Circle Looking North
Richard Estes Columbus Circle Looking North (2009).

For many of us, architecture is largely experienced through images, and the impact of architecture is as much about the intermediary medium that presents it as it is about the brick-and-mortar structure being represented. Painter Richard Estes, whose work has been the subject of several retrospectives over the last year, illustrates architecture as a part of an urban whole.

"Architecture has a kind of self-consciousness about it that I just don't think is what engages Richard's interest," says curator Patterson Sims. "He's really fascinated by buildings, he's really fascinated by the way buildings look together, their geometries, their component abstract parts. But it's not as if he would paint a painting of Bilbao or he would paint a painting of a cathedral, per say."

"Richard Estes: Painting New York City" recently opened at the Museum of Arts and Design (MAD) in New York. The MAD show comes on the heels of another exhibition of Estes' work, "Richard Estes' Realism," which closed in February at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C. That show was previously hung at the Portland Museum of Art in Maine.

The Plaza (1991).
Richard Estes The Plaza (1991).

Estes' work is often mistakenly called photorealism. He paints from his own photographs, but he assembles multiple shots into a single painting, often with impossible perspectives. In The Plaza (1991), for example, the viewer is probably sitting on the right-hand side of a city bus, but can see the passengers to the left with the same level of detail as the view out the window on the right.

In addition to paintings, the MAD show includes silkscreens, woodcuts, and Estes' original photographs, and this is the first time that the painter has let the public peek into his background materials. It's also the first time that MAD, founded as the Museum of Contemporary Crafts in 1956, has shown work by a painter, photographer, or printmaker. At a press preview, MAD director Glenn Adamson described the exhibition as his own "opening salvo," since it also kicks off the first season that has been planned since he was named director of the museum in September 2013.

Untitled (including Brooklyn Bridge images), date unknown.
Richard Estes/Photo by Dennis and Diana Griggs Untitled (including Brooklyn Bridge images), date unknown.

While "architecture with a capital A" may not be Estes' focus, in a city like New York, it still appears in his work. In Bus with Reflection of the Flatiron Building (1966-67), Estes warps Daniel Burnham's 1902 building into a nearly unrecognizable concave shape. Cass Gilbert's 1913 building appears twice in Woolworth Building (2003), once as the building and once as its warped reflection. The show does include one straightforward image of architecture: a commissioned piece of the Guggenheim from 1979.

Bus with Reflection of the Flatiron Building (1966-1967).
Richard Estes/Photo by Luc Demers Bus with Reflection of the Flatiron Building (1966-1967).
Brooklyn Bridge (1993).
Richard Estes Brooklyn Bridge (1993).

As curator, Sims took advantage of MAD's location, positioning Estes' Columbus Circle Looking North (2009) next to a window overlooking Columbus Circle. The painting depicts the base of the museum's building, which was renovated by Allied Works Architecture in 2008, but the glass actually produces a better shot of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill's Time Warner Center on the circle.

Circle Looking North
(2009) installed at MAD exhibition.
Butcher Walsh © Museum of Arts and Design Columbus Circle Looking North (2009) installed at MAD exhibition.

Sims plays with other parts of New York’s geography, hanging Brooklyn Bridge (1993) perpendicular to Williamsburg Bridge (2006), allowing simultaneous views down the barrel of two bridges that are nearly parallel in real life. Estes also tagged the Brooklyn Bridge with a graffiti version of his signature, a Where's Waldo?-like find-the-autograph gimmick that appears throughout his work.

Estes' work is jumbled in both process and result. In the painting's amalgamations, however, they seem to reflect a truer notion of the urban landscape, with buildings reflecting onto buildings, than a static full-frontal view of a single, isolated structure.

Woolworth Building (2003).
Richard Estes Woolworth Building (2003).

"Richard Estes: Painting New York City" runs through Sept. 20 at the Museum of Arts and Design in New York.