At Frieze Masters this year, Waddington Custot presents a selection of iconic paintings by artists working in the United States from the late 1960s and 1970s, including: John Baeder, Robert Cottingham, Don Eddy, Richard Estes, Ralph Goings, Ron Kleemann and John Salt. The paintings come from a private collection that has taken over a decade to build.
Within this group, each painter developed their own stylistic language in close dialogue with photography, incorporating the detached vision of the camera into a flattened pictorial space. While each artist’s approach is distinct, their work shares stylistic sensibilities; in particular they employ a high degree of precise detail to convey scenes of everyday American life in the mid-twentieth century. Typical subjects include shiny cars with chrome bumpers, trucks, motorcycles and gas stations, as well as the symbols of mass consumerism: diners and fast-food restaurants, advertising billboards, and neon store signs.
This mode of painting is often described as Photorealist, a term coined by Louis K. Meisel in 1969. Each composition is indeed based on a photograph; the artists embrace the photograph as a subject and the camera as a tool rather than a competitor. However, in many ways the term is somewhat reductive: the paintings are not merely faithful reproductions of their source materials but often edited versions of them. For instance, some of these compositions combine elements of several photographs within one image. Prescient of today’s proliferation of doctored images, these works represent an engagement with the idea of reality in relation to the photographic image, encouraging viewers to question the act of looking and acknowledge the complexity of visual information. Further, rather than engaging with the history of photography, these works reveal an intense interest in the act of painting: not only a fascination with the technical challenges of the surface but the effort to find an American voice in the history of the medium. While these artists purported to remove the artist’s individual touch from painting – a reaction against Abstract Expressionism, which was then dominant in the United States – their work reveals an active painting process complete with creative decision-making and hints of the artist’s hand.