their works were acquired for major collections. Hence, a number of loans from the collection of Peter and Irene Ludwig can be seen in Picturing America.
The paintings of the Photorealists are based on photographs translated onto canvas. They used portraits and family photos, pictures of streets, neon signs, trucks and motorcycles with glittering chrome. Their works starkly contrasted with the passionate and subjective approach of Abstract Expressionism as well as with Pop Art's ironic posturing. Instead, the Photorealists portrayed everyday American life with the laconic coolness of a Raymond Carver story while questioning photography's claim to objectivity in representing reality. Perhaps this is why Ralph Goings' painting of an empty McDonald's parking lot conveys a subliminal threat: because this "reality" is in all actuality a composition that can do perfectly well without people.
Picturing America: Photorealism of the 1970s
Deutsche Guggenheim, Berlin
3/7 - 5/10/2009