Panel on Eco-poetics, SVA, September 16, 2010
True Progress, 1997
In forty-five years of painting in the landscape, I only ever made one work that advocated anything. This is it. It shows a long line of wind turbines generating electricity; it’s between Valentine and Fort Davis in far west Texas. I called it True Progress, because I felt it was.
The Dam at Fairfield, 1974
Far more typical of my practice, and the circumstances that occur around it, is this painting from 1974 of the Kennebec River in Maine, at Fairfield. A road runs parallel,to the river to its east. Driving this road one day I saw that, a little upstream from here, the whole river surface, from bank to bank and for miles upstream, was an orangey-tan color. I stopped my car, took a footpath in towards the river to investigate. I found a locus amoenus where below the dam people were swimming and fishing, and above it cows were drinking. The strange color turned out to be a carpet of four-foot logs, which had been cut up north and were floating down to Waterville to be turned into toilet paper. Just above the dam the logs were being held in a long, V-shaped area; this was made of a log chain—long logs joined by chains—kept in place by log cribs, structures resembling tall log cabins. The cribs were constructed during the winter on the ice of the frozen river, and filled with rocks. When the ice melted they sank to the bottom, but were tall enough to stick up above the water level. At the point of the V, a narrow log-chain corridor leads to the spillway where, when released from the V-shaped holding area, the logs go over the dam.
I started work at this pleasing site, only to find there was a huge controversy about these logs playing out in the courts and the state legislature. Environmentalists wanted the logs out of the river because, as the bark soaked off them, it sank and released tannin, which harmed the fish. And the logs prevented recreational use of the river. Their suit was joined by another lumber company which did not have access to the river and had to truck their logs down from up north, at great expense. The environmentalists won their case, but did the environment benefit? Recreational use was resumed, but now all those logs that floated down had to be trucked. Bridges had to be strengthened or rebuilt to carry the heavy trucks, and there was the increased diesel emissions, the whole service industry of batteries, tires, etc. It did not seem to be a good deal.
About this time, I read Chekhov's letters. He articulated superbly the way I felt about these things—he seemed to me to be a most profound aesthetician of realism. He wrote:
“It would be gratifying to couple art with sermonizing, but, personally, I find this exceedingly difficult and all but impossible.”
“Why, in order to depict horse thieves in seven-hundred lines I must constantly speak and think as they do and feel in keeping with their spirit. Otherwise, if I add a pinch of subjectivity, the image will become diffuse and the story will not be as compact as it behooves all short stories to be.”
And again, “You are confusing two concepts: the solution of a problem and the correct posing of a question […] The court [i.e. the author] is obliged to pose the questions correctly, but it’s up to the jurors [i.e. the readers] to answer them, each juror according to his own taste.” I myself believed, and I think I still do, that to be truly observant it is necessary to be agnostic.
P.H Robinson Generating Station, Dickinson, TX· Eight Ibis Feeding with an Egret, 1991
I’ve been asked, “How do you want people to respond to your paintings?” Well, this painting, done in 1991, represents a generating station in Dickinson, Texas, between Houston and Galveston. It sits all alone in the middle of the prairie. The electrical wires and pylons seem to go on forever. William Least Heat-Moon called the prairie “a paradigm of infinity.” The Houston MFA wanted to acquire this painting, so they asked the company that owned the plant to buy the painting and donate it to the museum. In due course some company suits arrived to look at the painting. The curator prepped them on who I was, and said “Check out the painting and I'll be over here to answer any questions.” The suits huddled round the painting, whispering. Then one of them asked the curator, “We have a question.” “Yes.” “Is he trying to say that generating electricity is a bad thing?”
A Fence at the Periphery of a Jersey City Scrap Metal Plant, 1993
Peter Schjeldahl once called me “the bard of weeds.” There often are weeds in the foregrounds of my paintings. To set up my easel, I look for neglected spots where I will not be in people's way, and will avoid unwelcome interruptions. Wherever neglect is, weeds move in. They are the avant-garde of nature’s campaign to revitalize this increasingly moribund planet. There were no weeds in the foreground of this painting when I started it in the spring, but by mid summer there were many.
Salt Pile with Culverts by the Kill van Kull, 1997
In 1997, I chose to paint this spot as an antidote to the very long canvases which had become habitual in my work. The tall salt pile and the flanking bushes prompted a less elongated canvas. This is one of a pair that show the same salt pile—for use on the roads in winter—plus a stack of culverts, near the Kill van Kull, the narrow strip of water between Staten Island and New Jersey. The ship to the left is on that water. The two views are intended to be seen as a pair. I was interested in the difference made by altering my vantage point just a little bit; and because after rain the salt pile turned from brilliant white to pinkish. Noticing and making such distinctions is crucial in my work.
British-born painter RACKSTRAW DOWNES depicts his surroundings from observation right at the site. He has worked intensively in the New York metro area, Maine, and both southeast and west Texas. A book of his essays and reviews, Nature and Art Are Physical, was published in 2014.