by Theresa Bembnister, Akron Art Museum Curator of Exhibitions
Food City verges on abstraction, as colors, shapes and brushstrokes intermingle. Cars, taxis and vans flatten into the same space as the cashier’s pink uniform, the checkout counters and stacks of cigarette packs. The facades of multistory buildings merge with hand-lettered signs advertising chuck steaks at 39 cents a pound. Richard Estes crops his painting so the grocery store’s glass windows fill the entire composition. Exterior and interior elements dissolve into a single plane. This energetic visual potpourri mimics the vitality of the surrounding New York City.
Richard Estes, Food City, 1967, Oil, acrylic and graphite on fiberboard, 48 in. x 68 in. Collection of the Akron Art Museum, Purchased, by exchange, with funds raised by the Masked Ball 1955–1963
Richard Estes is known as one of the twentieth century’s most celebrated photorealist painters. In his case, however, that credit is a bit of misnomer. Estes’ paintings do not actually have the same level of veracity that viewers associate with photographic images. That’s not to say that the camera isn’t central to the artist’s process. He photographs his subjects, collaging multiple prints together to achieve his desired composition. Estes then subtly tweaks his imagery, removing some elements that appeared in the photographs and adding others. Nowadays, the 85-year-old artist accomplishes this with the help of Photoshop. Unlike other artists active in the photorealist movement, Estes never used a grid or a projector to transfer his photographs to canvas or board. Instead, the artist drew and painted freehand.
When Estes made Food City in 1967, the young artist primarily focused on his immediate urban surroundings as subject matter. This painting of a busy grocery store in New York City’s Upper West Side neighborhood provided him the opportunity to show off the lettering skills he picked up as a freelance illustrator. These gigs paid Estes’ bills until he was able to focus his attention on painting full time in 1966. The artist credits his commercial work, and not his earlier training at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, with forcing him to master his craft. That work required him to translate photographs into painted illustrations for reproduction.