The first thing you notice about the new Photorealism exhibition is the big, bold, colorful images of planes and motorcycles, movie marquees, and cityscapes. The show includes only 20 items and fills only two galleries, but it is an eyeful. Indeed, there is more than meets the eye’s initial inspection. Each image invites close looking.
Some viewers may marvel at the images’ high degree of mimesis—the fidelity with which they mimic their subject. The vivid array of reflections in the cowl of a motorcycle, the nuanced shades of grey enveloping the fuselage of a P-51 Mustang sitting under an overcast sky, the glittering gold and patriotic colors of a Fourth of July still-life composition impress viewers with their detailed representation of reality. But it is not immediately apparent that these pictures do not mimic three-dimensional reality. These are pictures of photographs—primarily photos of motorcycles, airplanes, movie marquees, and other urban imagery—hence the exhibition title, Photorealism, and the name of the style that took root in 1960s Pop Art.
That’s right. Photorealist artists paint pictures of photographs. First they photograph places like banal urban views and things like cars, trucks, and other macho machines. Then they project those images onto canvas or paper, trace the forms, and fill in the colors, often with airbrushes that capture the fuzzy effects of soft-focus lenses and out of focus photos. Photorealists often crop their images to make the most of abstract design compositions, but the results always look realistic, even if artists like Robert Cottingham take some creative license with the isolation or modification of their images as he does with movie marquees like that of the now demolished Empire Theatre that once stood in downtown Montgomery (fig. 2, above). Still, the subject of the photograph remains recognizable in every Photorealist painting or print.
Photorealist prints are much more common than Photorealist paintings, which typically require many months to complete. However, Photorealist prints are similarly time-consuming to create because each usually involves a dozen or more individual screens—one for each color. One print by Tom Blackwell (whose Triumph Trumpet and 451 are in this show) required 86 separate screens and took 15 months to make. That print, Shatzi (1979), depicts a World War II aircraft and was printed on Masonite (as is Ron Kleeman’s Mustang Sally in this exhibition) because of its great scale (4 x 6 feet). It was printed by Norman Lassiter, a master printer who partnered with Louis Meisel, a New York gallery owner, to publish Photorealist prints under the aegis of Editions Lassiter-Meisel.
Editions Lassiter-Meisel also published the ten silkscreens in the City-Scapes Portfolio (fig. 3, to the right) that are on view in the current exhibition. Most are signed and numbered A.P. 21/30, indicating that they were the 21st of 30 artist proofs pulled in addition to 25 publisher’s proofs plus the full edition of 250. Signed and numbered print editions of this scale enabled Photorealists to sell images of their paintings for substantially less than the original paintings cost. Relatively large editions like this one also enabled Meisel to donate a few of the portfolios to museums—as he did for our museum.
So, when you go to see the new Photorealist show, don’t get blown away by the big, bold, colorful images. Take time to look closely at these prints. It’s a little like a summer “staycation,” enjoying the everyday sights without leaving the air-conditioned comfort of your hometown museum.
Curator of Art
Figure 2: Robert Cottingham, Empire, 2009, screen print on paper, Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, Gift of the artist, 2009.12
Figure 3: Colophon and Preface, from the portfolio, City-Scapes, Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, Gift of Louis K. and Susan P. Meisel, 2014.5.8