Tom Blackwell, Queens Boulevard, detail, 1974, oil on canvas, 61 1/8 x 83 in / 155.2 x 211 cm. Courtesy of Waddington Custot, London

Waddington Custot presents Picture This: Photorealism 1966 – 1985

Following the success of the first part of Picture This: Photorealism 1966 – 1985, Waddington Custot returns with the bookending of the first London retrospective of Photorealist paintings in 50 years, following Photo-Realism: Paintings, sculpture and prints from the Ludwig collection and others at The Serpentine in 1973 and Photorealism: 50 Years of Hyperrealistic Painting at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery in 2013.

Photorealism rose to prominence in the late 1960s with paintings typically depicting scenes of everyday American life. While each artist’s approach is distinct, common subjects include cars, motorcycles, gas stations and symbols of mass consumerism: diners, advertising billboards and neon store signs.

Images courtesy of Waddington Custot, London

Coined by Louis K. Meisel in 1969, Photorealism describes work by a loose group of artists hailing from the East and West coasts of the United States who based their paintings on photography. They embrace the photograph as a subject and incorporate the detached vision of the camera into their work. This gives their paintings an astonishing degree of clarity – a captured moment, fleeting effects of light and shade – that requires significant artistic skill to replicate in paint.

Despite their photographic starting point, these artists are chiefly concerned with paint and the technical challenges of the medium. Photorealists relished capturing reflective surfaces such as glass, chrome and the texture of materials like leather and plastic. Reacting against Abstract Expressionism, which was then dominant in the United States, the artists purported to remove any trace of the human hand, yet hints remain. Photorealist paintings are not, therefore, straight copies of photographs but artistic interpretations. Often, multiple photographs and perspectives are used to create a satisfying composition, with people or objects removed and colours invented; often the original photographs were black and white.

Ralph Goings, Still Life (Color Pick), 1982, oil on canvas, 40 x 60 in / 101.6 x 152.4 cm. Courtesy of Waddington Custot, London

Whilst today a viewer might draw out nostalgia for the American Dream, or note its consumerist underbelly, the Photorealists themselves rejected any grand philosophy or deeper meaning behind their work. Robert Cottingham said “I’m just using the subject as the stepping-off point to compose the painting” and Richard McLean: “I think neutrality is extremely important.”

What the paintings do is force us to question the act of looking itself. Even with today’s proliferation of doctored images we make the easy and false assumption that photographs capture the truth. Depth of field is an artifice, as is cropping. The camera sees monocularly and locks objects into position, the human brain builds a three dimensional picture of a subject through the movement of the head. By painting photographs, the artists highlight the tension between a 2D object depicting a 3D subject.

Charles Bell, Gin, 1977, oil on canvas, 60 x 72 in / 152.4 x 182.9 cm. Courtesy of Waddington Custot, London

Don Eddy said in an interview in 1972: “It raises the question of whether you are looking at an illusion of objects in space, or a representation of a flat piece of paper – a photograph – which is in turn a representation of things in space. The idea of being photographic or true to life doesn’t really interest me. It’s the references between what we know, what we see, what we think we see and what’s there, between the surface of the canvas and the illusion in the canvas. Those are the real problems it seems to me.”

The exhibited paintings are from one of the largest and most important private collections of Photorealist art in the world. Gathered over a period of 15 years, the collection comprises around 70 artworks – oil paintings, watercolours and drawings – that span the development of Photorealism, from the mid-1960s to the late-1980s. The collection features works by the movement’s most important protagonists: John Baeder; Robert Bechtle; Charles Bell; Tom Blackwell; Davis Cone; Robert Cottingham; Don Eddy; Richard Estes; Ralph Goings; Ron Kleemann; Richard McLean; David Parrish; John Salt; and Ben Schonzeit.

Images courtesy of Waddington Custot, London

Picture This: Photorealism 1966 – 1985, Part 2, continues until 24 June 2023 at 11-12 Cork Street, Mayfair.