Rackstraw Downes: Onsite
December 16, 2010 - March 20, 2011
Small wall texts and object text
- Downes first came to Maine on the advice of the painter
Alex Katz, his teacher at the Yale University School of Art in the mid
1960s. At the time, Downes was an abstract, color field painter, but he
gradually began to paint recognizable landscapes. He selected prosaic places
to paint, not picturesque scenes. Sites where the interaction of people
and landscape were most evident attracted him. He painted rural roads near
his farm in Montville, small towns along the Kennebec River, the town dump
in Rockland, and the empty streets of Portland. His broad views capture
small, incidental details of parked cars, tilting street lights, and the
skewed perspective of real-life vision. Eschewing the use of a camera,
Downes approached landscape painting through the careful observation of
nature on site -- in his initial pencil sketches, oil studies, and the
- New York/New Jersey:
- In the 1990s, Downes's choice of urban scenes, like his
views of Maine, involved both landscape and people, but significantly the
proportions of his paintings began to change. His views became more panoramic
an -- the landfills and housing projects of New Jersey -- now took center
stage. The city also afforded him unusual interior spaces to explore. Although
he rarely paints scenes from city windows, Downes plays with both light
and perspective in his depictions of the empty, sunlit rooms at the World
Trade Center and the skylights of an artist's studio in Brooklyn.
- Eventually Downes's search for farther horizons took
him to Texas, first to Galveston on the Gulf Coast in 1987 and then west
to Presidio on the banks of the Rio Grande, where he now spends his winters.
With no high-rise buildings or elevated trains to mark boundaries, it
is the horizontal expanse of land and low, vernacular structures -- beehives
and barns -- that provide a new geometry. A stay at sculptor Donald Judd's
famed Chianti Foundation in Marfa, Texas, in 1998 brought Downes even closer
to a minimalist aesthetic that plays out in his current paintings of arid
landscapes articulated by power transmission lines, oil rigs, and quarter-horse
- Process: (Bowling Alley)
- "Examining the segues from pencil to oil sketch
to oil painting reveals the evolution of Downe's paintings. What lies between
line and finish are studies of perspective, details, light, architectural
structures, and most of all, a decision-making process that determines
the extent and scale of the scene to be presented in the finished work.
In the drawing phase, Downes still experiments with different views and
focal points, it is the oil sketch that determines the proportions and
contextual setting of the final painting."
- Klaus Ottmann
- Exhibition Curator
- Object label texts:
- The Dam at Fairfield, 1974
- In a recent interview, Rackstraw Downes described in
detail his understanding of the now defunct logging process on the rivers
in Maine: "The Dam has an important narrative to it. This was the
last summer of log drives of the Kennebec River. The pink strip, from in
the middle of the painting roughly to the right and over to the edge, is
a huge area of logs lying on the surface of the water, held in place by
'log cribs.' These are boxes made of logs and filled with rocks. They were
built on the ice when the river was frozen, and when the ice melted they
sank to the bottom and stuck there like big towers poking up just above
the level of the water. They are connected by chains of logs forming a
funnel that terminates in the 'spillway,' the one place where the logs
slide over the dam; then they continue to float on downstream to Waterville."
- Sprowl Bros. Lumber Yard, Searsmont, Maine, 197880
- Discussing the choice of his local lumber yard as the
subject for a painting, Downes observed: "Sprowl's Lumber Yard was
about ten or twelve miles from my farm. That farm required a lot of repair
work, and I bought the materials from Sprowl. It was a major business in
that area, a major factor in the community. The shapes that the industry
makes are not self-conscious. They make them that way because they function
properly, not because they want to have a tower designed with a particular
look. There the shapes are very stimulating because they have no associations.
You don't know quite what to make of them."
- Four Spots Along a Razor-Wire Fence, 1999
- The acronym ASOTSPRIE used in the subtitle of this work
stands for Alternate Side of Street Parking Regulations in Effect.
It helps explain some of the difficulties that a plein-air painter,
like Rackstraw Downes, faces when working in New York City. According to
the detailed journal that he kept while painting this work, Downes commuted
daily by subway from Manhattan to Coney Island to reach the site. Once
there, he frequently had to contend with all kinds of distractions: having
to ask drivers to move their cars, the offer of a plastic chair to sit
on by a maintenance man, and endless critiques from passersby. "Yesterday,
after starting on the close-up & getting somewhere with the wire coils
on the top layer & the dead branches in a tangle with them against
the sky, my sunny spot came free -- the minivan pulled out: I'd been watching
for this carefully. I ran down with my 2 wheeler, leaving my easel behind,
and blocked the spot. Went back for the easel; 2 men called out 'Got your
spot?' Both grinning & friendly."
- Circumambulation Clockwise..., 2007
- Downes prescribed the unique installation for this series
of paintings: "The center of each little painting falls on a circle.
Look at them in sequence clockwise: they show you what you would see if
you were to walk around that building during the course of a day."
Each painting depicts the same odd, T-shaped building located at the Chinati
Foundation, a contemporary art museum in Marfa Texas, dedicated to minimalist
Return to Rackstraw Downes:
Onsite Paintings, 1972-2008
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