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Marvelous 'Photorealism: The Sydney and Walda Besthoff Collection' exhibit at NOMA

A mind-blowing painting exhibit titled "Photorealism:The Sydney and Walda Besthoff Collection" opens to the public Saturday (Nov. 8) at the New Orleans Museum of Art. Unlike many contemporary shows, it's not an exhibit that proffers a social concept or psychological sub-text.

It's an exhibit that's about painting the skin of a tangerine so perfectly that you can almost smell the tangy scent. It's about capturing those psychedelic landscapes that you see mirrored in the curves of a polished motorcycle. It's about the everyday "Through the Looking Glass" reflections in shop windows that seem to defy space and perspective. It's about the subtle allure of fluorescent lights, saltshakers and pinballs. It's about obsessive realism that's so real it's positively weird. 

The 71 mesmerizing paintings in the show belong to New Orleans' great art benefactors Sydney and Walda Besthoff. It's among the biggest and best collections of photorealism anywhere. Sitting in an art-appointed seventh floor office in the old K&B plaza building on Lee Circle earlier this week, Walda Besthoff explained the crucial distinction between the photorealist style that sprung up in the 1960s and all the realism that came before.

The key, she said, was "photographing an object and then painting the photograph. You could change it, you could do several photographs, you could combine them, but basically it was the first two-step art form because there had to be a photograph first and then there had to be a painting evolving from the photograph."

It's a labor-intensive art form. As Walda and Sydney explained, Don Eddy, one of the masters of the style, begins by mapping out his painting in thousands of tiny, tiny green specks of translucent paint. Then he adds specks of red-brown. Then another color and another. Like a latter day-Paul Seurat, he produces a pointillist mosaic of paint.

Unlike Seurat, whose paintings were charmingly grainy aggregates of modulated opaque hues, Eddy's paintings are slick, shimmering, impossibly precise images shot through with electric color. Just look at Eddy's 1975 painting of the M. Raphael Silversmiths shop window. The endless reflections in the sun-splashed tableware and glass are astounding.   

As Walda put it: "The magic of it (photorealism) is the detail and the magnification and the color distortion, because you don't get those colors actually in reality. It's more of everything. It's kind of over the top."

For most of history, artists were cameras. They recorded the appearance of the world for the rest of us. After the perfection of photography in 1839, artists' roles changed. They became mood rings, visually expressing the emotion and psychology of the moment. In a way, photorealism was a radical reversal.

In today's world it's a very conservative art form," Sydney said. "It is not as wild as the other things you see in the art world, but at the time it was conceived in the late ’60s and ’70s it was very avant-garde."

Walda continued Sydney's line of thought. Photorealism, she explained, was a cousin of pop art, but it didn't seem to include the subtle social criticism that fueled the work of Andy Warhol, James Rosenquist and others.

Photorealism was a reaction, I think, against the years of abstract art," she said. "It evolved out of pop art where artists were painting everyday objects. But it (pop art) had some ironic content. Then photo realists came along who were also painting objects, but there was no irony, no hidden message, nothing about commercialism or Andy Warhol's mass production. That's not what it was about."

That lack of irony and any other hidden messages may have inhibited photorealism's popularity in America, Walda Besthoff said.

It has not been a darling of the art critics, because what you see is what you get. They can't write long discursive narratives about it, because photorealist art is painting an object as the artist sees it or as the photograph represents it."

The fact that photorealism was not especially favored by the art establishment is part of what drew the Besthoffs to it in the first place. As Sydney Besthoff explained: "When we originally started with photorealism, I was looking specifically for a small corner of the art world that I could get my hands around at the time. We looked at this and it was one of the areas I thought we could encompass and learn a lot about in a very short time."

Walda continued: "Had we, on the other hand, collected pop art which was in its maturity and more expensive, which was a consideration, we would've been multi-jillionaires because it has appreciated so in value, whereas photorealism has not. It's appreciated some, but there's no story about the photorealist painting that you bought for $10,000 that that's worth $100 million today. That didn't happen with photorealism."

Historically, there may have been a touch of two-edged subversion to photorealism, since some avant-garde onlookers turned up their noses at the pure representational style and some traditionalists scoffed at using a photo as a source, not to mention opaque projectors, airbrushes and all the other tricks that photorealists made part of their trade. There was something blithely unromantic about it.

Sydney remembered a time when an artist offered to allow him to compose his own painting. During a studio visit, artist Charles Bell presented the Besthoffs with a small mirror and a palm full of marbles. He encouraged them to arrange the marbles however they wished. The Besthoffs declined, preferring to allow the artist to make all the aesthetic choices. Bell's large painting of a cluster of cat's eyes and crystals is one of the signature pieces in the collection.

Photorealist paintings sometimes defy reality. Sydney said he occasionally took his own snapshots of the sites of the paintings. It was a telling experience. In the case of Richard Estes's New York streetscape titled "Citarella's Fish Company," Sydney said he discovered it was impossible that the reflections of the inside of the seafood shop could appear on the outside of the glass. And you see that big apartment building in the background? Sydney said that it's actually a few blocks farther uptown.

Walda said that photorealism began as a very American art form. The back rooms of the exhibit are devoted to the diners, movie theaters, filing stations and other elemental features of the U.S. landscape.

Note: While you're in the back room, take a look at Rod Penner's iPhone-sized smalltown landscapes. Tell me, how is it humanly possible to paint that precisely at that Lilliputian scale?

Photorealism may have begun a sort of celebration of Americana, but in the years she and Sydney have collected photorealism, the style has taken root in other places around the globe. Israeli artist Yigal Ozeri is a sort of pre-Raphaelite photorealist. His romantic portrait of two young women reclining in leaves is one of the Besthoff's most recent acquisitions.

The "Photorealism: The Sydney and Walda Besthoff Collection" exhibit is a plateau for the Besthoffs. It's the first time the couple has assembled the cream of their collection in one place at one time. Walda said that it's an especially momentous occasion because she fears that the style may be running its course. Artists are now able to use the computer to produce photo color separations and the myriad stencils needed to produce a painting. It's hard to see how things can go much farther in her view.

But you never know. In the 40 years since photorealism began, painting-size, enlarged color photographs have become museum mainstays. In a way, as you wander the exhibit, the hand-made, trompe l'oeil photorealist canvases seem more stubbornly defiant than ever.

Doug McCash

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