Rackstraw Downes: Onsite Paintings, 1972-2008

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 final paintings.
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 race tracks.
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 art.


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