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Real Not Real Enough For Ya? The Realists Vs. The Super Realists


By the 1950s, the centrer of the art scene was now well-embedded in the USA. Artists set about making their mark on the world with new and provocative styles. Abstract Expressionist work had its roots in Early 20th Century modernism.

These paintings fell into one of two camps – 1) the gestural action and 2) colour field paintings.

Source: Tate Gallery

Pop artists also emerged at this time, reacting to the increasingly commercial world that Americans were embracing. Andy Warhol looked to the models of production and advertising that companies were using in the mass production of goods.

Pop Art had aimed to bring the real world into art, and in doing so making it more accessible to the general public.


Source: MOMA

Eventually however, artists grew tired of the abstract art of Pollock and pop cultural icons of Warhol. They especially reacted to the loss of the subject in Abstract Expressionist and Minimalist works.

Source: Artsy


Super-realists (also known as hyper-realists and photo-realists) focused on putting the subject back into art. The use of a shallow space replicated the camera’s field of vision but the images were painted. This serious attention to detail that super-realists used depicted real life subjects that were so well rendered, it became difficult to pick between painting and photo.

Source: bob520

Often these works were cropped to make the most of the canvas space and the depth of field. Another characteristic in super-realist work was the use of reflection.

Comparing the works of realists and super-realists

Like the realists working in the first half of the 20th Century, the super-realists set out to discover the “truth”. While these super-realists achieved the image of reality, realists had also concentrated on capturing the feel of a scene.

This distinction can be seen when you look at the following two works.

Looking at the following two portraits the distinction between realist and super-realist works becomes clear. The earlier work of the realists not only focused on the image, but capturing the sentiment of the character and their situation.

Big Self-Portrait is directly copied from a Polaroid Chuck Close took of himself, exercising the intention of the super-realist to capture the way the world looks.


On the other hand, Alice Neel’s depiction of Andy Warhol is more roughly constructed, but delivers more information. This somewhat haunting image of the pop artist portrays a man scarred from the world, damaged and isolated by the fame he sought and fortune he amassed.

It does not simply show the public persona we have seen in photographs. Here Warhol is naked to his waist with his eyes are shut, suggesting a man who is troubled and conflicted. This exposes Warhol’s ordinary self, something he guarded and kept concealed from the world.

He concealed his appearance under his characteristically high-necked jumpers, large spectacles and blonde “fright wig”. The scars visible on his chest serve as a visual reminder of the assassination attempt on his life in his studio.


Close’s work, on the other, hand gives a “photographic” sense of the world. The viewer, however, needs to force themselves to remember that the portrait is only a two-dimensional illusionistic painting. This is difficult given the overwhelming three-dimensional feel of the work.

Of key importance is Close’s attention to detail and the painting’s formal elements (e.g. scale and detail), rather than the narrative of place and character we see in the Warhol portrait.

These two works illustrate three chief differences between the realists and the super-realists.

  1. Super-realists used the camera to gather information.
  1. They used mechanical methods to transfer their images to the camera
    1. Less personal than to the realist painting
    2. Realists paint the “total” reality, not just the look of it. The work is more than just visual for the realist
    3. Realists are more painterly in their approach, which allows you to see the artist within the final product.
  1. Super realists’ works are created to a standard that is indistinguishable from a photo
    1. Uniform surface
    2. No paint marks
    3. Use of airbrush when necessary

Here is Chuck Close’s “Linda”, from 1975-76…


Two key super realist artists are the Americans Richard Estes and Audrey Flack.

Richard Estes

Estes has often been seen as the founder of the photo-realist movement. His hyper-realist compositions of New York are carried out with meticulous attention to detail. Entire street scenes, ferries out on the Hudson River, and train carriages are all scenes Estes has depicted.

Each work is set to enhance what we see naturally. One truly outstanding accomplishment is his use of paint in the creation of reflections.


Estes works are usually oil paintings based on multiple photographs. Look out for the following:

  • Reflections – important in his work to give illusion of solid appearance. These do raise important questions like “what image IS real?”
  • Like many of the realists, Estes explored issues of loneliness and alienation that is linked to artistic detachment. Often there are no sightings of people within his work
  • The creation of order as an important aspect of his work (rejecting the chaos of Abstract Expressionism).
  • The use of signage to show space – two dimensions (the flatness of the words) versus the signs themselves (their depth and 3D composition).
  • his use of solid colours, visible brushstrokes (rare in super-realist works)
  • hard-edged forms, sharp definition, large-scale works that are highly detailed

Supreme Hardware, 1974


(sense of alienation/loneliness, use of signage (2D writing on 3D sign), formulated composition, great use of reflection in windows, exceptional detail, solid use of colours)

Telephone Booths, 1967


(reflections – in the glass and metal frames of the street opposite and taxis passing, great care in formulation of composition – balance and symmetry on both axes) signage- telephone and reflected shop signage form across the road)


(Again loads of reflection in the use of the glass window, lack of human subjects – loneliness and alienation in a large city) meticulous detail in street detail and shop fronts/windows, street cobbles and parked cars; composition formulated and perspective drawn in space and reflection)

Watch this interesting video interview with Richard Estes at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Audrey Flack

Audrey Flack is another notable hyper-realist. Influenced by the 17th century Dutch painters, her lustrous works are rich in both colour and texture. The tradition of Vanitas like Wheel of Fortune and Marilyn were used by these Baroque painters who portrayed the meaning of happiness in life.

They arranged an assortment of carefully selected objects to convey meaning within their work.

Jolie Madame, 1972

Source: NGA

Flack’s characteristic still-lifes are huge, almost billboard like, in size. These illusionistic paintings use the trompe l’oeil (“trick of the eye”) technique to fool the viewer into thinking the objects are real. She would also airbrush the paintings to eradicating any trace of the artist’s brushwork and create a sense of objectivity.

World War II, 1977


Each work is a composed scene with a somewhat jumbled appearance This helps to add a sense of reality – chaos rather than complete order. Her canvases are flat with a bunch of 3D objects squished into the picture space.

Each object is deliberately chosen, symbolic of the points she is raising. For example, the lipstick symbolises commercial objectification of women. Links to Pop art are also found in the bright use of colour, reactions to the media and the iconic symbols that Flack often uses in her paintings.

Marilyn, 1977


Looking at the assorted elements, we find commercial products with photographs, paint brushes, pearls, books and fruit. The work is airbrushed and jumbled within a shallow space. As a Vanitas, this still life deliberately alludes to the vanity of worldly pleasures in what is a transient life.

Look carefully to find:

  • Marilyn – the work acts as a commemorative meditation to Marilyn Munroe, her life, death and celebrity.
  • The cut fruit -references death, as its flesh will too soon wither and die.
  • An hour glass, watch and candle also highlight the fleeting nature of life.
  • The lipstick, compact, perfume and jewellery reference Munroe’s sex-symbol status with the media

Wheel of Fortune, 1977-78


Again Flack renders her objects as a three dimensional illusion. The space is flat and juxtaposed objects tell stories related to the still life. Once again we see pop art colours, adding a brightness to the work.

Look for the following:

  • skull, lipstick, dice, flickering flame of the candle, tarot card, beads and mirror – each are carefully chosen objects linking to death,
  • the future is linked to the inclusion of the dice (your fate is pre-determined and cast much like the throwing of a dice)
  • the appearance of beauty and youth signified by the photograph of the young woman. This is juxtaposed against the skull to show fleeting nature of youth and life.

To learn more about Audrey Flack, watch this interview she did with Eldridge & Co.

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