Painting Is a Metaphor: An Interview with Rackstraw Downes

by Jennifer Samet on October 14, 2012

Rackstraw Downes, “Sand Hills with Cell Tower, Presidio, TX, P.M.”(2010). Oil on canvas, 20 5/8 x 35 7/8 inches. (All Images Courtesy of the Artist. © Rackstraw Downes, Courtesy Betty Cuningham Gallery, New York)

Rackstraw Downes’s recent paintings are currently on view at Betty Cuningham Gallery. Born in 1939 in Kent, England, Downes now lives between New York City and Presidio, Texas. Well known for his panoramic landscapes, Downes works for months on site in both urban and rural surroundings. He is often described as a realist but this term is perhaps better applied to his subject matter than his technique. Through his sustained and intensive outdoor working process, his paintings empirically draw attention to the true nature of the 21st Century landscape. They are places we don’t necessarily linger, but are nevertheless our environments. He represents the very perceptual process, with his “fish-eye” views: the curved horizon lines, matched by arcs and ellipses found in nature and man-made structures. The complexity and strangeness of these forms and arrangements remind us that a painting is always a metaphor, not a facsimile. Downes is also an accomplished writer. He edited an anthology of the writings of Fairfield Porter, and In Relation to the Whole includes five of his own essays on art.  In 2010, the Parrish Art Museum (Southampton, NY) organized a traveling retrospective of his work.

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Jennifer Samet: I had this experience of looking at art recently, where I felt like I was seeing artists taking “shortcuts,” figuring out ways to stop their paintings too early. When I saw your work at Betty Cuningham’s gallery, it seemed to me the exact opposite.  That you are not taking any shortcuts. Also it made me think of this Cézanne quote, “Here on the bank of the river the motifs multiply, the same subject seen from a different angle offers subject for study of the most powerful interest and so varied that I think I could occupy myself for months without changing place, by turning now more to the right, more to the left.”

Rackstraw Downes:  Yes, we are a sound bite culture. My work is very slow; it evolves very slowly. I have been drawing in a four-block range, with the Columbia Presbyterian Hospital on the right, and the overpasses and on and off ramps from the George Washington Bridge on the left. I could work there for years. When you’re there, as Cézanne said, you keep seeing more and more things. Almost anything becomes a composition and a possible motif. The longer you look, the more you see. You do really feel like you could paint on that painting forever. You discover new things, new relationships, not only the ones to the left and right, but you stand back, and discover new ones right where you are working. It is by painting it that you clarify it to yourself. You keep searching and searching. And to say that you’ve found it is not true. You’ve only found one section.

JS: Do you think of it as a never-ending pursuit, then?

RD: Very much so.

JS: But ultimately you have to finish a painting.

RD: You do. And you finish it when you say to yourself, I’ve worked on this painting as much as I can, and it’s not getting any better.

Rackstraw Downes, “Traffic Under the George Washington Bridge” (2010). Oil on canvas, 21 1/8 x 63 3/8 inches.

JS: That is amazing. But, it seems like a sad way of looking at it!

RD: I used to paint as quickly as I could. But then I decided I would take as much time as the painting needs. And more and more, even my sketches are not so much sketches. I work longer on them, because they save me time on my big paintings. You figure things out. It is very hard to work on a large canvas outdoors, working perceptually. You can’t see around it, you can’t see over it. You can’t relate the left hand to the right hand. It is very hard to see the whole thing. So if you work smaller, it’s easier to get from the left hand into the right.

JS: I wouldn’t have pictured you working from left to right.  Do you do that?

RD: I work in different ways. There is only one rule in art, which is that there are no rules. Sometimes my drawings or paintings creep across the canvas, and you follow, saying, this is an angle, that’s the little angle next to it, now it goes this way, that way. At other times, you say, there’s a tall building here and there’s something round over here, so you start to go from two places at once. As you get closer, sometimes they meet correctly and sometimes they don’t. And sometimes you have to just start all over again. In some drawings, large areas were erased, because they were the wrong size or in the wrong place.

Rackstraw Downes, ”Under an Off-Ramp from the George Washington Bridge” (2011). Oil on canvas, 26 x 56 inches

JS: Many of your paintings have these spliced-in additions. Would you ever splice a section in the middle?

RD: Why not?  Sure I would. If the right hand section was wrong, I would add a section in the middle. But I don’t usually do that. It’s usually on the edge. It usually has to do with fitting an area into the edge, and not cropping it. It is inevitable that you edit to some extent, but you try to be as complete as possible. I painted a farm once, and there was a pond, and I had to have room for the sheep to go around. And in the middle, there was a float for the ducks. And I wanted to get the whole pond. That pond seemed to me to be a whole world, by its nature. You can’t find that in the city so much. John Marin did when he painted Lower Manhattan.

I start my paintings with a chord. That is actually a rule I made for myself. You get a touch of green, a touch of blue and a touch of brown. The chord is an idea, where you bring three colors together, so that you see the contrast.

JS: Ha, you have a rule!

RD: Well, I sometimes break it. I square my drawings up with red threads. I don’t square it up with pencil lines, like the old masters did, because then you ruin the drawing. Then, I use a brush to draw with white lines on the canvas. I’m working on top of a stained ground — a brown canvas. This way, you can go toward a middle tone.  White looks very bright on that brown ground.  If you put a white cloud on a white ground it looks kind of gray.  Constable did this with his oil sketches. And so did Vuillard. The white line stage is very important. Because it means, when you start the painting, that you’re not saying, where should I put this hole, the entrance to that tunnel. You’ve already put it somewhere. You get started from the drawing.

Rackstraw Downes, “UNDER THE OFF-RAMP FROM THE GEORGE WASHINGTON BRIDGE” (2009). Graphite on light blue paper with blue threads, 17 x 36 3/4 inches

JS: So all of these techniques you’ve worked out, is it from your study of old master paintings? Because it doesn’t sound like anything you were taught in art school.

RD: No, I wasn’t taught any of this in art school. I painted geometrical paintings in art school. My first representational paintings were extremely crude. At Parsons, I taught the Albers drawing class. The Albers drawing class has nothing to do with working from observation at all. It’s all to do with separateness. You spent a whole three-hour class trying to draw the collar of a shirt, going around somebody’s neck. You exercise on that one detail. In the spring, I took my class outdoors, by the river, and I said, “Just draw what you see. Draw this whole scene.” They couldn’t do it, because they saw every element as a separate problem. They drew the smoke in one manner, and the ship in another, and the water in another.

JS: So it is the opposite of the Cézanne concept of “relational” painting?

RD: Exactly. And you can see an example of this kind of drawing in the Tintoretto at the Met. You see in the underpainting that his hand is very loose, very position-searching, very modern.

JS: Is this the biggest break from your education?

RD: Definitely. To deal with the whole thing. To deal with light, color, all those things. The whole business. “In relation to the whole,” I call that.

Rackstraw Downes, “Remains at the Site of the Old Military Cemetery, Fort D.A. Russell, No. 1″ (2009). Oil on canvas, 14 1/2 x 36 7/8 inches

JS: In a video interview, you discuss this issue of having to get this particular curlicue of a form in nature – how that real detail is the subject. But, in another essay you talk about how painting is always a metaphor.  How do you reconcile these two things? 

RD: Yes, painting is a metaphor. You cannot represent a three-dimensional world in two dimensions without metaphor, unless you’re a sculptor like Duane Hanson. That is a total re-creation. It doesn’t live or breathe, but in every other aspect, it is a total re-creation. That’s the opposite of what I’m trying to do. I’m trying to re-create in the terms of painting, in painterly terms. One thing that happens, for example, is you start a painting, and you try to get it right. You say this edge is here, and then, no, it’s not, it’s further over here. And, the color isn’t quite that color. And slowly, bit-by-bit, your painting begins to get a little turgid, a little drab, and painstaking looking, and that’s not what you want. You want it to be lively! You want the surface to be lively, to somehow give the feeling of life, without being life. You give a little fleck to your brushstroke. You want it to dance off the surface. And you see that even in someone very realistic like Vermeer. You get close to Vermeer, and you see that it’s quite abstract. There’s a wonderful passage in the letters of Van Gogh, where he talks about how Vermeer is completely different up close than what you’d expect.

JS: Do you start from subject matter or form?

RD: I’m interested in both. I’m starting from both. Sometimes, the idea is to look up. That’s what I am doing now. I’m looking so up that it is almost behind my head. I am looking up, because, for years, I was painting long-formatted paintings, and I am trying to get away from that. I am looking also for different kinds of structure.  In the paintings at Betty’s there were quite a few paintings with ellipses on the ground. There was a dance floor and a cemetery, both the same shape in plan, and I purposely painted them at the same time because one was about life and the other about death.

Rackstraw Downes, “Outdoor Dance Floor, Presidio, TX, from the Bandstand Looking South” (2009). Oil on canvas, 21 1/8 x 63 1/8 inches

JS: I think that on so many levels, that’s what you are doing — two different things at the same time. 

RD:Yes.  I think that is true. I do want to say something environmental. I think that landscape is often an escapist genre. But, even if you start with an environmental idea, it is not what you profess; it is what you express that counts. That’s my problem with most political painting. It is not very convincing. What do your behavior or your actions demonstrate? What do they express? We say that we want to preserve the landscape but we don’t act that way. We actually want to build more fuel plants, and refineries, and get more oil out of the ground. How many people, for example, do you know, who bought an article of clothing in the last ten days because it was green, not because they thought it fit them well or look cute on them. Few of us take that stuff seriously. I want to say, “This is how we live. We build tunnels under the highway; we put bridges over our heads, and all these sorts of muscular achievements.” We admire those achievements. What do you express when you’re making your paintings?  What you express is unconscious.  It is not something you planned. I think that plans are less interesting than the aura that comes off your painting.

Rackstraw Downes continues at Betty Cuningham Gallery (541 West 25th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through November 24.

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