featuresStudio visits
Thursday, September 30th, 2004

“Coaxed into fullness of existence”: A conversation with Rackstraw Downes

Topical Pick from the Archives, Summer 2010: This 2004  interview was conducted on the occasion of an exhibition of new paintings that was the inaugural show of the Betty Cuningham Gallery.   It is of renewed interest as Downes celebrates a trifecta of exhibitions this summer: “A Selection of Drawings, 1980-2010”  at Betty Cuningham Gallery, through July 30; “Onsite Paintings, 1972-2008” at the Parrish Art Museum, Southampton, New York through August 8, and then on national tour; and “Under the Westside Highway” at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, Ridgefield, Connecticut through January 2, 2011

Rackstraw Downes Water-Flow Monitoring Installations on the Rio Grande near Presidio, TX 2002-2003 (5 parts. Part 1: Facing South, The Gauge Shelter, 1.30pm) oil on canvas, 28.5 x 42 inches Courtesy Betty Cuningham Gallery
Rackstraw Downes, Water-Flow Monitoring Installations on the Rio Grande near Presidio, TX 2002-2003 (5 parts. Part 1: Facing South, The Gauge Shelter, 1.30pm) oil on canvas, 28.5 x 42 inches Courtesy Betty Cuningham Gallery

With Rackstraw Downes, the clichés happen to be true: Time does stand still. His paintings capture a moment. You feel you’re literally there.

He can seem disconcertingly ordinary at first. But when you start to think about the way he paints you realise that he doesn’t fit into received conventions: he is neither photographic nor old masterly. Odd things happen with the horizon lines, as he refuses to follow the rules of perspective, but there isn’t the expressive naivité that comes from someone awkwardly making it up as they go along.

“Years ago I read a beautiful letter that Stendhal sent to his sister, giving her advice on letter writing. He said, choose subjects you care very much about, but when you put your feelings into words, do it as if you didn’t want anyone to notice. When I read that, in the seventies, I thought, that’s what I’m trying to do. I don’t want anyone to notice the style.

“Of course, they do notice, that the horizon are curved, and that there are tilting verticals and so on, but in general, the brushstroke- I don’t want it to draw attention to itself. I don’t want someone to say, Oh look at that gorgeous chunk of yellow. It should be the grass; you can have the chunk of yellow be gorgeous too, but first it must be the grass.”

Rackstraw Downes Snug Harbor, Metal Ductwork in G attic 2001 (third of four parts)  oil on canvas, 16 x 33 inches Courtesy Betty Cuningham Gallery
Rackstraw Downes, Snug Harbor, Metal Ductwork in G attic 2001 (third of four parts) oil on canvas, 16 x 33 inches Courtesy Betty Cuningham Gallery

This plain look-of paintings packed with detail that aren’t fussy-is hard-won. He will only work in front of the subject, which is usually urban landscape, taking months to complete a painting. And there are copious drawings and oil sketches to get through before he can fix his subject. His commitment to specific light means that as he nears the end he only has precious half hours to work. His first New York painting show since 2000, which inaugurates the new Betty Cuningham Gallery in Chelsea, is a remarkable body of work: thirty canvases beaming with clarity, precision and freshness.

Do they need corresponding time and energy to appreciate as they do to make, I asked him. “I think that would be a rather diva-ish demand,” he replies with a characteristically impish chuckle. “Alex Katz once said, ‘All you can expect from the audience is seven seconds’.” Mr. Katz was one of his influential tutors at Yale where he studied in the early 1960s. Contemporaries there included Richard Serra, Chuck Close and Nancy Graves. At the time, Mr. Downes was abstract, and his principal teacher was Al Held.

“I remember going to the Whitney Annual before my style was at all formed, and thinking that a good painting is one that has a quick come-on, that beckons you very forcefully from across the room. And I thought to myself, wouldn’t it be interesting to make a painting that would be totally plain, ordinary and quiet, but if you spend time sniffing around you find endless stuff that would keep revealing itself.”

Although he resists any label of himself as a maverick, as against the times, his willingness to court the margins with slow, plain painting indicates the kind of tough, bloody-minded individualism that comes across from his work.

“When you look at a Breughel you can find ten thousand stories in it. Someone with an eye for iconography will find ten thousand more than you knew were in there because they know the contemporary proverbs Breughel was illustrating. And I like that. It’s a quality that I aspire to have in my own painting. Aspire I say” he adds with due modesty and a chuckle.

I’m fascinated to talk with Mr. Downes about the time element because his images work, and are worked, at such varying speeds. His current show focuses exclusively on the finished paintings, but earlier this year, at the New York Studio School, he showed the extended series of drawings with which he finds his motif, and fixes his all-important vantage point. He also makes quick, spontaneous oil sketches which have a life very distinct from the fastidiously worked-up canvases. He doesn’t like to mix up these different kinds of image in the same show. “It introduces problems. People get distracted: Is the sketch freer, the color fresher, than the finished work, or else, has the new painting made the little one look inconsequential. They don’t go together, sketches and finished paintings, except in a didactic show.”

It occurs to me that the major works of John Constable, a painter whose influence he has acknowledged, have suffered in reputation as a result of the modern fetish with spontaneity: people say the sketches are better than the finished “machines”. “I don’t endorse that view: I like them both. They are two sides of the same man, and they both should be there. We love a bit of flamboyance, someone at a dinner party making an outrageous remark, but we also like it when someone makes a very considered and thought-out statement. I don’t see them as contradictory and I’m not interested in that polarized way of thinking.”

“One thing that is not quite understood is that although I might stand at a site for three months to finish a painting, certain aspects or bits of that painting may be very spontaneous. A car comes through the painting and you say, ‘That’s the right color car’ and woosh, you dash it in at incredible pace.”

Pierre Etienne Théodore Rousseau The Village of Becquigny 1857-1864 oil on panel, 25 x 39 3/8 inches The Frick Collection
Pierre Etienne, Théodore Rousseau The Village of Becquigny 1857-1864 oil on panel, 25 x 39 3/8 inches The Frick Collection

“I’m interested in thoroughness, in a sense. One of my favorite paintings in New York is the Theodore Rousseau in the Frick, *The Village at Becquigny*. A collector commissioned three painting of such and such dimension, any subject he liked, but didn’t get them to the day Rousseau died. He kept them with him all the time. I adore that painting: it is so realized, so coaxed into fullness of existence.”

What keeps Downes so long at his subject is a whole range of barely graspable phenomena that have to be right, in an unsentimental way, and according to empirical vision, but without resorting to tricks and conventions. Light and scale are what keep him busiest.

“I can’t proceed unless I feel I have grasped the scale of the scene. By that I mean that the brushstrokes should be the right size in relation to the canvas, and that the telephone poll should be the right size in relationship to the bridge. So it is internal representational scale and scale in the structure of the painting.”

But what really draws him to a subject? He talks a lot about the practicalities of fixing his vantage point. “The drawing is the way you find out where you are going to settle down and work. You don’t want to stand on a very busy street corner, especially where trucks are going to park in your way.” But this doesn’t explain the more existential-or is it more of a formal-decision to paint the kind of odd, plain, prosaic subjects he is drawn to: the new Millenium Park in New Jersey, with struggling, newly planted trees in the foreground, towers in construction on the horizon; or a forlorn looking baseball field in Red Hook Park on an overcast day; or ventillation ductwork in an attic in Snug Harbor, a site that has afforded several paintings series, including its disused music hall. Knowing something of his politics-his concerns for the environment, his Ruskinian disdain for modern technology-I wonder if there is something political in his preference for public over domestic interiors.

“I don’t think the political impulse is overt but it is probably built into my system. I’m not very interested in the idea of comfort. I rather believe that there is a tremendous amount of discomfort on this planet, and it is not equally distributed among the population. And some are able to purchase their way out of that kind of discomfort.” He once told me that after a whole series of drawings of the golf range on Chelsea Piers he abandoned the idea of painting the subject because, with the season change, lots of yachts began to moor, and he was put off by their sense of luxury.

“Interior is an interesting concept: you tend to use the word to mean a bourgeois living room. Which is nonsense: there are endless types of interiors which you can paint. And I have not, as you may have noticed, got involved in bourgeois living rooms.” The opportunity to paint vacant floors at the World Trade Center provided a roof over his head for the first time in twenty or thirty years. “In interiors I’m intensely interested in scale- those theatres at snug harbor, that’s an extraordinary volume of air. They are internal vistas, and in many ways they have a similar scale to the landscape paintings.”

Apart from early work of the 1970s, Mr. Downes rarely paints people, and yet there is always a sense of human presence. * His Texan landscapes feature water-flow monitoring installations on the Rio Grande, or substations along the power grid. It is an unsentimental view of the landscape. It isn’t nature as the unspoiled Garden of Eden of the Hudson River School by a long shot. Is human intervention incidental in his landscape vision, or integral?

Rackstraw Downes Three London Plane Trees Near the Track in Red Hook Park 2002 oil on canvas, 35.5 x 55.25 inches Betty Cuningham Gallery
Rackstraw Downes, Three London Plane Trees Near the Track in Red Hook Park 2002 oil on canvas, 35.5 x 55.25 inches Betty Cuningham Gallery

“Absolutely integral. I partly think it is a national issue: I’m British, and we don’t have much in the way of wild nature. Dr. Johnson has some phrase for it… ‘naked nature.’ He and Boswell got to some Scottish island and that’s all they found, so they got back in the boat and returned to the mainland. They weren’t very interested in ‘naked nature’ and neither am I. Whereas to Ansel Adams it was the ultimate desideratum. But the problem with Adams is that he was standing there with his camera, so come on, Buddy. And that camera was using metals and chemicals from highly sophisticated, industrial, technological society.”

Earlier in his career, Mr. Downes lived for some year in Maine. “Many of us moved there because there are beautiful hills and mountains and cows and streams and so on. But when we build a house we call up the cement-mixer man who comes from a gigantic quarry where they get all this rock to make cement out of and pulverize it and turn it into cement. That is part of your life too. And I wanted to acknowledge that. I didn’t like the idea of landscape being an escapist genre, which it has the tendency to be.”

But his attraction to the real and the redolent doesn’t lead to painting that is didactic or critical. His mentors in seeing, he says, were Fairfield Porter and Rudy Burckhardt: “The two artists who looked at the world without editorializing and without emphasizing. They were unemphatic observers.”

So, by being unemphatic himself, by slowing things down, is he engaged in a kind of philosophical investigation into the act of seeing? He doesn’t like this, and points to the example of Alex Katz. “His accuracy is bingo, like the first shot of a pool player who sets up his shot. You can’t run after the ball and rethink it. The process is as different as night and day, but his is seeing, as much as mine is.”

“My mother, who went to the Slade, tried to teach me the rudiments of perspective when I was a little boy, and also of lighting, of chiarascuro. And she said, the light source must be either to the right or the left. But one day I was painting in Maine, and I looked ahead, and I saw that the shadows were coming in from the right and converging with shadows from the left. I thought, from which side of me is the sunlight, Mom! I turned round and saw that it was right behind my head, and therefore the shadows converged. It was quite an important moment of discovery for me, in life.”

He thinks he has been able to resist the received conventions of realist painting-perspective, which to him is just “a very brilliant mathematical reconstruction of the world,” chiarascuro, or building up a sense of space through color-because he was trained as an abstract painter. Ironically, abstraction freed him up to see more freshly, more honestly.

“Rackstraw Downes: New Paintings” through October 30, Betty Cuningham Gallery, 541 West 25th Street, between 10th and 11th Avenues, 212 242 2772.

* The original article stated, incorrectly, that he “never paints people.”