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Rackstraw Downes: Onsite Paintings, 1972-2008

December 16, 2010 - March 20, 2011


This winter, the Portland Museum of Art features the first major survey of paintings by contemporary artist Rackstraw Downes. Rackstraw Downes: Onsite Paintings, 1972-2008, on view December 16, 2010 through March 20, 2011, features 24 major works ranging from Downes' earliest en plein air paintings executed in Maine to his later signature views of the New York City skyline and the vast panoramas near his home in Presidio, Texas.

Organized by the Parrish Art Museum in Southampton, New York, the exhibition features Downes' minutely detailed paintings, some of them multiple-part canvases, of exterior and interior panoramic scenes of the American land- and urbanscape from 1972 to 2008. The exhibition traces the artist's career through major examples of his work painted in Maine, Texas, New Jersey, and New York, including one haunting depictions of the untenanted interior spaces in the World Trade Center in 1998. His scenes of Maine in the exhibition include a dam in Fairfield, a Skowhegan softball field, a Searsmont lumber yard, Portland's Back Cove, the mouth of the Passagassawaukeag River in Belfast, and a view of Portland Harbor.

Recipient of a 2009 MacArthur Foundation "genius" award, Rackstraw Downes, who was born in England in 1939, developed his panoramic style by studying 17th-century Dutch landscape painting. His landscapes invite viewers to reconsider the intersection between the natural world and man-made objects. Turning from abstract painting in the early 1960s, and encouraged by the work of his fellow painters Alex Katz, Fairfield Porter, Neil Welliver, and Jane Freilicher, Downes has pursued a unique approach to realism that defies standard categorization. He begins each work with drawings and oil sketches before meticulously painting each scene on site. In order to capture the precise details of lighting and weather, he can spend many months completing a single piece.

Rejecting picturesque views characteristic of much realist work, his landscapes depict scenes generally overlooked or dismissed for lack of a traditional aesthetic appeal. His subjects range from the roadways, urban detritus, and industrial backyards of the East Coast to the oil fields and vast, empty scrubland of Texas. In painting the American landscape as it is, not as it has been idealized, Downes imbues seemingly ordinary subjects with extraordinary power.

Downes' artistry is deeply rooted in the history of painting, and he has written highly regarded essays on visual and literary artists as varied as John Constable, Fairfield Porter, and Samuel Beckett. Considered one of the most distinctive representational painters of his generation, Downes challenges familiar conceptions of realist painting in works of formal rigor and quiet, yet stunning, beauty.

Rackstraw Downes received a B.A. (1961) from the University of Cambridge and a B.F.A. (1963) and M.F.A. (1964) from Yale University. His work is in the permanent collections of the Art Institute of Chicago, the Museum of Modern Art, New York, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and the National Gallery of Art, Washington, among many others. His essays have appeared in such publications as the New York Times, Art in America, and Art Journal.

The exhibition is accompanied by a fully illustrated catalogue spanning the artist's 35-year career. Published by D. Giles Limited, London, the catalogue includes essays by exhibition curator Klaus Ottmann and concert pianist and director of Da Camera of Houston Sarah Rothenberg, as well as a wide-ranging interview between the artist and Parrish Art Museum Director Terrie Sultan. The exhibition catalogue is available in the Museum Store.

Rackstraw Downes: Onsite Paintings, 1972-2008 will travel to the Weatherspoon Art Museum, the University of North Carolina at Greensboro (May 28-August 21, 2011).


(above: Rackstraw Downes (United States, born Great Britain, 1939). The Mouth of the Passagassawaukeag at Belfast, ME, Seen from the Frozen Foods Plant, 1989, oil on canvas, 36 3/8 x 84 1/4 inches. Private Collection.) 


(above: Rackstraw Downes (United States, born Great Britain, 1939). Portland, ME, The Harbor From Spring Point, "Mobilita" Discharging, 1983, oil on canvas, 17 7/8 x 59 7/8 inches. Collection of Carolyn Gibbs, Wenham, Massachusetts)


To view the:

exhibition checklist please click here
introduction and acknowledgments please click here
small wall texts and object text please click here


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