The Maine art community, myself included, never really appreciated painter Rackstraw Downes when he was a seasonal resident of the state. Though he had a summer home in rural Morrill from the 1960s until fairly recently, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Rackstraw Downes show in Maine.
Now that Downes, a New York City resident, has moved his seasonal base of operations to Presidio, Texas, and, more to the point, has received a $500,000 MacArthur “genius” award, this oversight is about to be addressed.
In December, a Downes landscape exhibition comes to the Portland Museum of Art from the Parrish Art Museum on Long Island, New York. But New England audiences can get a good look at Downes’s distinctive industrial realist landscapes this summer at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum in Ridgefield, Connecticut, in an exhibition entitled Rackstraw Downes: Under the Westside Highway (June 27 to January 2, 2011).
Rackstraw Downes was born in England, but he earned his MFA at Yale, where he studied with, among others, two painters with long Maine connections – Alex Katz and Neil Welliver. Katz and Welliver each had homes in Lincolnville and Downes purchased his farm in Morrill shortly after graduation in 1964. His own Maine credentials are as impressive as those of his mentors. Downes edited the essays and criticism of Fairfield Porter, another longtime Maine summer resident, he taught at the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, and the influence of his industrial landscapes can be seen in the works of Maine painters as varied at Yvonne Jacquette, Dennis Pinette, Joel Babb, and Robert Solotaire.
In naming Downes a 2009 MacArthur Fellow, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation noted that “In painting the American landscape as it is, not as it has been idealized, Downes imbues seemingly ordinary subjects with extraordinary power?Considered one of the most distinctive representational painters of his generation, Downes is challenging familiar conceptions of realist painting in works of formal rigor and quiet, yet stunning, beauty.”
Rackstraw Downes: Under the West Side Highway at the Aldrich features sketches, preparatory works, and finished paintings from Downes? sustained visual enquiry into the urban landscape of a New York neighborhood in transition. The amazing thing about his scenes of un-picturesque cityscapes is not so much their fidelity as the fact that they are all rendered and painted on-site from direct observation – no cameras involved.
When Downes first came to Maine in the 1960s, he intended to paint abstractly, but he soon found himself wandering the local countryside drawing and painting not the wild landscapes celebrated by Welliver but the man-altered workscapes of gravel pits, rail yards, and working waterfronts. This decisive change determined his career, which has been as an investigator of the unlovely, overlooked, unconsidered places where human enterprise trumps natural environment.
Rackstraw Downes: On-Site Paintings, 1972-2008, an exhibition of some 30 industrial and agricultural landscapes from Maine, New York, New Jersey, and Texas, originated at the Parrish Art Museum in Southampton, New York, where it will be on view through August 8. It will then travel to Maine, where it will be featured at the Portland Museum of Art (December 16 to March 20, 2011).
The return of Rackstraw Downes to Maine and New England is an auspicious artistic occasion, an opportunity for long overdue local and regional appreciation and recognition of a great national talent.
[Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum, 258 Main St., Ridgefield CT, 203-438-4519]