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In the Republic of Realism
Friedhelm Hütte on Deutsche Banks Commitment to Art in 2009
Three American museums unite for a groundbreaking exhibition project
Interview with the new Guggenheim director Richard Armstrong
The Semantics of Crisis: Birgit Brenners analytical installations
Karola Krauss on Imi Knoebel
On the Beauty of the Unfinished - Kalin Lindena
Real Bodys - Interview with Maria Lassnig

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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against the background of 1930s, Depression-era American realism (Precisionism and Regionalism), when the nation had withdrawn into semiisolationist introspection.

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 crisis. 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
documenta 5
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 a drawing.

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 extraction).

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 America.




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On View
Picturing America at the Deutsche Guggenheim / To be a teacher is my greatest work of art / Dani Gal at the Luigi Pecci Centre / Drawing a Tension at the 60 Wall Street Gallery / Deutsche Bank supports California Biennial
News
TEFAF 2009 / Obituary for Hanne Darboven / Richard Armstrong and Nancy Spector at the Deutsche Guggenheim / Early Netherlandish Masterpieces in Berlin / Cai Guo-Qiang at the Guggenheim Bilbao / Deutsche Bank Supports Thomas Bayrle Retrospective / 60 Wall Street Gallery Shows Immigrant Artists / Youth Art Prize of Deutsche Bank Foundation / Mathias Poledna and Christopher Williams at Bonner Kunstverein / Deutsche Bank Supports Exhibition in the Opelvillen / Newsweek on Cai Guo-Qiangs Head On / Clare Strand at Folkwang Museum
Press
The Distance Within Us - The Press on Anish Kapoor’s Memory at the Deutsche Guggenheim / The Press on The Master of Flémalle and Rogier van der Weyden / Reviews of the 2008 California Biennial
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