Valerie Hillings/David Lubin: How did you come up with the term "Photorealism"?
Louis K. Meisel: In the late sixties I started seeing paintings that were photographic in appearance, way beyond anything done by Pop artists or others before. I had a small gallery on Madison Avenue, and I started showing that kind of work beginning with Charlie Bell and a few others. One thing led to another and, probably in 1969, Village Voice critic Howard Smith asked me, "What are you going to call this group?" I said, "I don't know, what am I going to call them? They're using the photograph, they're being very open about it. It's photographic realism. I don't know, Photorealism. Does that sound good to you?" That weekend, Smith reviewed the show in my gallery and referred to it as Photorealism. So that's the first time it appeared in print. In 1970, the first show of the decade at the Whitney was 22 Realists, and in that catalogue, Jim Monte also used the word "Photorealism." That was the beginning.
What are the historical roots of Photorealism?
Here's how the story is usually told: the camera came along and artists said, "Oh, we don't have to paint this realism anymore and document faces, places, and things, or the portrait, landscape, or still life, because the camera can record it." Then, about a century later, artists picked up the camera again. But, they'd been using it as a tool from the day it was invented. Thomas Eakins, Edward Hopper, Winslow Homer, and all these artists used it, but they denied it or didn't want to talk about it. It didn't become acceptable for an artist to say, "Hey, the camera and photograph are tools, and we're using it," until the Photorealists made it legitimate in the seventies. All along, though, the artists influenced the photographers, and the photographers the artists. The camera influenced everybody.
What was happening in the art world when Photorealism came on the scene?
Abstract Expressionism had completely eliminated imagery. It was about surface, flatness, and composition. There was no allusion to three-dimensionality. Then Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, and Larry Rivers started a transition from pure abstraction and returned to imagery. The Pop artists turned to full-blown imagery, but they still emphasized flatness of surface, scale, and compositional ideas. If you take out some things, you almost had an abstract painting. After that, a whole group of artists went back to representation, and they began experimenting with different levels of realism. Artists who had an inclination, the discipline, or the particular set of skills decided to use the camera and photographs to gather the information needed to make paintings of images.
What else was happening?
When people look at the Photorealists in the future, they're going to know that they had to have come after Abstract Expressionism. At the same time, there was a split in the formalist art world. There were the artists that went in the Minimalist direction or to earthworks, carrying on a direct line from abstract painting and leading to other advances, and there was Photorealism, which led to the new expressionism, graffiti painting, and artists like Richard Prince and many others who blew up big photographs. Then it became totally pluralistic as we got into the eighties and nineties.
Who were the first Photorealists?
Robert Bechtle invented Photorealism. He was the first one. He and Audrey Flack were maybe six months apart in doing the first Photorealist paintings. That was in 1963. Bechtle took a picture of himself in the mirror with the car outside and then painted it. That was the first one. There was another similar to it that he might have made a few months earlier, I'm not sure. But that was the start of what we call Photorealism. Robert painted from his own photograph, one that he'd taken himself, whereas Flack, about the same time, used a picture out of a magazine and painted it. That was Kennedy Motorcade. She did it in 1964, but from a 1963 news photo.
Did the artists like being grouped together as Photorealists?
They all understood that it was beneficial to identify the genre. Lawrence Alloway made up the term "Pop art." I made up another. It stuck. In the seventies, when a museum curator or a critic came in and wanted to know what's new, what's hot, I'd say "Photorealism" and show them a group of artists whose work seemed to be attempting to address the same problems. With only between ten and 20 of them, it was not difficult for curators and museums to assemble exhibitions of this new kind of painting. The artists were all basically friends. I don't know any rivalries, enmities, any problems among them, as had been obvious in previous groups and movements.
What of complaints that Photorealism was retrograde?
Some called it retrogressive and backward-looking. But since Photorealism, everything that came along afterward, whether it be expressionist, graffiti, or even large-scale photography, can all be traced back to the imagery and the idea of Photorealism. There's a museum being built in Manchester by a major collector of contemporary art. His curator came in to my gallery and said, "We have all of the photographers including Prince, Andreas Gursky, Thomas Struth, etc. plus some cutting-edge painters. The Photorealists had a big influence on all of them, so we want to have a Photorealist collection to show these roots." People are writing about Photorealism again. It's in the air.
What makes it a scarce commodity?
Because it was so labor-intensive, the artists could produce only four or five paintings a year. I was able to pick and choose and find the right people for just five paintings a year. I was not interested in selling to people who were decorating, investing, or collecting for social reasons. When collectors acquired paintings by Photorealists at the Louis K. Meisel Gallery, it was because they liked what the paintings looked like, and they wanted to take them home, hang them on the wall, and look at them. I have always thought that that was what art was for. That's why you see so few Photorealists coming back on the market now, because people still love these paintings, are not changing their decoration, and are not cashing in investments.
Is there a Photorealist work ethic?
Photorealists had to work eight or ten hours a day. They didn't drink, didn't smoke, or do drugs. They were among the most stable people of any that I've ever seen, just making work that required stablity and seriousness. That may have made them boring to people who expect artists to be troubled and dissolute. Because you go back to the Pop artists, and it was all about the drug culture. The Abstract Expressionists were all about drinking and having beer and booze parties. The Photorealists came along, and they weren't like that. They were just kind of quiet. They weren't person- alities. They were really nice guys who also happened to be very talented and smart.
Do you have advice for young artists?
In the eighties, artists came in to show me work and said, "We are taught that we don't have to study art history, and we don't have to spend years learning how to draw. We just have to express ourselves." And I would tell them, "You should do that on a psychiatrist's couch, not on a canvas that you stick in front of my face." The idea was that if we use this word "quality," it's elitist and eliminates so many people from being able to call themselves accomplished artists, because it requires four or five years of learning to draw and learning about art history and whether the paint is going to stick to the canvas and all that sort of stuff. Very few people want to do that, are capable of doing that, have the discipline or the skills, or the genetic makeup to do it. Therefore, it's— well, you know, not politically correct or democratic, but then why should art be?