Published: February 15, 2011
For nearly four decades, British-born, Yale-educated Rackstraw Downes (b 1939) has been painting exterior and interior views of the American scene, both rural and urban. His detailed panoramic canvases, reflecting a variety of influences, achieve a rare balance between Realism and Abstraction, immediacy and timelessness.
Eschewing picturesque views that are the bread and butter of many realists, Downes concentrates on scenes that are often taken for granted, overlooked or simply ignored for lack of conventional aesthetic appeal. He is an anti-picturesque artist, a painter of beautiful views of ugly sites.
Downes’s minutely detailed images tend to focus on the intersection †often clash †between the natural world and manufactured objects. They are straightforward at the same time that they challenge viewers to reconsider the implications of these interactions.
Working exclusively from direct observation over weeks or even months, Downes paints onsite, indoors or outdoors, using a portable easel. By dividing his time nowadays between New York City and Texas, he can paint en plein air all year-round.
Downes’s subjects run the gamut from roadways, housing projects, construction sites, landfills and industrial parks in New York City and New Jersey to the intrusion of buildings and other structures on views of Maine to oilfields and parched flatlands of Texas. By painting the American landscape as it is, not as it has been idealized, the artist infuses his works with extraordinary power. As art historian Robert Storr observes, “These are paintings made by a thinking man for thinking people who are, for a moment, content to see, and for the time that stretches from that moment, aware that they will be long and fully occupied.”
Comparisons have been drawn between Downes’s panoramic onsite paintings and those of Hudson River School founder Thomas Cole. Among the American painters Downes admires are George Inness, John Marin, Marsden Hartley and Fairfield Porter, augmented by various medieval Dutch artists.
A good overview of the achievements of this distinctive representational artist is offered by “Rackstraw Downes: Onsite Paintings, 1972′008,” on view at the Portland Museum of Art through March 20.
Downes was born Rodney Harry Rackstraw Downes in Kent, England, of parents who were formerly actors and who divorced when he was 13. As a teenager he became interested in calligraphy and lettering. “That was the beginning of visual art for me,” he says. Interested in the United States due to his mother’s enthusiasm for jazz, Downes was an exchange student at the Hotchkiss School in Lakeville, Conn., for a year.
Returning to Britain, he studied English literature at Cambridge, where he designed posters and stage sets. Entering Yale’s School of Art in 1961, he studied under Josef Albers, Al Held and Neil Welliver, turning out works that he describes as “abstractions out of Mondrian.” Among his fellow students: Chuck Close, Brice Marden and Janet Fish, to whom he was briefly married.
Dissatisfied with his early, post-Yale work that emulated Held’s geometric abstractions Downes determined, in Storr’s words, to abandon “the increasingly rigid logic of high modernist abstraction.” He experimented with more realistic, plein air views of Central Park influenced by Welliver, “known for his buttery, patterned views of the Maine wilderness.” Downes gradually widened his horizons and incorporated the sense of atmospheric light and space that distinguishes his mature work.
A highlight of the exhibition, “The Mouth of the Passagassawaukeag at Belfast, Maine, Seen from the Frozen Fruit Plant,” 1989, was created while Downes stood “on a very steep bank” that required painting in two sections. It offers a panoramic view of a long bridge in midcoastal Maine, with such minute details as a rusting pipe on the rocky shore, scruffy shrubbery lining the river, and cars and trucks parked along the adjacent railroad. This ordinary blue collar setting made memorable by the expansive format and miniaturist details served as Downes’ farewell to Maine.
For years, Downes spent his winters in New York, teaching, writing essays and reviews, and painting off-beat urban scenes. As musician and cultural essayist Sarah Rothenberg puts it, he chose “subjects that quietly confront the effects of human intervention on nature.”
Onsite work at some locations can be precarious. For “The View North from Washington Bridge on the Harlem River,” Downes said he “designed and built an easel that would clamp on to&⁛the] stone railing [on the pedestrian walkway along the river] and had my painting firmly attached there.” He liked the view because it encompassed a boat, an Amtrak train, and the Major Deegan Highway filled with vehicles †”all these different transportation systems all at once.”
Some of Downes’s elongated paintings are as much as ten times longer than tall, “the shape of the canvases merely followed the demands of the narrative subject of the spatial experience, or both,” said Downes, not some predetermined size.
More recently, Downes has focused his attention on the art mecca created by the late Minimalist sculptor Donald Judd on an abandoned Army base in Marfa, Texas. It has proved a fortuitous choice: “Intent on stripping away everything but the essential, his concern with form and shape, with objectivity over expression, and his appreciation of the simple and dislike of the ornate,” said Rothenberg, “all contributed to making the spartan beauty of the Chianti Foundation and its isolated setting in West Texas a good place for Downes to work.”
Starting out with a painting of a wild tangle of wooden beams on a concrete building under construction in Marfa in 1998, Downes has recorded such homely subjects as an otherwise barren roadside yard loaded with white beehive boxes. His recording of his impressions as he walked around a hexagonal structure, “Circumambulation Clockwise of the Six-Sided Bull Barn in Marfa, TX,” 2007, is a surprisingly interesting group of six images from each direction, measuring overall only 37 by 37 inches.
Today, after decades of strong painting, Downes is beginning to attract the recognition his compelling body of work deserves. Many agree with art historian William Agee’s judgment that Downes is “a truly outstanding artist of the top rank.” He is already a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and recipient of a 2009 MacArthur Foundation “genius” award. This astute survey of his career will advance the painter’s standing in the art world.
After closing in Portland, the exhibition will be at the Witherspoon Art Museum, the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, March 28⁁ugust 21.
The Portland Museum of Art is at Seven Congress Square. For information: www.portlandmuseum.org or 207-775-6148.
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