LIFE AT A DISTANCE
For fans of hard-core painting, the summer belonged to Rackstraw Downes, whose series of three exhibitions -- at the Parrish Art Museum, at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum and at Betty Cuningham Gallery -- proved that he’s maintained his obdurate position as a reporter of the specific. It can be tough, indeed. Where’s the fun in overpasses, deserts, landfills, oil tanks, off-ramps, ventilation towers and irrigation ditches? But Downes is ruthless when it comes to making us reconsider our nondescript surroundings.
For four decades now the British-born artist has banned from his painting any hint of the notion that art should serve as an emotional or visual escape. Not for him are renderings of nature as consoling scenery or transmitter of transcendental truth. The prosaic landscapes and industrial vistas we distain are exactly those he finds most fascinating. "I think of industry and engineering as something that has been done to the landscape," he says. "I’m neither optimistic nor despairing about it. In fact, I believe that thinking in such polarized terms prevents one from seeing what’s there: its complexity, irony, incongruity, robustness, melancholy."
What the recent shows make plain is that Downes’ work steadily has grown more ambitious. You can’t help but pay attention to his vast, detailed panoramas, his vertiginous drawings. He’s set for himself, via a huge variety of sites, progressively complicated challenges of perspective, composition and scale. Sometimes such acrobatic, cerebral complexities sacrifice painterly ease and the paintings can look downright drab. By the time he’s painting in Texas, the innocent, slow-cooked charm of his earliest works has been suppressed in favor of laconic surfaces and a kind of dehydrated Last Picture Show grandeur.
Downes, an art world renegade, is a fiercely intellectual painter who has kept at refining the austere descriptive style he initiated back in the 1970s when realism was considered beyond the pale. He’s made it a habit to disrupt critical assumptions and predictions. Last year the MacArthur Foundation gave him a genius grant for his "unique approach to realism that defies standard categorization." His disciplined methodology is designed to check and double-check subjective perception. He remains a severe, even insecure, critic of his own work. He honed the analytical acuity he focuses on himself (and in brilliant essays he writes on the state of larger art world) at Cambridge, where he studied English literature and literary criticism. In the early 1960s he turned down a post at the British university to study painting at Yale. By the late 1960s he had abandoned abstraction as a dead end, adapting then-prevailing syntax of modernism to serve his growing interest in a strictly objective visual investigation of the world. Learning from Alex Katz, Neil Welliver, Joseph Fiore and from plain-speaking primitive painters like John Kane, he began painting landscapes of inland Maine from direct observation.
This kind of direct observation gave unexpected, energetic life to 22 of his more recent, rarely exhibited exploratory site drawings that were on view at Betty Cuningham Gallery earlier in the summer in "Rackstraw Downes: A Selection of Drawings: 1980-2010," June 3-Aug. 5, 2010. The sketchy, objectively diagrammatic graphite drawings pulsate with architecturally investigative, spatially baroque, schematic lines transmitting intense thought and ocular immediacy to paper. Like a surveyor investigating the site’s potential, Downes uses drawing to pin down the scale and proportions of locations, testing their potential as subjects for future paintings. He captures the particular light and specific time of day as he tries to find a viable viewpoint from which to render each vista. His 2005 Henry Hudson Bridge compels respect for the way he can render the intricate underside of a complex structure. The 2009 Under the Off-Ramp from the George Washington Bridge, reveals a baroque sweep of curves punctuated by delicate verticals of volunteer saplings growing beside ramp’s undercarriage. Such free, bravura drawings can provide insight into Downes’ paintings.
A touring retrospective exhibition organized by Klaus Ottmann, "Rackstraw Downes: Onsite Paintings, 1972-2008," on view at the Parrish Art Museum, June 20-Aug. 8, 2010, produced a revealingly varied overview that tracks Downes’ escalating range and skills, starting with several of his early, more conventionally bucolic Maine scenes. Softball Practice, Skowhegan (1975) is a small-town genre scene (including a line of the ball players’ tiny parked cars cleverly indicated by mere flecks of color), where human activities are subsumed in the larger rural landscape. It recast the approach of Old Masters like Pieter Brueghel the Elder, whose vivid 16th-century genre scenes of peasant life have influenced Downes. For him, a landscape, rural or urban, is always a place where people live and work. He declares that, being raised in England, he lacks the romantic "New World sense of an antithesis between unspoiled nature and human culture."
The news here is being able to now see exactly how the work evolved -- from subsequent small, meticulous paintings of Maine’s industrial buildings, lumberyards and cement plants dwarfed by high, pale skies (these pictures retain a nostalgic, modest delicacy) to those of the populous streets, rain-slick sidewalks and looming overpasses of Manhattan’s Upper West Side. You see that his characteristic low horizons, strange fish-eye perspectives, architectural choices and heavy skies grow increasingly confident until there are such curious, imposing paintings as the ones of the massive Lincoln Tunnel Ventilation Towers and Hudson River Piers (1988) and the vast Fresh Kills Landfill (1990). The extremely wide on-site landfill panoramas capture parabolic curves of the land that look really weird even though they are topographically accurate. But this seemingly eccentric perspective is strictly observed. Nothing is too utilitarian to paint. His four symphonic pictures of somberly gleaming metal duct works inside Staten Island’s Snug Harbor Cultural Center Attics (2001) turn mundane machinery into quietly gripping art.
His interiors can be powerful. In 1998 Downes set up on one of the empty floors of the World Trade Center, where he made stripped down, dryly pigmented paintings of pale sunlight slanting through an enfilade of windows to cast a ladder of light on the floor. The events of 9/11 make the documentary character of these first major interiors, such as Untenanted Space in the World Trade Center—Winter Sun, unintentionally, retroactively haunting. I was happy to see that the show included what I think is one of his best interior paintings -- the 2006 depiction of Daphne Cummings’ soaring Brooklyn studio (it had been a movie theater). It combines architectural clarity with a rendering of pale walls, vaulted roof, skylights and bits of work tables for color that recalls 17th century Dutch painter Pieter Saenredam’s pristine church interiors.
Downes’ ambitious determination to conquer obstacles raised by a dauntingly complicated subject reached a kind of crescendo with Four Spots Along a Razor-Wire Fence, August-November (ASOTSPRIE) (1999). This banal fence near Coney Island transects a scruffy industrial landscape incorporating a bit of road, an overgrown sidewalk, a big Sumac tree, subway tracks and red storage shacks under slightly clouded, pale blue skies. Hardly fascinating, right? Wrong. The extreme intricacy of these four pictures detonates in slow motion, mesmerizing viewers with the sheer nuanced detail of each view. In his book, Under the Gowanus and Razor-Wire Journal,the artist recorded the often insanely tedious process of making the paintings, which took 58 visits to the site over four months.
A decade earlier the artist started going to Texas in the winter to keep working outdoors. In Galveston he ran across the oil fields and apparently empty Texan terrain that, when scrutinized, teams with interlocking natural and man-made incident. His restrained style wrestled odd grandeur from Texas drainage ditches (At the Confluence of Two Ditches: 1995). There’s a mannerist eccentricity in some of his recent Texas paintings, such as the dry, lacy delicacy he makes from a scene of dozens of unassuming white beehives set out in the pale tan desert, under a big sky near Presidio and the Chinati Foundation in Marfa. His three versions of Farm Buildings Near the Rio Grand; Under The Barn Roof, A.M. and P.M. (2008) are weird vistas of the same building near his house. In each, the dark, shadowed underside or the top of the shed roof pushes against a pale blue sky.
The exhibition at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum -- "Rackstraw Downes: Under the Westside Highway," June 27, 2010-Jan. 2, 2011 -- is like a seminar that examines the logical, incremental ways Downes works. It centers around the 2008 three-part painting, Under the Westside Highway at 145th Street: The North River Water Pollution Control Plant and includes myriad sketches and preparatory material that were part of the process of capturing the swerving curves of the manmade structure’s utilitarian space which the artist describes in his journal as "very ‘ancient Rome’; Piranesi-like. . . with enormous columns." This picture also presents another prime example of his penchant for those "heavy skies." In a little film Betty Cuningham commissioned four years ago, Rackstraw tells his interviewer, "One of the things about landscape is that the weight is usually on the ground. The top of the painting is usually sky, all airy and light, not much solid up there -- clouds are fleecy and vaporous. So it interests me to reverse this situation and put the weight up on the top. One good way to do that is to stand under a bridge." (Or under an elevated highway.)
Downes’ rigorous artistic program avoids making art a romantic, sentimental, rhetorical or expressionistic vacation from the realities of what’s actually right in front us. His arduous excursions, all the physical difficulties of accurately depicting a particular scene, are also, as he once wrote, "a way of using nature to force on yourself new ways of looking at painting." His well-known, days-on-end, on-site routines have provided him with the highly specific observational understanding he needs to make a painting. They also guarantee he stays an independent loner.
"Rackstraw Downes: A Selection of Drawings 1980-2010," June 3-Aug. 5, 2010, at Betty Cunningham Gallery, 541 West 25 Street, New York, N.Y.
"Rackstraw Downes: Onsite Paintings, 1972-2008," June 20-Aug. 8, 2010, at the Parrish Art Museum, 25 Jobs Lane, Southampton, N.Y. 11968. The exhibition subsequently appears at the Portland (Me.) Museum of Art, Dec. 16, 2010-Mar. 20, 2011, and the Witherspoon Art Museum, Greensboro, N.C., May 28-August 21, 2011.
"Rackstraw Downes: Under the Westside Highway, North River Water Pollution Control Plant," June 27, 2010-Jan. 2, 2011, at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, 258 Main Street, Ridgefield, Conn.
ALEXANDRA ANDERSON-SPIVY is a critic and historian who lives and works in Manhattan.