At the Confluence of Two Ditches Bordering a Field with Four Radio Towers (1995), oil on canvas, 46" x 48"
Rackstraw Downes (b. 1939) has been practicing his finely tuned craft of outdoor (and indoor) painting below much of the contemporary art world's radar for some time. I was surprised to find that this is his first retrospective in a forty year career, despite a steadily growing representation in major museum collections. It was only after receiving a MacArthur Fellowship last year that serious recognition has come to this most deserving, hardworking artist. The reason for all this may be that Downes' oeuvre exists in an atypical, singular relationship to modern art's critical ideology. That is – he may well be the only practitioner of representational perceptual landscape painting that is recognized by the contemporary discourse. Critic Peter Schjeldahl notes: “Tactfulness like Downes' is so rare today, it's exotic” (Wilson 100).
His very history seemed to resist the typical trends. In 1961, leaving his native England and Cambridge (he majored in literature), he came to the U.S. to study painting at Yale. Minimalism was the cause célèbre of the academic art world at this time, exemplified by the pedagogy of his teacher, Al Held. Downes expressed his disenchantment with the tight boundaries of pure abstraction, stating that “...the arguable and inconsequential theoretical basis of it, and the narrow specialization of the artists created an atmosphere in which art as I understood it could hardly breathe” (16). He began to gravitate towards a more representational language of painting, following the tutelage of Alex Katz and Neil Welliver. The influences of the latter two artists prompted a move to Maine, and in doing so, Downes left behind the tropes of abstraction for the rigors of representation.
Despite a lack of practical training in the craft, Downes strove to hone his representational painting skills. It was not without difficulty, as he recalls, “Why had I not learned to draw, and how do you match the colors out there?” (25). Yet, his persistence and inborn observational skill enabled him to eventually capture the soft and trembling edges of foliage in New England's atmospheric light. Dunham's Farm Pond (1972), the earliest work in the Onsite Paintings exhibition, serves as a good example of Downes' attention to Welliver's painting methods, but it also shows a definitive shift away from flattened, modernist surfaces. The glow of the summer haze he observed and captured here was achieved through careful tonal adjustments, enveloping the natural forms of the landscape in softness. This early work perhaps represents his first foray into an organic idea of vision, playing down traditional, mathematical perspectives with a perceptual, atmospheric one. These notions become distinctly more significant in future works.
Unfamiliar with Downes' process, I speculated about it while perusing the show. My initial assumption was that he was using photography of some kind to support his detail work. For example, the phenomenal clarity with which 110th and Broadway, Whelan's from Sloan's (1980-81) is so painstakingly rendered must have required some kind of photo reference that he took back to the studio. Surely, it would be a necessity to employ such a tactic in order to render the dozens of trucks, the hundreds of windows, and the scores of figures moving to and fro in this bustling Manhattan intersection. Surprisingly, Downes does not even own a camera, let alone use one. From the preparatory drawings to the final chip of concrete, thatch of weeds, distant parked car, or incidental passerby – he is on site, recording it all, often taking a year's worth of multiple visits to achieve his vision.
In The View North from Washington Bridge on the Harlem River (1983), it is evident that Downes is investigating the complexities of capturing perspective as the truth of an observed experience – that is – what the human eye sees when turning the head in a vast space. In this painting (and others after it), there is a sense of the urban landscape wrapping across the field of vision. A deep diminution of space occurs as the head turns left-to-right from the central point – which, in this case, are prominent apartment towers. As they advance towards the center, they bulge outward, as other elements fall away obliquely as the canvas extends laterally. The artist comments upon this particular aspect of building the work by identifying a “clothesline construction... which means that all of the events in the painting [the changing forms] happen in a one-by-one order along the horizon, which is a surrogate for a clothesline” (Skowhegan 6:40). There is a heuristic quality to this, as the expansive quality of the space becomes actualized for the viewer, as it was for the artist at his easel.
Within these elaborate constructions lies a strong narrative. Downes is very interested in the environment; the neglect of nature through urban “progress” is his most poignant thematic. However, he presents his views unsentimentally and evenly with no inclination towards drama. In fact, he finds most Hudson River School paintings to be “theatrical in concept and calculated in execution” (Ottman, 19). For Downes, the true wild is not the modern notion of wilderness – the protected, well funded and “approved” tracts – it is land that has been neglected, trash riddled, weed infested, and unceremoniously disregarded: “[W]eeds interest me more than ancient redwoods; they are the vanguard of nature's forces as she wages her war back on us” (58)
These attitudes towards nature are evident in paintings such as U.S. Scrap Metal Gets Shipped for Reprocessing in Southeast Asia, Jersey City (1994), where the vista stretches from the almost amusement-park-like Port Liberte Condominiums (left) to a fully operational, coastal scrap yard (right). In the space between lies an unnamed cove, where egrets feed in the shallows amongst rotting piers, and the wreckage of barges is strewn throughout the tall marsh grasses. As my eyes moved across the breadth of the canvas in a more careful inspection, a narrative unfolded. A tiny ferry coming into the landing at the condominiums is undoubtedly a commuter ferry, shuttling residents across New York Harbor to and from work in the financial district (the Twin Towers can be seen in the distance, extreme left). The financially bloated, theoretical trading that takes place in those pristine halls of commerce is reflected back in its counterpart across the cove: the gritty, physical reality of the commercial scrap metal facility. Here, the castoffs of consumerism are harvested and sent to Southeast Asia where they will be imported back and re-sold as new consumables... and the cycle continues. But, beneath the artist's unsparing representation is a suggestion that there might still be hope for this shrinking world. By virtue of his empirical methods, Downes offers an encouraging thought: “there is so often this incredible adaptation on the part of the wildlife” (Spears). It is in the marshy cove, there within the interstices of the urbanized terrain, that the artist finds the true wild somehow hanging on in the wake of human commerce.
The exhibition includes several interiors. For one such piece, the title alone, Untenanted Space in the World Trade Center, Winter Sun (1998), gives the picture great significance. However, it may be the unfortunate facts of history that charge the painting with a funereal quality. Nevertheless, the sheer weight of emptiness in this huge, abandoned office space is palpable. But, even in this most synthetic of spaces, nature is still active, represented by brilliant gold bars of sunlight. They strafe the floor in long diagonals, owing to the low angle of the winter sun. The outdoors is brought indoors with a new twist – the low, oppressive ceiling replaces infinite sky. The artist emphasizes this downward pressure, forcing our eyes to follow the patterns of light into the foreground. Here, Downes revels in his paint, capturing the morphology of the floor.
There is one particular painting in this show that, for me, exemplifies the qualities of this excellent artist: At the Confluence of Two Ditches Bordering a Field with Four Radio Towers (1995). The format is “non-standard Downes” in that it is nearly square – but that is the only anomaly. In this scene, located somewhere on the periphery of Galveston, Texas, four radio towers recede in closely spaced verticals from the middle distance. Power lines rush in from the lower-middle left and sweep upward in a synchronous lyrical curve across the background webwork of the towers' guy wires. Their parallel profiles suggest musical staves across the score of an overcast sky. These lines are remarkable, as they are etched into the facture of the sky's impasted surface, yet are still precisely painted in an unbroken, calligraphic gesture. Below, two drainage ditches, beautifully articulated with their patchwork greenery, triangulate towards us, not quite coming to a confluence in the bottom center - for this is where the artist is standing. It is also where, as the viewer, I am standing. With skill and aplomb, he takes me to this spot, this unprepossessing vista with its secret beauty, and exhorts me to look... and see.
The curator at the Parrish Museum, Klaus Ottman, sums up my own conclusions about this show, this artist and his work: “Rackstraw teaches us to see” (Spears).
List of works cited:
Downes, Rackstraw. In Relation to the Whole. New York: Edgewise, 2000. Print.
- “Rackstraw Downes (Skowhegan Lecture Archive).” The Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, Skowhegan, Maine. 2002. Lecture/Audio CD.
Ottman, Klaus. Rackstraw Downes. London: D. Giles Limited, 2010. Print.
Spears, Dorothy. “Street Life as Still Life.” New York Times 25 Jul. 2010, New York ed., AR19. Print.
Wilson, Malin, ed. The Hydrogen Jukebox: Selected Writings of Peter Schjeldahl. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991. Print