The exhibition consists of approximately 32 works, many of them multiple-part paintings, created between 1972 and 2008. It begins with two of Downes’s earliest plein air paintings, The Pupmills at Madison and The Dam at Fairfield (both from 1974), and traces the artist’s career through major examples of his work executed during the following three decades: paintings done in Maine, Texas, New Jersey, and New York, including two haunting and foreboding depictions of untenanted interior spaces at the World Trade Center from 1998. Downes’s panoramic paintings, which he developed by studying seventeenth-century Dutch panoramic landscape painting, especially those of Hercules Segers and Jacob van Ruisdael, and are informed by his training as an abstract painter at the Yale School of Art, posses a unique balance between realism and abstraction, timelessness and history. Unlike the Dutch landscape paintings, which were essentially studio constructions and spatial fictions, Downes paints exclusively from direct observation over a period of several weeks to several months, outdoors or indoors, onsite using a portable easel.
Downes’s paintings are based on meticulous studies yet they are not truthful depictions in a photographic sense, like the works by the American photorealist painters that became prominent in the 1970s, such as Richard Estes and Robert Bechtle. Downes’s paintings are expanded in terms of space but condensed in terms of time, not unlike a nineteenth-century photograph that had to be exposed for several hours. Downes takes creative liberties that a photorealist painter would never allow himself, and because the works are painted from observation, they are not “snapshots” of a scene recreated in the studio. Rather, they are chronicles of the human existence—records of social history as it evolves. For this exhibition, Lannan will loan a piece by Downes, a four-part painting entitled Snug Harbor, Metal Ductwork in G Attic, 2001.
The Parrish Art Museum received a grant in support of the catalogue and exhibition, Rackstraw Downes: Onsite Paintings, 1974-2009 on view June 20 through August 8, 2010.