All American Realism

It is fascinating to watch the visitors at the current Berlin Guggenheim exhibition, there is a dance that people seem to be doing, a slow waltz with the paintings on display. And it goes like this, gently moving right up to the paintings, close but not too close to draw the watchful gaze of the museum guards. Right up and then back away from the paintings and then right up again gazing all around from one corner to another and back again until finally moving on to the next work. The reason for this dance is that the viewers are confronted with a selection of iconic hyper/super/photo realism paintings and it would seem the main reaction people have when confronted with such “perfection” is to look for flaws. The flaws reveal that it is in fact a painting and not a photograph, that it was created by human hands and not a machine. The paintings can’t fail to astonish and amaze the viewers with the undeniable skill of these painters but what is also undeniable is that the more perfect the execution the colder and more inhuman the work is. A single flaw, no matter how small is all the viewer needs to see before moving on; the weave of the canvas, an uneven glossiness to the surface, a pencil mark around the edge of a car headlight, a brush mark for the highlight on a neon sign or even a tiny hair imbedded in the paint.
We get an airbrushed self-portrait by Audrey Flack, Cowboys on horses by Richard McLean, all American cars by Robert Bechtle, a shiny chrome truck by Ron Kleemann, wrecked cars by John Salt, a shiny chrome caravan by Ralph goings, a neon Bud sign by Robert Cottingham, the front of a VW Beatle by Don Eddy and on and on, each surface more perfect than the next.
The giant portraits of Chuck Close are astonishing in their perfection and this is intensified by the fact that they are painted with watercolour, which is far from a medium renowned for its accuracy. There is a dizzy feeling to be confronted by faces at such a scale and there is an ever so slight haziness to the surface which helps intensify this feeling.
The scenes presented by Richard Estes are quintessential New York capturing the look and feel of the city from the late 60’s and early 70’s. He gives us the neon, the glass doors, the chrome and stainless steel and all the reflections. He is following squarely in Edward Hopper’s footsteps in his ability to present the city at a very particular moment in history.
The fly in the ointment in the exhibition is Malcolm Morley, a British born artist in this “All-American” show whose paintings are less about dazzling the viewer with perfection and more about actual paint. These are very self-conscious paintings (in a good way) which play which the idea of super-realism but don’t deny the fact that they are paintings. Here we see brush marks and also a white painted edge which highlights the face that he is not painting reality but painting the reality of a photograph. The subject matter is less about a celebration of modern urban shininess and instead the two works here present a scene from a golf championship and a couple rowing a boat in a Central Park lake; there is something more mundane about both of these scenes. Here for the first time in this exhibition we question why the artist chooses to paint these particular scenes.
Over all, love them or hate them, this is a very good selection of work which epitomise the photorealism movement. We have some of the iconic classics here. The exhibition groups the works under three themes, Reflections on the City, Culture of Consumption, and American Life. There is an attempt to use these groupings to say something about American culture in the 1970s but this is best ignored.

Picturing America: Photorealism in the 1970s, the first major showing of Photorealism in Germany in nearly thirty years, features thirty-two paintings, a number of them the most iconic works of the period, by seventeen artists:
Robert Bechtle, Charles Bell, Tom Blackwell, Chuck Close, Robert Cottingham, Don Eddy, Richard Estes, Audrey Flack, Franz Gertsch, Ralph Goings, Ron Kleemann, Richard McLean, Malcolm Morley, Stephen Posen, John Salt, Ben Schonzeit, and Paul Staiger

Deutsche Guggenheim
Unter den Linden 13/15
10117 Berlin