It might seem odd that a brilliant realist painter would choose to spend months working on a seven-foot-long canvas of a boring stretch of the New Jersey Turnpike. But in Rackstraw Downes' hands, ordinary or unappealing elements of the American landscape suddenly seem worthy of close attention. Rackstraw Downes
, an overdue tribute to the English-born artist, combines 100 striking color reproductions of the artist's panoramic paintings (including vivid details) with illuminating commentary. After studying at Yale University in the early 1960s, when abstraction was beginning to yield to Pop and Minimalism, Downes found his footing by taking a long, careful look at landscape. In recent years, he has painted sites in Manhattan, including luminous city views and an eerie 1998 portrait of untenanted office space in the World Trade Center. But his major subjects have always been marginal spaces in naturelandfills and scrubland, culverts and dumps. Putting up with the vagaries of weather and interruptions by suspicious officials, he paints these scenes onsite. Lively details picked out in jewel-like colors are united by the precise evocation of light and atmosphere, the geometry of lines and curves, and Downes complex system of perspective. (He writes about recreating the experience of turning your head to take in an entire panorama.) Seeking neither to romanticize these scenes nor to critique themalthough he is an environmentalist at heartDowns prefers the naturalist's dispassionate approach. An essay by Sanford Schwartz engagingly discusses the artist's background and interests. Robert Storr, the former Museum of Modern Art curator, analyzes Downes' relationship to key issues of realist painting in the twentieth century. Downes, a longtime essayist, contributes detailed observations about his use of perspective, which lead him on conversational excursions into the history of art. A detailed chronology and bibliography round out this superb study of an "artist's artist" who deserves a much wider audience. --Cathy Curtis
From Publishers Weekly
"Just the facts," a phrase much invoked in discussions of Downes' work, is elevated to an aesthetic practice by these three essays and more than 100 plates. Typically producing realistic landscapes painted on decidedly horizontal canvases (some, only as tall as a standard sheet of paper, stretch several feet wide), Downes focuses on freeway overpasses, cement factories, ventilation towers and traffic intersections, but neither these constructions nor the ecological and market critiques they imply are Downes' "subjects." Downes is a "hard-core 'eyeball' realist" Storr tells us in a thoughtfully elegant essay. Storr's efficient moniker cuts to the quick of Downes' practice: Downes paints by looking deeply; he shuns the assistance of photography and, instead, returns to a site several times during as long as a two- to three-year period to render each scene as faithfully as possible. The goal is not to recreate what can be explicitly seen, but to reveal what can be apprehended only through attention sustained across a vast span of time. In an essay contributed by the artist, Downes describes his process as "pitting all-out empiricism against habit, memory, formulae, precedent." As this book shows, Downes makes "the facts," subjective though they may be, beautiful things to see.
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