In this era of selfies, Instagrams and what-I-had-for-lunch postings, the art of painting from photographs may be poised for a comeback. In which case, you risk falling out of the loop if you miss "Still Life: 1970s Photorealism," opening Saturday at the Nassau County Museum of Art.
Keeping up with digital trends was hardly Cathleen Chaffee's motivation in curating this 2013-14 exhibition for Yale University Art Gallery. From Buffalo, where she's curator for the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Chaffee says she wanted to give students a chance to see these works for the first time. "Viewing digital reproductions is an impoverished experience," she says, "much like a photograph of a Renaissance painting."
GETTING REAL The Photo-Realism movement -- also known as Super-Realism, among other -isms -- was an early-'70s outgrowth of pop art, which itself was a reaction to the dominance of Abstract Expressionism. Among the pioneers -- Chaffee cites four -- are two with Long Island connections: Chuck Close, long an East Hampton part-timer, and Malcolm Morley, who lives and works in Bellport. The others, also represented in "Still Life," are Vija Celmins, the sole woman in the group, who lives and works in California, and German artist Gerhard Richter.
"These four were bridges between pop art and Photo-
Realism," Chaffee says. "Morley painted perhaps the first Photo-Realist work, from a postcard. They didn't necessarily know one another, but they were all interested in everyday scenes. They painted from photos that anyone could have taken." Unlike Andy Warhol, whose pop art appropriated photographs of famous people. Not everyone could take photos of Mao Zedong or Marilyn Monroe.
"Banal photos take on more significance when the image is transferred to canvas," Chaffee says. "The viewer has a different relationship to it -- almost monumental, heroic."
But all that is lost when you see the painting reduced back to a photographic form. That's what led Chaffee to curate the show. Yale had become a major repository of Photo-Realism when noted art collector Richard Brown Baker bequeathed his collection in 2002.
BACK ON VIEW "Many of these works were never exhibited before," Chaffee says -- largely because Photo-Realism fell out of favor in the 1980s and never recovered.
Until now, perhaps.
Among the other important artists represented in "Still Life" -- not all the works are still-life, by the way -- are Audrey Flack, also of East Hampton, Ralph Goings, Duane Hanson, Ben Schonzeit and Idelle Weber. Two works not shown at Yale are added for the Nassau show: Close's "Self-Portrait / Black Ink" and an untitled print by Celmins.
After Long Island, the show will travel to New Hampshire. Photo-Realism is on the move again.
WHEN | WHERE Saturday through Nov. 9, Nassau County Museum of Art, 1 Museum Dr., Roslyn Harbor. Museum hours: 11 a.m.-4:45 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays. Curator's lecture: 3 p.m. July 26
ADMISSION $10, $8 seniors, $4 students, $2 parking on weekends; 516-484-9337, nassaumuseum.org.