Richard Estes' Baby Doll Lounge depicts a New York scene that no longer exists. In this painting downtown is still the province of the avant-garde, the peripheral and the compromised. Run down cars, buildings and the unapologetic strip club all describe a street that has not yet met the gentrifying forces of Prada, Pastis and Pottery Barn. This is New York when the Bronx was burning, the city was embroiled in economic meltdown and downtown was defined by needles on park paths and squatters.
This is not to say that Baby Doll Lounge passes judgement on urban decay. Instead, like all true New Yorkers, Estes' adoration for his home is apparent. He portrays his scene with compassion and fondness. Estes' New York is the city whose energy, for better or worse, has fueled so much of the artistic achievement in the Twentieth century.
John Perreault writes, "As in the work of Edward Hopper and Vermeer-- two art heroes to Estes--light is central to the paintings. Estes is the poet/painter of New York City. He has painted Venice, Chicago, and Paris, but most of his paintings are of Manhattan, his home. One can recognize the Ansonia Hotel, Lincoln Center, certain streets on the Upper West Side and in the Village, even the Guggenheim Museum, and this is fine. But it is really New York City light that is the true subject and the key. Estes' Manhattan is a city of pristine, virtually vacant Sundays. He avoids night scenes. He avoids the sentiment and angst that haunt Hopper's Depression street.
"There are no lonely figures in an Estes painting. In fact, aside from a blurred pedestrian or two and an image of the artist himself reflected in a storefront window, people do not exist. Finding those few pedestrians becomes a game equal to finding the artist's signature on a license plate [as in the present painting] or a tiny sign in a shop window.
"In many ways, Estes' New York is an ideal city: always fall or always spring, no slush or grime. And everything is in miraculous, preternatural focus. 'There are certain things that have to be fuzzy that are naturally fuzzy,' he explained to me when we were talking about his paintings. 'The eye sees like that. When I look at things, some are out of focus. But I don't like to have some things out of focus and others in focus because it makes very specific what you are supposed to look at, and I try to avoid saying that. I want you to look at all. Everything is in focus." (J. Perreault, "Richard Estes," Richard Estes: The Complete Paintings 1966-1985, New York, 1986, pp. 10-11)