Rackstraw Downes moved from painting in an abstract style to a more realistic one in the late 1960’s. Among the everyday subject-matter portrayed in Downes’ work is the air duct work of the Music Hall at Snug Harbor, New York; the underside of the Gowanus Bridge in Brooklyn; new tree plantings in Chicago’s Millennium Park; and the electrical substations that connect Marfa to Presidio, Texas. Often painted over a period of months, or even years, he meticulously records the details of his chosen scene, as perceived at a specific time of day. But this method does not prevent him from responding to activities that occur while he is at work, “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 whoosh, you dash it in at incredible pace.”
Though rich in detail, the scenes are deceptively unremarkable at first glance. But upon further viewing, one realizes that Downes isn’t following the traditional rules of painting in perspective: odd things happen with the horizon lines and areas of focus are multiple. The scenes depicted in a Downes painting are in constant motion; much more akin to the actual way one perceives a place while in it rather than the ‘frozen in time’ way another artist might render a scene.
The Lannan Foundation Gallery showed two of Downes’ paintings, Snug Harbor, Metal Ductwork in G Attic, 2001 and Water-Flow Monitoring Installations on the Rio Grande near Presidio, TX, 2002-2003 in July of 2005. In 2010, the Parrish Art Museum, New York, held an exhibition of the artist’s lifelong body of work.