Rackstraw Downes, “Untenanted Space in the World Trade Center—Winter Sun” (1998), 24 1/8 x 56 1/8 in. The Dicke Collection, New Bremen, Ohio. (image via weatherspoon.uncg.edu)

Rackstraw Downes doesn’t seem like a radical. He is an understated Englishman who paints understated American landscapes. But when you think about how much of modern and contemporary art relies on juxtaposition or exaggeration for effects, Downes’s approach begins to seem downright revolutionary.

“My idea is to paint the real nature of the world, which is always a complex mixture of things,” he told a packed auditorium at the Weatherspoon Art Museum in Greensboro, North Carolina, during a talk last month.

Rackstraw Downes, “At the Confluence of Two Ditches Bordering a Field with Four Radio Towers” (1995), 46 x 48 in. Private Collection. (click to enlarge) (image via weatherspoon.uncg.edu)

Downes paints landscapes and big interiors from direct observation on site, sometimes spending months trying to capture exactly how something looks to him. The work is extremely realistic and frequently people new to his work assume he must be using photographs to paint them. He doesn’t. The very foundation of his approach denies shortcuts and manipulating one thing to get another.

It’s not just more conceptual artists who purposely calculate surprise (think of Allora & Calzdilla’s tank treadmill) but even realist painters squeeze juice from the unexpected. Lucian Freud builds up his surfaces into piles of scumble, for example, and Chuck Close expands faces to fill eight by seven foot canvases. Even painters not interested in pushing limits will still make their greens a little greener and their reds a little redder.

Unlike most artists, however, Downes is not interested in effects. He is interested in reality — but it wasn’t always so.

He trained as an abstract painter with the influential Al Held at Yale University in the early 1960s, but says he left school after getting his MFA and “wanted a world without heroes and with transitions — not juxtapositions.” He was looking for images of wholeness instead of fragments.

He became dedicated to painting, in fact, after seeing it as a medium that contains unexpected continuities. One day Alex Katz compared an abstract geometric painting of Downes’s to Winslow Homer and the young artist, stunned, suddenly appreciated painting’s ability to “annihilate differences of subject matter and style” in favor of continuity and relationships.

Having “an irresistible impulse to paint cows” after graduating, he moved to rural Maine, where painters like Katz, Neil Welliver and Lois Dodd were already working. Turning his back on abstraction, he wanted to paint “without comment or exaggeration,” like “the way one speaks.”

Rackstraw Downes, “110th and Broadway, Whelan’s from Sloan’s” (1980–81), oil on canvas, 21 1/4 x 38 1/8 in. Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design, Providence, Gift of David and Gerry Pincus. (image via weatherspoon.uncg.edu)

Downes, who won a MacArthur genius award in 2009, speaks with a wry, considered quietness when he talks about becoming a painter. One gets the sense that no decision of Downes’s is taken for granted.

Enchanted by the values of hard-working, forthright Maine farmers, he was painting the countryside and felt the stories of these people were important. He saw their lives reflected in the world around them and he painted it. Then he ran into a problem with Queen Anne’s lace.

He wound up painting a picture with a foreground of white speckles with farmhouses dotting the lush green Maine countryside. The flowers seemed romantic and sentimental. He wondered if he should edit them out. But they are there, he thought. Would it be manipulative to include them, or would it be just as wrong to edit them out?

In the end, he kept the flowers in his painting; score one for wholeness. The ethics of aesthetics have remained a key undercurrent in his work.

Rejecting the Modernist primacy of the picture plane that he had been trained in, Downes’s work became more holistic and connected to the reality outside the canvas. “If it means I can’t portray something I genuinely experience, it may be a concept to be suspicious of,” he says.

Downes came to think of landscape as “a series of endless connections.” More than 30 years later, he found himself far from Maine but with similar questions at a dusty racetrack on the border between Texas and Mexico. He asked himself, “Can you paint a modern mountain?”

He wanted a landscape without the entanglements of Romanticism’s smoky valleys and glistening peaks. He wanted the discipline of reality’s variation instead of the suppositions that come with ideas about reality. It’s a kind of meta-conceptualism that makes Rackstraw Downes a postmodern plein air painter.

Rackstraw Downes, “Farm Buildings Near the Rio Grande: West End of the Barn, PM” (2008), oil on canvas, 24 x 62 in. Courtesy the Artist and Betty Cuningham Gallery, New York. (click to enlarge) (image via weatherspoon.uncg.edu)

Walter Benjamin said “Ideas are to objects as constellations are to stars” and Downes’s approach is to let the objects in the world lead experience instead of the ideas. In a fast-moving international multimedia world where everything is thought of as disembodied imagery, he says, his slow painting of scenes around him are “an implied critique of sound bite society.” But most of all, they are about looking hard, for a long time, and letting the world be what it is.

In contrast to Modernist landscapes that dissolve into self-conscious surface gestures of paint as you look closer, he wants something more like the landscapes of Pieter Bruegel the Elder and Jacob van Ruisdael that yield more and more detail as you get closer. They are not just paint events but events that happen in the real world, too.

When listening to Downes speak about his work, it becomes clear that for him the material world is interesting enough without resorting to ideas about it. He delights in highlighting details of his paintings, like two miniscule figures gathered around a bonfire at a Manhattan construction site he observed from a nearby skyscraper. He gets slightly disgusted — or is it disappointed — when he talks about the muck of commercial factory effluent in the river he painted in “The Mouth of the Passagassawakeag at Belfast, ME, Seen From the Frozen Foods Plant” (1989). The details of the paintings aren’t just compositional elements or symbols — they are actual things that exist in the world that have been observed by the artist.

Rackstraw Downes, “Ventilation Tower with Estivating Snow Plows” (1988), oil on canvas, 38 1/4 x 50 1/4 in. Private Collection, Upper Saddle River, N.J. (image via weatherspoon.uncg.edu)

While spending summers in Maine and winters in New York City, he started painting cityscapes. Drawing from life and getting perspective right with so many straight lines was “elusive, alive and full of contradictions.” Trying to paint pedestrians on the sidewalk he realized they were travelling too fast to paint them. So he hired friends and out of work actors to model for him. When they tried taking positions and holding them, the results were flat and stilted. They lacked liveliness. So he had them parade back and forth in order to populate his city.

When he approvingly describes the “lack of picturesque charm” in an interior painting of an empty floor of the World Trade Center from 1998, one wonders if the paintings themselves have charmlessness as a fundamental value. Downes’s paintings lack the usual seductive qualities of landscape painting like graceful gesture and beautiful color. Sometimes they can be as dry as toast or as tough as Richard Serra’s sculptures.

In the WTC painting, light streams in through gauzy curtains. It’s the perfect opportunity to have a glowing, warm picture. But instead, we get a grubby, abandoned office and the light is simply a fact. The shapes of light diminish and change shape with perspective as they move back in space. It’s not magical — it’s mathematical.

The paintings have to be looked at to be understood, and they have to be understood to be appreciated. This is the radical key to Downes’s work. When so much painting can be understood at a glance or even by description, Downes’s landscapes are deep meditations that involve looking and figuring out how the material of the world works together. He has created several series of paintings that involve him looking at a particular structure or place from different angles and at different times of day. It’s not a pretense for painterly form as it was for Monet; the paintings are a pretense for understanding.

These paintings have been made over years, and it is humbling to look at two paintings of the same subject, think they were made at the same time, and then discover years between their making. It threw me when it happened, and this doubt comes from moving too fast.

“Art is made of convictions,” Downes says. The structures change; trees grow; seasons turn; sidewalks appear out of nowhere; light changes; we change. All of this is only understood with actually looking, thinking and feeling and bearing witness.

Rackstraw Downes: Onsite Paintings, 1972–2008 was organized at the Parrish Art Museum in Southampton, New York, traveled to the Portland Art Museum in Portland, Maine, and is currently on view at the Weatherspoon Art Museum in Greensboro, North Carolina, until August 21.

Harry Swartz-Turfle is an artist and writer living in New York City. He was an award-winning crime journalist before dedicating his life to the seedier and more dubious prospects of art. He has been published...