RACKSTRAW DOWNES: In Focusby Phong Bui
Onsite Paintings, 1972 – 2008
Parrish Art Museum
June 20, 2010–August 8, 2010
A Selection of Drawings: 1980–2010
Betty Cunningham Gallery
June 3, 2010–July 30, 2010
Under the Westside Highway
Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum
June 27, 2010–Jan 2, 2011
Only after Diego Martelli, the Italian painter and art critic (1838-1896) whose portrait was painted by Degas, insightfully observed that Manet and Degas were “artists of modernity,” while Monet, Renoir, and Pissarro were the “true Impressionists who represent[ed] the dawn of the future,” did Cézanne (taking cues from Pissarro’s example) set out to restore the dignity of form that the Impressionists had destroyed.
So in that context, as far as 19th-century on-the-spot or plein-air painting is concerned, Rackstraw Downes reluctantly positions his work somewhere near the middle. He desires light and color as well as form. Yet it appears that he neither wants to make his picture via the fleeting “impression” of seeing, nor does he wish to overanalyze his subject. In the context of the 20th century, especially the mid-1950s, with the emergence of the gestural and perceptual realism of Fairfield Porter, Alex Katz, Philip Pearlstein, Lois Dodd, and Jane Freilicher, which laid the framework for Downes and his contemporaries on both sides of the equation, including Janet Fish, Harriet Shorr, Catherine Murphy, and Sylvia Plimack Mangold (who work from direct observation) and painters such as Chuck Close, Vija Celmins, Gerhard Richter, and Ellen Phelan (who prefer to explore imagery derived from photography) it is impossible to identify Downes’s work with either group. The former is known for its endowed all-over space and decisive speed of execution in the painting process, the latter for its gravitation towards the conceptual/minimal deconstruction of the image. Downes must have realized that ever since he gave up being an abstract painter in 1966, a neutral stance would be the most fertile ground for his growth as a painter.
Turning to the earliest painting in the Parrish exhibit, “Dunham’s Farm Pond” (1972), the kind of on-site one-shot that Alex Katz has called “baby buckeyes,” one encounters the fairly-fast, evenly-paced painterly surface that requires no more than two or three different-sized brush strokes, where the rhythm and physical distribution of paint across the surface captures the fresh light and air before sunrise. The same can be said of “Sprowls Bros. Lumber Yard, Searsmont, ME” (1978-80), the earliest of his mature pictures on display, except that here his desire to achieve as uniform a surface as possible, in which every square inch of the canvas is treated with the same physical presence, is overridden by a counter desire to paint over things until they appear as real as he sees them. Therefore, layers of paint are inevitably built up. One can certainly see evidence of this in the rooftops and the sides of the barns in the middle of the picture. Exposed stapling marks and added pieces of canvases are also visible.
In another example, “U.S. Scrap Metal Gets Shipped for Reprocessing in Southeast Asia, Jersey City” (1994), the paint becomes physical to the degree that the distinction between the positive and negative space is lost, particularly in the group of buildings to the middle of the left side of the picture. In other words, this buildup of the surface challenges the conventional reading of representational painting, in which the depiction of light is often conveyed through thicker paint while shadows are more thinly painted, often with no more than a few transparent glazes. It reflects the radical changes that took place after Impressionism and Cézanne, in which Fauvism and Cubism led to a formalist reading of the picture plane by art historians and critics by the 1950s, and which now exert an even greater pressure on those who work from direct observation to reconcile their treatment of surface with its post-Greenbergian definition. It’s not my intention to reduce Downes’s ambition to an easy readability. Nor do I wish to overanalyze the complexity of his oeuvre, although I admit there have been many occasions where a new discovery, derived from keen observation, have completely upended my previous reading of his paintings. I also find the fullest pleasure in what I fail to understand about his work in spite of my desire to do so.
The selection of paintings at the Parrish Museum, curated and installed by Klaus Ottmann, brilliantly reveals both the dominant and subtle aspects of the painter’s oeuvre. The classic Downesian multiple views of one subject are represented by such pictures as the economically painted “Four Spots Along a Razor-Wire Fence, August – November (ASOTSPRIE)” (1999), the formally elegant “Circumambulation Clockwise of the Six-Sided Bull Farm, Marfa, TX” (2007), and the singularly monumental images in each of the three pictures of “Farm Buildings Near the Rio Grande: South Side of the Barn, A.M, West End of the Barn, P.M, Under the Barn Roof, A.M” (2008). As demonstrated by the way each stripe of the barn’s tin siding in the first picture is painted differently in terms of texture, tonality and light distribution, the assertiveness of these structures display the assertiveness of Downes’s skillful hand; his confidence in wet-to-wet paint application is more apparent than ever.
There are other beautiful yet aggressive pictures, such as “Demolition and Excavation on the Site of the Equitable Life Assurance Society’s New Tower at 7th Avenue and 52nd Street” (1983), and “At the Confluence of Two Ditches Bordering a Field with Four Radio Towers” (1995), which insist that the viewer view the scene from spot where the painter is standing, but nonetheless are extremely spatially disorienting. What’s most surprising is when Downes reveals his meteorological interests in the least ideal setting, like his admired forebear, John Constable, who painted such conditions, though only in the form of oil sketches. “Portland from Back Cove” (1983-84) is the most impressive and persistent attestation to the painter’s commitment to complete a painting under a specific weather condition–one is sure he returns to the location only when the conditions are nearly identical to the day he initiated the painting. There is no special technique: only the vision to confront nature with humility and as well as a robust desire to conquer her.
Whatever it is that compels a painter to follow such an arduous and unfashionable way of painting is a testament to his strength of character and the clarity of his conception. This year-round rotation—with visits to each site carefully organized to coincide with the initial seasonal conditions and such exact specifics as the direction of the light, hour of the day, and change of weather (not to mention the way he must train himself to divide his time between all the short and long distance traveling that he must be ready for)—is simply unimaginable in our day. As much as I’m familiar with Downes’s belief in the essential truth of direct looking, I am also aware of his struggle with the existential force that intensifies his doubt. It is between these two junctures that emerged his landmark panoramic views that follow the bowed arc of binocular vision, a curvature that is not dissimilar to the broken lines in Cézanne’s tabletop, interrupted by still-life objects.
Those who have followed his work as long as I have are undeniably aware of the deep philosophical bearing that lies below his formal and pictorial organization, which perpetually raises the issues of entropy and sublimity. Any form of nostalgia or general claims of “purity and idealism” would not interest him. In looking again at “U.S. Scrap Metal Gets Shipped for Reprocessing in Southeast Asia, Jersey City,” one is at once shocked by its strange, infused beauty, and the proximity of the industrial site to the city’s housing stock. Ultimately, the Parrish Art Museum exhibit, concurrently complemented by the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum’s display of Downes’s three-part painting, “Under the Westside Highway at 145th Street: The North River Water Pollution Control Plant,” as well as its complete preparatory drawings and sketches, and Betty Cuningham’s small survey of drawings from the last 20 years, serves to reconfirm Downes as a painter of uncommon originality. His stubborn insistence on the process of natural observation is of absolute relevance to our contemporary culture. Just as Cézanne tried to restore the solid form after Impressionism, and the more he longed for stability in his composition the less stable his objects become, Downes’s desire to build firm forms with paint results in his exponentially less stable relationship to the horizontal platform of the earth. Not unlike the revolutionary earthworks of Robert Smithson, Downes has opened up vistas in which plein-air painting has never looked so ecstatic or free.