Rackstraw Downesby Phong Bui
Early one July morning, the Rail’s publisher Phong Bui visited the painter Rackstraw Downes at his loft on the top floor of an old Fluxus-converted building on Greene Street. In the front half of the space are Downes’s living quarters, filled with bookcases specially designed to rest below his substantial collection of paintings, drawings, photographs, and prints. With two large skylights above and two big painting walls on each side, the back half serves as his studio, which was covered with recently completed paintings for his upcoming show at the new Betty Cunningham Gallery in late September.
Phong Bui (Rail): We should begin by talking about this new body of work, which seems to be divided into several groups. How did these different sites come together as your subjects?
Rackstraw Downes: Well, there are four groups of work. First of all, there are two paintings I did in Harlem that are cityscapes, then there’s a few I did in Jersey City at Liberty State Park, which is a new park that was created over an old railroad yard. Instead of man encroaching on nature and gnawing away at her, here he is correcting his own industrial mess. He’s trying to recreate nature over it, so history is reversing itself there and I was intrigued by that as a subject. Secondly, there are paintings done at Snug Harbor. These came about when I had a big show at Marlborough in 1997, which covered nearly six years of work. These were almost all very long-format paintings in which I’ve trained myself to see the world that particular way. But now I wanted some kind of change. Some of my friends had said to me, "If you don’t want to paint long format, why don’t you paint a tree and make a tall painting?" I said that’s too conceptual for me, it must happen naturally, otherwise it’d be a device. And that’s not how I work.
A friend of mine, Pamela Lawton, who had a studio in the World Trade Center, invited me to come up and see whether I would like to paint the view out of the window. I ended up painting the interior space instead, which was the whole east side of the building. It was enormous, like an indoor landscape really. Then I went later to Snug Harbor with a painter friend, Clytie Alexander, who was in a group show of abstract painting. We were there at the opening and the main hall was a perfectly restored nineteenth-century interior. The ceiling was high and decorated with all kinds of frescoes and nautical motifs; it had been an old seamen’s home. That was my next and very challenging project.
Rail: So this shift to painting interiors is fairly recent. How about these water-flow paintings that you did in Texas?
Downes: This group of paintings came about during my visit to Texas in 1999. I made a few drawings initially (in 1999), then in 2002 I showed up in Texas in January and started working. I had three very intense weeks there during which—using some of the old drawings and some new ones, and then moving on to some small oil sketches—I began to form the idea of a painting in five parts, each from a different viewpoint. I’m interested in the idea of completeness, of wholeness, of inclusion. One of the things about modern art, from about 1860 onwards in Western painting, is that it began to specialize very much, and to be involved with juxtapositions as opposed to transitions, and to be involved in a very high degree of focus. But it’s a narrow focus. You know, Morandi would paint those four bottles over and over again, or he’ll paint the corner of a house with a bush, just those two things, and it’s very fine-tuned, but the whole is only implied, it’s not shown. I got interested in having a bigger, more encompassing idea, where the whole context is shown, and itself becomes the object.
I’m always looking for a way to change the pressure on my painting style. Put the squeeze on your style a little more, so if you’re making rather precise paintings, then you set up a situation, like in these water-flow paintings, in which there’s a comparison between two things that are almost the same. So in paintings number two and three, you see the same bunch of tracks of a pick-up truck in the sand, but one is done in the morning about 10 a.m. and the other one is done about 3 p.m. and from a spot about ten paces away from where I did the first one. So the comparison is very minute. You see, if you get seriously interested in very precise description, you want to make it tauter and tauter.
Rail: I remember reading a brilliant essay by Fairfield Porter from his selected criticism from 1935 to 1975 entitled Art In Its Own Terms, which you edited, called "Abstract Expressionism and Landscape." One of the things he brought up, by paraphrasing de Kooning, was that European landscape has an objective center, as if the landscape is constructed like a still life, whereas American landscape painting has no center but is rather a field—and a field is not an object. Do you think this has some resonance?
Downes: It does have resonance. However, I think my own interest in the idea of no center actually came from Chekhov’s stories. In his last few years he wrote stories in which there was no hero or heroine, no special event, it was more about a whole village or a whole person’s life. One story is called "Three Years," and I thought, how great it would be to make a landscape called "80 Acres," you see, just an area, just an expanse, not with a certain object in the middle, but just a spread. I’ve always wanted to do it. When I work, if there’s something here that’s getting important, I always try to put something there to deflect your eye, to pull your eye away from it so you won’t focus on this one central thing.
Rail: You started out as an abstract painter while you were at Yale. I’m curious whether that experience has benefited you in the way in which you’ve been painting from observation?
Downes: I think that abstract painting was very important for me because it has to do with the movement of paint on the surface, not an object out there, When I first went out to work from nature, my paintings were very crude and primitive looking—I couldn’t even have gotten admitted to Yale if I’d presented those pictures. They were quite terrible. But it didn’t matter. What I knew was that I was going to put paint down. I didn’t learn first to cover the whole thing with a stain, like the British watercolorists. They would put down a neutral colored stain reserving the lights so the white paper came through then put the local color on; that was an indirect system. Incidentally, it was Turner who abandoned it. He chucked that whole under-painting business. I learned from abstract painting to be what I would call a direct painter: if it looks gray-green, than you mix up some gray-green and stick it down.
I was in Texas a couple of winters ago painting one of Judd’s buildings, the Arena, a big building that Judd modified down there. I was trying to paint the afternoon light on this white wall and it wasn’t coming out right at all. I called Sarah McCoubrey, a very good landscape painter who does a lot of glazing and gets very good effects, and I thought to myself that I ought to learn this old method. She once had been my student and now I was begging her to help me. And she explained glazing to me and I said, "I don’t think I can work that way," and she said, "I don’t think so either." So it was the directness of 1950s abstract painting that I’d picked up on. Also, when I began to work outdoors, I saw the horizon as curved. I didn’t think back to some drawing lesson and say "I’ll keep the horizon straight because the perspective will all come out right if I do so." I hadn’t had such lessons, so when I saw the horizon curved, I drew it curved.
Rail: So it’s not an abstract strategy.
Downes: No, absolutely not, it’s something perceptual. In perspective, which I don’t use, the space is not alive to me. You make your vanishing points and connect every window’s lines accordingly. But when I look at this series of windows empirically, I’m intuiting how they line up and don’t line up, and the intervals are subjective. You can say, "that feels like a very tall building," and then you start making it tall, trying to make it feel tall, and then suddenly you see that it looks wide. That’s why its so intriguing to look at spaces, because they’re so alive and there’s no certainty to them. Whereas if I was Canalleto, all the little arches of that building in Venice are in a systematic series and you don’t ask questions about them anymore.
Rail: Your work seems to be in a strange predicament. On the one hand you embrace the process of industrialization and the viewer is encouraged to see man-made objects infused with their natural surroundings; on the other hand, you present a kind of bleak view of man’s creation and a certain disregard toward the earth. The last time we saw each other you spoke a great deal about Robert Smithson. I’m interested in this because when you’re painting a site, you’re not just reporting, you seem to be deeply interested in the whole history of the place. How does that relate to Smithson’s work?
Downes: Smithson was a very brilliant polemicist for what he was doing. He died very young, and that was very sad because obviously he was an extremely daring and free-spirited man. He was not held back by any constraints; he tried all sorts of wild things. That’s very important, to have such people around. He broke a lot of ice, and I have a great deal of respect for that. My connection to Smithson came when I started working in New Jersey, where Smithson came from. In New Jersey you see what he would have called entropy very much at work with things which he considered wasted or used up. I have a slightly different idea: I think there’s a certain hypocrisy in our attitude to landscape. We give it a role in our mental construction of the world, that it is somehow pure and outside us and separate from us and over there, and we’re over here, and what we do is impure compared to nature, or dirty, or somehow that we’re not worthy of nature. Alternatively, there is a view that man is the center of everything and measure of everything and therefore we’re greater than nature. For me, we’re part of it. I can’t paint a landscape without some notion of man being in there. Anyway, it’s impossible. When Ansel Adams went into Yosemite to find a place where there was no manmade structure at all, he was there with his camera! So the idea doesn’t work. Say you get up in the morning and you want to go on a hike in the mountains, when you are in the mountains, you say, "Oh look at that power line, it’s ruining the view." That doesn’t work for me, because when you get up in the morning, you take your electric shaver and shave with the electric power from that power line. Come on! Acknowledge it. That’s all I’m saying— acknowledge what we are doing, the kind of lives we really lead. That’s why I have these sub-stations. I’m very interested in the appearance of these sub-stations; they’re fascinating. But I’m also interested in the fact that this is the source of energy for most people; this is the way energy is being supplied to your house. The lights, the refrigerator, so much of your life, the tape recorder you’re recording on. So to deny it, to paint a landscape without electricity, is a little strange in a way. And I say I like to make friends with these things and find out what they’re about and how dirty really are they, and the fact that right next to the huge power plant there’s a bunch of egrets feeding in the water. There’s a kind of accommodation constantly being made between man and nature: nature, to me, is anything we didn’t make. But in another sense, nature includes those things we did make too—they’re all subject to the laws of nature.
Rail: What you’re saying is that you find these objects more fascinating than the real romantic view of America.
Downes: Yes, after all I’m British, I don’t regard nature as something wild; there was no wild nature where I grew up in England—it didn’t exist! Nature was a place where you lived and worked, in her and with her. We’re fast forgetting how to work with nature. The huge dams we produce that ruin everything—look at the Aswan dam, it’s the most ridiculous thing, it’s created clouds in the desert that never existed before, it’s created a swamp above the dam, in which the nutrient-rich silt that was the source of the Nile Valley’s fertility for millions of years, is now held back. Now Egypt has to sustain its agriculture with artificial fertilizers which it buys from the U.S. That’s a total failure in terms of working with nature. Neil Welliver once told me a beautiful story. On a stone wall at the edge of his land in Maine was an immense rock. I mean, it was huge and it was on top of the wall, and Neil looked at the rock and he said to the man he bought the land from, he said "How on earth did you get that goddamn rock on top of that wall?" So the guy said, "You know, one winter there was a heavy snow, and then there was a thaw. The snow began to melt and then there was a very hard freeze that night and it created an ice ramp right up from the level of the land to the stone wall. We put a couple of oxen on the far side of the wall and we wrapped a chain around this rock and the oxen dragged the rock up the ice ramp and stopped when the rock reached the top." See, that’s working with nature, that’s terrific. That’s technology working with nature, not against it.
Rail: So in away, you’re the beneficiary of the later development of American landscape. But let’s say if you had gone further back or had lived during the nineteenth century, would you have the urge to paint big landscapes like the Illuminists?
Downes: Those picturesque locations, if they exist at all, are all highly preserved now. They’re fenced off. You have to pay a ticket to get in. That’s not pure nature, really.
Rail: (Laughs) Paul Valéry believed that whatever the artist sees is conditioned by his intention and the ability to render the vision as much as by means he has of realizing it. It makes a great difference whether he sees with a crayon in his hand or without a crayon. But in so far as his emphasis is on observation, this view is less applicable to landscape painting than other kinds of painting. What are your thoughts on this?
Downes: That may be true, but in a short essay called "Seeing and Copying," Valéry says that when you draw an object you realize that until then you had never actually seen it, even your best friend’s nose. I think of that as a rather serious matter: you don’t know what things look like, in terms of a drawing, but you do know what they look like in terms of your life. If you’re walking down the street you say, "Oh, there’s Phong." You don’t say, "Who the hell is that?" Recognition is there: you have an image you carry in your head. You don’t know what the image looks like on the page ‘till you draw it on the page; it’s a construction. When you make a painting, you’re constructing out of observations. I’m totally opposite to the Duchampian notion that the idea is what counts. I don’t feel like that at all. For example, I have a strong interest in environmental issues, and one of the aspects of my painting that has relevance to that is that I don’t use anything technological—my materials are terribly simple. You know, the brush hairs are from an animal, the wood from a tree, the canvas from a plant. I spend hours and hours looking at real things with as much concentration as I can muster and everything comes from that concentration. That is something that our rapid tool-bound society does not ask you to do. I’m constantly asked, "Why don’t you take a photograph of this thing?" Well, I want to make a painting.
Rail: What about painters like Gerhard Richter or Chuck Close, for instance, who work exclusively from photographs as a tactical part of their intentionality?
Downes: That’s very different, yes. Both Richter and Chuck Close make you aware that they are working from photographs. Notice also that Chuck, in his photographs, is making daguerreotypes, in which the medium of photography is extremely present. Originally the idea of photography was as "the pencil of light"—i.e., man doesn’t intervene in the photograph, it’s just light coming in through a hole and shining on this paper, which is modified by the light, and man does not really intervene. Nonsense! Photography is a medium, a construction like everything else, and I think that the appeal of Sally Mann and Chuck and various photographers that work with old media is that when you look at something that is old media you see immediately that it is a construction, whereas if you look at some photography done with the latest camera, the idea is to abolish the medium, to have the real thing.
Rail: Is that also the difference between Close and Richter and photo-realist painters like Richard Estes?
Downes: Well, what photo-realism did for me was to free my head a little bit about what could be an image. It opened up the imagery to new possibilities. When you look at old art to learn about its language, you imbibe a taste for its imagery too, albeit unconsciously. You end up not painting the world you actually live in. People forget that in Constable’s paintings, the canals, the locks, the workman’s cottages are the equivalents for their time of our super-highways, clover-leafs, and public housing. The great nationwide system of canals was being built while Constable was painting—it was the latest thing in transportation. Now it’s about the end of the line in sentimentality.
Rail: You have spoken of Baudelaire’s celebrated view of naiveté. How is that manifested in your work?
Downes: When I first went out with an easel and tried to paint outdoors I was quite astonished by everything. I had no idea how to mix those colors. And some of those very early little paintings done in the 1960s have very bright orange and very bright green and pitch black and so on—a much more forceful set of colors that were inherited from my interest in geometric abstract painters who worked with forceful absolute colors. Gradually I began to see better what was actually out there. Years ago I learned that Matisse and Bonnard were the great colorists, but I thought to myself, and not without mischief, look at this building in shadow, it’s not yellow or blue, it’s just gray, and it’s gorgeous! And that’s when I got interested in air too. I was naïve in some ways, I slowly taught myself to paint from nature. I didn’t have any lessons on that at all. I remember painting a model. I had a nude model sitting on a mattress on the floor and I looked at the thigh resting on the mattress. The underside of the thigh turned in, and out came the mattress. There was no line or edge there; there was a crevice, full of air. And I realized then that I wanted to get rid of the edge in my drawing, and that was very difficult. I remember looking at some drawings by Rosemarie Beck .She would draw a contour and then cross the contour out with hatching. It was a way of jumping—she was trying to connect those two sides of the line. The existence of air in that crevice was very important for me. That’s what got me interested in air.
Rail: Vermeer stood closer to our sense of air particularly since the Impressionists’ discovery of his painting.
Downes: That’s true, but I prefer de Hooch because he gets the whole interior with several rooms—sometimes a bit of the outside environment—into his painting.
Rail: How about the tonal range in the dark interiors, is that more challenging than your landscape or cityscape paintings?
Downes: It certainly has its own special difficulties. I had to go out and find new colors. I had to buy new paints. I don’t use any black, but the darks were very dark. Usually I carry Ultramarine Blue and Burnt Umber and I make my darks out of that. It wasn’t dark enough, so I had to go to the store and get deep green, deep blue, deep alizarin to make it dark enough. And then, the damn thing dries part matte and part glossy, very erratically, so I had to keep oiling in, otherwise they’d look gray, not black, and you would not know how to join on. So the paintings got very sticky and took a long time to dry. Sometimes it was very frustrating. But eventually, I got to like them okay.
Rail: The last thing I want to ask you about is those claustrophobic paintings of the ductwork in the attic. Are they meant to be seen as separate paintings, or together as one group?
Downes: Actually, those ductwork paintings are one work in four parts. The two on the left were painted standing up with the canvas and the ductwork both lit by natural light from the same skylight, which is portrayed in number two. In the two paintings on the right, I was sitting on a low stool at some distance from the skylight where it was too dark to see the canvas well. So, you don’t see the upper surface of that ductwork; moreover I had to use electric light. Although I used one regular and one blue bulb, the light was warm and, without realizing it at first, the paintings got colder and greenish compared to the other two. I liked the contrast of the new ductwork going through this old attic. I hate the idea that to be contemporary, you must only paint contemporary things. It’s ridiculous to narrow down what you’re allowed to paint. I say contemporary and not modern because the word modern now means a specific period, you know 1860–1960.
Rail: I think Courbet in a Manifesto in 1861 said that "concrete painting is a real existing thing…the visible non-existent and the abstract is not truly the domain of painting." But he also said something that I always loved, "I can’t paint an angel because I’ve never seen one."
Downes: What a painter! I really love his range; he does so many different things. He’s a great landscape painter, and he’s also a great figure painter and a great painter of historical compositions—I think he’s stunning. And he has more avoir du poids, more weight to his form than any other painter. If someone is leaning on a chair you can feel the weight of his or her hand, it’s tremendous. I also like Courbet’s drawings very much. I once told Laurence Gowing that I liked Courbet’s drawings and he said "Oh yes, those are really charcoal paintings!" I introduced Gowing to Ada Katz; he held out his hand to her and said "It’s like shaking hands with Mont Saint-Victoire!"