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 nature—landfills 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 them—although he is an environmentalist at heart—Downs 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
Rackstraw Downes paints down-to-earth, often gritty features of today''s American environment in an unflinching and highly realistic style. This book is the first to provide a multifaceted picture of his work, its intellectual foundations, and its place in the history of art--from both outside commentators and Downes himself.
Beautifully illustrated, with copious examples from thirty years of the artist''s work, the book makes eminently clear why Downes is widely regarded as a "painter''s painter." It showcases many of the artist''s panoramic pictures--painted with a strong sense of place and a miniaturist''s sense of scale. The images, which depict industrial parks, construction sites, housing projects, refineries, razor wire, and landfills, stimulate fresh thoughts about these supposedly unattractive sights. Bathed in the light of a precise time, the paintings resonate with a strikingly evocative quality.
The three essays that accompany Downes''s art provide rare insights into the way a painter thinks and works. Sanford Schwartz explores the relationships between the artist''s personal and intellectual background and his oeuvre. Robert Storr situates Downes in the context of a number of highly prominent contemporary artists such as Chuck Close, Bernd and Hilla Becher, Jasper Johns, Gerhard Richter, and Robert Smithson in a way that offers a new interpretation of Downes''s work, while making clear its importance within twentieth-century art. Downes''s own essay, "Turning the Head in Empirical Space," presents a direct, firsthand account of his working methods within a larger discussion on spatial paradigms of Renaissance and post-Renaissance modes of painting.
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