Rackstraw Downes is a plein air painter of the best order. His constancy to portray the setting he inhabits, to meticulously registering matter, gentle, colour, and air, nevertheless drab and unpicturesque their look could also be, is without doubt one of the nice achievements in postwar portray. Downes is understood for his panoramic views of New York Metropolis, rural Maine, and numerous components of Texas, each alongside the coast and in and round Marfa. His work merge his seeing and the view in surprising, thought-provoking methods, comparable to when he bends the horizon or makes use of the structure of an overpass or a large city avenue to drag us right into a deep area directly rhythmic and cacophonous. His means to register minute particulars and huge areas elevates his work to a singular place.
Rackstraw Downes: Drawings at Betty Cuningham Gallery (January 27-March 19, 2022) reveals a lesser-known facet of this artist’s work, his drawings. However that hardly encompasses what’s going on in these profoundly transferring testimonies to seeing, which Downes drew between 1975 and 2020, the bulk finished just lately. Dedicated to registering the particulars of the habitat he occupies, whether or not it’s standing in a Texas desert close to a mining web site or on a nook in Manhattan, surrounded by cookie-cutter workplace buildings, his views have contracted for causes he makes evident within the drawings.
In drawings comparable to “Wanting Down from the Window of a Good friend’s on the Higher West Facet” (c. 1975) and “Presidio Cell Tower” (2005), Downes was trying on the world earlier than him. The traces might be darkish and durable or thick and delicate. It felt just like the connection between the attention seeing and the hand drawing was completely calibrated. What made this connection all of the extra highly effective is that Downes by no means confirmed off, by no means drew extra that he needed to, and seemingly had no signature line. The directness of those and different earlier drawings stays astonishing.
Juxtaposed with the current drawings, collectively titled Within the Artist’s Studio, every numbered and dated 2020, the bigger, earlier drawings are of topics and viewpoints we’ve got come to affiliate with Downes, simply as we join the American flag and targets with Jasper Johns.
As acutely aware of the supplies he makes use of as he’s of the world he depicts, the sequence of drawings dated 2020 are finished on spiral-bound pocket book paper measuring round 9 1/2 by 12 1/2 inches. The paper, which is yellow-tan, blue-gray, or cream with blue threads, has an uneven, nubbed floor. As in his earlier works, he attracts with graphite. The distinction is that within the earlier drawings Downes primarily made contour traces, translating the jumble of what he was seeing right into a rhythmic order, as in “Alabama Ave. Cease on the J Line, 2” (2006), which measures 15 by 31 inches and was finished onsite.
The place the place Downes has chosen to face and look in all instructions is telling. Descending down from the paper’s high edge, the girders of the elevated subway line overhead — the dominant type within the drawing — information our gaze down the sheet of paper and to the left, the place the subway runs instantly above the road extending into deep area. On the drawing’s proper facet, the girders prolong down and span the road that passes earlier than the artist. Past the columns supporting these girders we see a nondescript three-story constructing. Right here is the place Downes’s genius comes by. From the place he’s standing and drawing, the structure of the girders and buildings body an irregular trapezoid of sky above the middle of the image airplane. That open area is essential to the drawing, and rings true to my city expertise (which is unquestionably not distinctive) of not desirous to really feel hemmed in or overwhelmed by every part round me. On the identical time, the curve of the girders overhead registers Downes’s gaze, which follows them as they transfer by and form the area in entrance of him.
Within the drawings collectively titled Within the Artist’s Studio, it’s evident that Downes can not stand outdoors on a busy road for hours to work on a drawing, or return to the identical place day after day to make a portray. And but, true to seeing and the enjoyment it brings him, he focuses on his bodily circumstances and the issues earlier than him: his mattress, walker, closet, easel, brushes, books, chairs, radiator, work desk, home windows at one finish of the room, and a wall of drawings.
Though this was possible not Downes’s intention, one factor that comes throughout in these drawings is the austere, nearly monastic life he has lived to be able to make artwork. One other is that there is no such thing as a division between his artwork and his life; he works the place he lives and lives the place he works, particularly now that his mobility is restricted. Extra importantly, there’s not an oz of self-pity or any try and elicit the viewer’s sympathy. He doesn’t current his scenario is particular.
The usage of a porous line and the slight shading in varieties, such because the again of a picket chair, has changed the agency, sinuously cadenced contours of Downes’s plein air drawings. What comes by are emotions of fullness and bareness, an acute sense of contradiction inflected by an consciousness that at some point he’ll change into these disposable issues, that are more likely to outlive him.
We dwell in a world the place the aversion to what we’re has change into as commonplace as respiratory. If we are able to look elsewhere, we do. The artwork world is plagued by gaudy baubles and high-priced distractions, a lot of which is widely known nearly as good public sale home bets. Mortality and time passing aren’t modern topics.
Downes doesn’t look away from what he is aware of is inescapable. “Within the Artist’s Studio XV” (2020) is a meditation on mortality, directly highly effective and modern. Every part within the drawing is at eye stage, which means that we’re seated in a chair an empty mattress, a walker, cane, ladder, the within of a garments closet with sliding doorways, one thing framed on the wall, the sting of a dresser. The underside left facet of this cream paper with blue threads is lacking. Two stains are seen: one within the backside center and the opposite, product of two marks, within the decrease proper nook. Time has already encroached on the drawing.
The truth that Downes’s drawing is totally secular must be famous. There aren’t any indicators or symbols we affiliate with transcendence or a life after this one. This, the drawing tells us, is it: a mattress, issues to assist us stay cell, garments, and a spot to sit down. The sliding ladder on the far proper of the closet will most likely not be utilized by Downes once more. No matter is saved above the closet is closed off. One factor this humble drawing does is expose how crass we’ve got change into as a tradition, standing beside our newest favourite artistic endeavors and posting selfies on social media.
Downes’s drawing is the report of somebody who didn’t be a part of that crowd. The sunshine traces and tender, mild markings that evoke the rows of garments, their empty volumes, in addition to the delicate interplay with the paper’s tough floor, end in one thing uncommon in immediately’s artwork world: an awesome, trustworthy, unflinching view of a humdrum life, which, if we’re fortunate, we’ll at some point dwell lengthy sufficient to expertise.
These numbered drawings are the chronicle of an individual who is aware of he’s leaving the world. Opposite to Dylan Thomas’s macho name, “Don’t go gently into that good night time,” Downes doesn’t rage “towards the dying of the sunshine.” That he has by no means had a complete museum present within the metropolis he has lived in and lovingly painted and drawn for many of his life is a cultural shame.
Rackstraw Downes: Drawings continues at Betty Cuningham Gallery (15 Rivington Avenue, Decrease East Facet, Manhattan) by March 19. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.