Treasures from the Vault: Don Eddy

Elizabeth Kilmer, Exhibitions Content Manager

Don Eddy made a name for himself as a pioneer in Photorealism. His career has spanned over 50 years, but we’re going to focus on the earlier part of Eddy’s artistic œuvre. He was born in California and received his BFA in 1967 and MFA in 1969 from the University of Hawaii in Honolulu. His art career took off shortly after completing his studies, and by the mid-1970s Eddy was one of four artists spearheading the new Photorealism craze along with Richard Estes, Ralph Goings, and John Baeder.

Before we continue, let’s put Photorealism in context. Generally speaking, from the Renaissance to the early 20th century art was realistic and detailed, as it was through paintings, drawings, and prints that people learned about the outside world and captured their own likeness. That’s about 600 years of art mostly being rendered in a natural and realistic manner. However, with the invention of the camera in the mid-19th century, artists began to question whether or not art needed to be realistic. After all, if a camera could capture what something looked like in ever increasing amount of time (the first photographs took over an hour to produce, but this time decreased quickly with new advancements) then why should painters and printmakers bother with creating detailed and realistic artwork? As a result, artists began to experiment widely with abstraction in all forms of fine art. Viewers were introduced to radical movements such as Fauvism, Post-Impressionism, Cubism, Constructivism, and Abstract Expressionism; and, those who stayed true to detailed reality were pushed to the sidelines.

There was push back against abstraction starting in the 1970s, and Eddy was one of the movement’s generals. Photorealism was not only a reaction against the prevalence of Abstract Expressionism and Minimalism, but also the ease of photography. Artists who worked in this style attempted to reclaim the value of an artistic image, demonstrating that the artistic skill of rendering a “real” image was of higher significance than a photograph or, even, an abstract canvas. As art movements build upon each other through reactions, it is not uncommon to see this back-and-forth from realism to abstraction, especially as artists explore emerging technologies like photography.

Eddy’s Photorealism pieces start with not one, but dozens of photographs. I realize this sounds ironic since he’s reacting against photography, but he had a good reason. Eddy’s use of multiple photographs allowed him to capture any and all angles that encompassed a composition, which could easily be missed by the human eye. As a result, Eddy’s paintings and prints possess a hyper-realistic quality, which is heighted through his compositional approach – he often closely crops his work, allowing viewers to only see a small portion of his total subject.

Don Eddy's lithograph is a still life of glasses and the reflections of glasses, making it appear as if the work goes on forever/is mirrored.
Don Eddy, American, b. 1944. Silverware. Lithograph, 1977. Museum Purchase with funds from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Alliance-Weatherhead Endowment, 1981.03.3. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

Eddy employed all of his signature methods in the 1977 lithograph Silverware. This detailed print portrays a collection of silver teapots, coffee urns, and bowls on mirrored glass shelves, but, at first glance, it appears abstract! The intense close-up of this silver display is all highlights and curvilinear shapes, and lines crisscross and spiral away from each other throughout the composition. As we take the time to truly look at this work of art, all of its intense detail unfolds into highly rendered silver dishes. If you imagine a china cabinet full of polished glass and silver, it looks almost exactly like this print. The forms reflect light back and forth onto each other, creating innumerable highlights and impeccable shine – Eddy has captured this.

It’s likely that Eddy was able to render Silverware with such a high degree of detail through his use of dozens of reference photographs. We can see that he truly understands how each element is formed and how it relates to its surroundings. For example, the three small scalloped dishes in the foreground capture the distorted reflection of the teapot and coffee urn above them, while also reflecting on the glass shelf below them.

By pushing his entire composition close to the forefront of the print, Eddy forces viewers to appreciate his skill in capturing the minutest detail. Through careful execution, his hand has rendered a work of art as detailed as a photograph yet as expressive as an abstract painting. Silverware shows how a work born from an intense appreciation of realism can bridge the gap between the abstract and what we perceive as “real”.

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