Rackstraw Downes’s paintings are about exploring the concept vision and challenging what is generally accepted as visually stimulating. Richard B Woodward, an art critic and writer for the Wall Street Journal, wrote about Downes’s eye for detail: “In his egalitarian view of things, garbage scows and old tires deserve the same attention and weight—no more, no less—granted to patches of sky, earth, water and architecture.” Choosing locations that most people try to overlook, Downes, without judgment, captures the desolation of urban and suburban America, and the relationship between manmade structures and the environment they occupy. He does not use photos for reference and paints outside, on location. Once he has found a location, he will move around to different spots as he works in order to create contoured horizons that show how the eye perceives the landscape. Moving seasonally among New York City, Maine, and Texas, Downes spends months or even years working on some paintings because of lighting and weather changes. His ability to depict vast landscapes that bend as if seen through a wide-angle lens, while still including minute detail, transports the viewer to the location.
Born in 1939 in Kent, England, Downes studied painting as an exchange student at the Hotchkiss School in Lakeville, Connecticut in 1957-58. He received his B.A. in English literature from Cambridge University and returned to the United States, where he received his M.F.A. from the Yale School of Arts in 1964. Also in 1964, Downes bought a large farm in Maine. Working there, he deviated from his previous abstract painting style and began painting representational landscapes. Downes made two prints with Crown Point Press, one in 1984 and another in 1986. He drew on the plates outside and worked with printers in the studio.
Rackstraw Downes received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1998 and also became a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. In 2009, he received a MacArthur grant. A retrospective of 25 of his paintings travelled from 2009-10 from the Portland Museum of Art in Portland, Maine, to the Weatherspoon Art Museum, the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Downes’s work has been exhibited in museums and galleries across the country including the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Museum of Modern Art in New York; the Museum of Fine Arts and the Museum of Modern Art in Houston, Texas; the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC; and the Colby College Museum of Art, Maine. He has written for numerous publications including the New York Times, Art News, Art in America, and The New Criterion. Downes is represented by the Betty Cunningham Gallery in New York.
-Hana Haber, Crown Point Press