PRINT January 1976


Super Realism: A Critical Anthology

Super Realism: A Critical Anthology, edited by Gregory Battcock (New York: Dutton Paperbacks), 322 pages, illustrated.

For several weeks last summer I noted the daily progress of two huge figures being painted on the side of a building north of Times Square. One male and one female figure,each dressed in denim, they composed a cigarette ad. The painters moved about the wall on their pulleyed scaffold, never able to see more of the outlined figures than the area immediately in front of them.

Now that the painting there is finished, you would think that the designer of the wall had been interested above all in the highlights, the shadows, and the tones of denim and flesh; that his work was conceived as an ode to the abstract illusions of painted surfaces. The wall looks so serious that it could be taken for a huge (and very good) Super Realist painting.

The figures are copied from a photograph which advertises the same cigarette in magazines, on subway panels, and on normal-sized billboards. But on this wall, painted, the effect of the image is different. Here the sign painters ( who are a dying breed because manual work is being superseded by pasteups of the component strips of photographically reproduced ads) have converted the detail of the image into hyper-delineated areas of color. While painting the spaces within their outline, they were at any given moment dealing with an almost abstract set of forms composing a small part of the whole. This too suggests the process and the situation of Super Realism.

Judging from the essays assembled in Gregory Battcock’s critical anthology on Super Realism, its practitioners tend to share the sign painters’ sense of near obsolescence—not because they are Super Realists, but because they are painters. Super Realism, in fact, is their response to that sense, their struggle to glorify the things which painting alone can still accomplish. As J. Patrice Marandel notes in one of the book’s most perceptive essays, they sense that painting “cannot discover reality any longer”—except the reality of the artificial images around them. They depict “a fallen world with a fallen technique.” Reality has collapsed into images of images.

This recognition may make my opening comparison seem a bit circular, since advertisements like the one mentioned help foster the Super Realist’s preoccupation with the overwhelming world of images. Exactly that circularity is at the heart of his plight, because his every image merely reproduces a previous image, not a fundamental external reality. And while earlier painters—particularly Pop artists like the former sign painter James Rosenquist adapting billboard syntax to his huge works—had dealt with images from the commercial world, Super Realism has undertaken a combative dialogue with the medium crucial to that world, painting’s traditional enemy, the photograph.

The birth of photography, of course, was heralded by simultaneous proclamations of the death of painting. But the relationship which developed between painting and photography was a complicated and mutually interactive one. One part of that relation was the way photography functioned as the servant of painting—merely a practical aid to a fine art. (A sign above the door of Atget’s shop in Paris advertised “Documents for Painters.”)

Now Super Realism defensively reinforces that relationship; it bases its paintings on photographs in an effort to show how painting excels photography.

Battcock’s anthology establishes clearly, through essays like Marandel’s and H. D. Raymond’s “Beyond Freedom, Dignity, and Ridicule,” that the paintings of the most important Super Realists are paintings of photographs, rather than allusions to or takes from them. That way the painting can begin from what seems a ground level of reality, a representation where reality has already been converted “objectively” from the three dimensions of the world to the two dimensions of the image, by a machine. The camera does not lie; the artist’s subjectivity is seemingly bypassed. The painter may or may not believe these propositions, but he chooses to accept them as a useful conceit on which to base a painting. As William Seitz points out, this method interacts with the sense of painting’s obsolescence: it is easier to take a picture (and very often the painter himself takes the photo) than to set up your easel in the median of the freeway for three months and paint the burger stand by its side. (Seitz’s essay, unfortunately, is not included in Battcock’s anthology, and its discussion—particularly of the difference between paintings and source photos—is sorely missed.)

But the photograph is only a beginning. In the words of Richard Estes, generally considered one of the two or three best painters of the group, as quoted by Linda Nochl in, the photo is a “sketch to be used” rather than a “goal to be reached.” Super Realism thinks it can beat photography at its own game, carry it further. By enacting certain specific transformations on the photograph, elaborating on the mere “sketch” (the word is slightly deprecating), Super Realism would surpass photos by heightening painting attributes—optical brilliance, tactile highlighting and sensuous presence.

Ironically, what is most important about the ideology of Super Realism has to do with its most unrealistic aspects, or at least the aspects which distinguish it from the photograph’s special brand of reality. In heightening and simplifying chosen aspects of the photo, the mode pretends to be concerned primarily with abstract formal integrity—with the making of a painting. Only secondarily, almost incidentally, does it admit to an interest in exhibiting aspects of outer reality which are somehow buried in the photograph, as they are in the obliviousness of the average viewer.

That is, Super Realism still insists that the painting is foremost a painting which admits to being a painting. Subject matter barely counts, except as it furthers this end.

Malcolm Morley, perhaps the earliest of the Super Realists, produced reproductions of postcards in his paintings. In many of these there is a thin white line painted around the postcard image to establish a flat field surrounding and behind the image and to signal that it is the subject, not the entirety of the painting. This crude model for the Super Realist painting is a brother to Jasper Johns’s flag paintings and other Pop work. In more sophisticated Super Realist works, the white line has its equivalent in a heightening and simplification which distinguishes the painted image from the photograph. Morley’s sense of his relation to even earlier abstract painting is indicated by Kim Levin’s article on him here. “I feel that Barney Newman emptied space,” Levin quotes Morley as saying, “and I’m filling it up again.” Like other Super Realists, he was interested in increasing the informational specificity of painting as an enriching factor. Battcock’s cover, for instance, shows Morley’s The Last Painting of Vincent Van Gogh, in which the artist, having departed to commit suicide, has left a painterly painting on its easel in a photographically realistic environment.

Super Realism’s claims to legitimacy as abstraction shift the whole burden of critical concern somewhere between the image (the whole painting in this case) and the object (the original photograph). The essays Batt-cock has assembled are contradictory in their analysis of this gap.

Most of the essayists agree that the painting is an image of an image, all right. But they ask if that makes the painting more about images than about objects. Or is the painting somehow more genuine because it is merely and purely involved with image, “a flag without a nation,” as Ivan Karp puts it in an essay here, an image which conforms not to the figurative content of a world, but to another image, another example of the flag. To Karp’s eyes, Super Realism has succeeded in making content irrelevant in favor of treatment, and therein lies its genuineness.

The inherited device of the picture-within-a-picture baffle ostensibly helps cancel out the arbitrariness of content. That leads some essayists to question whether these paintings cannot also be read as abstractions which just happen also to be readable as pictures of things in the world. They are opposed by those who, like Harold Rosenberg in his essay “Reality Again,” see such paintings as finally appealing much more to what we know about things than what we know about art. Nor would they wholly agree with Linda Nochlin and Linda Chase, who both quote this passage from Robbe-Grillet to show how the Super Realists present a world of simple fact, of things which simply are: “Let it be first of all by their presence that objects and gestures establish themselves . . .” Such an interest seems irreconcilable with a claim like Kim Levin’s that in Super Realist art “the object has been found out, exposed as an image.” Levin’s statement would seem an accurate and succinct analysis of Super Realism’s project, except that so many of the other critics find themselves responding to the images of the paintings as real things. Their mistake illustrates, in turn, the power of image. Those critics are shooers of the proverbial painted fly off the flat canvas.

The book comments more clearly on some of the changes the artist makes in transforming the photographic image to painted image. J. Patrice Marandel describes the Super Realist painter as working with shifts in interest and information. The painting differs from the source photograph in its fascination with surfaces and its tendency to simplify or exaggerate, to reduce the amount of information given and create a painting whose chief interest is in the abstract beauty of highlight, tone, and shade, separate from their subject. The subject may be chosen for no better reason than that it possesses such surfaces.

And surface is likely to be treated uniformly across the picture plane, further devaluing the subject matter as subject matter. Chuck Close, whose work is documented here in an excellent essay by William Dyckes, is outstanding for his sense of the overallness of surfaces. Dyckes’s essay is particularly useful, because it includes the artist’s own comments on his working methods. Close paints faces exclusively, done from photographs he has himself taken with an 8-by-10 camera. He uses a fine grid system to scaffold the air-brushed image, articulated through four basic colors. If one studies the squares left in a Close painting—for the grid survives, roughly, into the finished product—each of them resembles a small abstraction. Close, focusing on each individual square, is at that moment as much of an abstractionist as the sign painter painting the wing of a nose larger in scale than his whole body.

Close is also an outstanding example of Super Realist intentions in the way he shows up weaknesses in the original photograph. In taking the photograph, as he usually does himself, he compresses depth of field so that strands of hair slip out of focus or a pair of glasses—absurdly—is more sharply defined than the face behind it. Dyckes points out—and the warning could apply to most of the Super Realists—that it is especially dangerous to judge a painting like this merely from a photo of it. Super Realism’s slavish reproduction mocks the photograph’s flaws of focus and framing at the same time it idealizes its textures. One need only see the source photograph beside the painting. The transformation which has taken place provides a lesson in distinguishing realities that lens, paint, and eye all create. Dyckes notes that “the fact that so many persist in seeing these paintings as highly factual representations of people rather than as photographic representations of people is proof of the total assimilation of photographic syntax as visual fact.”

To show itself off against photography, Super Realism is interested in revealing things that neither the camera nor the human eye can see in a single moment. In the work of Richard Estes or Don Eddy, there is a conscious effort to combine reflections and transparencies from many photographs into a painting for which no single photograph could serve as source. These artists are clinging to the quality of painting which enables it to synthesize differences between moments of impression.

I have not mentioned those New Realist painters, generally painters who received attention before those who work from photos (e.g. Jack Beal, Philip Pearlstein). Their enterprise is also dealt with in Battcock’s book, but there is no effort, either in his introduction or in the essays themselves, to distinguish that group of painters working from models from those who could be called Photo Realists, those who begin with a photo. Some of the same processes are at work in the tendency of the model painters to depersonalize the nude, so long the artist’s icon, as Linda Nochlin notes in one of her essays here.

None of the essayists here discusses the fundamental fact that for the Super Realists’ subjectivity has not vanished, but simply moved to new grounds—to the choice of subject and treatment. Critics here, for example, cannot agree about interpretation of the Super Realists’ choice of subject matter as social commentary. Many of the painters themselves deny any social interest, claiming the neutrality or the irrelevance of the figurative subject. And the critics cannot decide whether the wrecked cars, the shiny new cars, the back streets with rundown diners, and the freeways with burger joints are critical images or “apotheoses” of the subject matter.

But the painters are correct in saying that it is less the specific thing in the painting they are interested in than certain qualities of light and texture: highlights glinting on chrome and plastic, the depth and blueness of a California advertising sky, the turn of a fender or the counter edge in McDonald’s. The subject matter proper is chosen because it possesses these qualities. The paintings pursue these qualities as camp—because the painters love them and yet somehow cannot let themselves love them. Their statements about their work indicate a basic dissociation and uncertainty that expresses itself in their false objectivity, their pretense of acting like cameras. Super Realism pretends to avoid judgment, but simply to paint a thing indicates a fascination with it.

It is a peculiar, ambiguous fascination, however, and the critic who notes here that these paintings are destined eventually to become icons of nostalgia, focuses for future camp, is on to something fundamental. These paintings are designed to let the viewer read as much into them as he wants. You can read a Richard McClean painting of a show horse as the rich horse lover who might buy it does, as simply a color enlargement of a picture in Appaloosa magazine, or you can read it as a translation of the image from the world of the magazine to the artistic world where surfaces are caressed for their own sake. The Super Realist’s distance from the world of the literal image is a distance which Battcock’s anthology only begins to explore.

Phil Patton is on the staff of Esquire magazine.