Monday, May 16, 2005

Artist of the Week 05/16/05

In his rather testy review of the "Greater New York" show at PS1-MoMA (disclaimer, I have one artist in that exhibition and do want it succeed), The New York Times senior art critic Michael Kimmelman noted:

Drawing is the new painting. There's one much-promoted trend. Everybody draws so preposterously well now that it's almost boring.
Many folks in the art world are relieved at how well the new crop of artists are drawing, though, after what had seemed a total ambivalence toward draftsmanship for ages. But this new proficiency does seem to have popped up over night. As recently as last year, in an essay that also appeared (in an edited version) in the The New York Sun, Thursday, June 3, 2004, Maureen Mullarkey opined:

Does drawing matter anymore? It is a common question made all the more pointed by the absence of drawing in exhibitions of contemporary representational artists. All the early Modernists were great draughtsmen. Yet today, few painters draw and fewer still exhibit their drawings.

Mullarkey uses this observation to introduce her thoughts about the work of English-born, New York-based painter Rackstraw Downes. Like few other living artists, Rackstraw can draw and how.

Cover of recent book of Rackstraw's work published by Princeton University Press

Rackstraw and I met many, many years ago at the Moondance Diner in Soho (you may have seen its facade on "Friends" or the first "Spiderman" movie). The food there is not as good as it used to be, and the prices are much higher now, so the old gang that used to haunt it has mostly moved on. But back in the day, I used to eat there at least once a week, usually by myself. One time I noticed a gentleman a few tables away chuckling and looking my way. He raised the book he was reading as explanation. It was the same book I was reading (Deirdre Bair's glorious biography of Samuel Beckett). We began talking about Beckett and other things and started up a correspondence (he's an absolutely delightful and staggeringly brilliant mind [he's well regarded as a writer and editor in addition to as a painter]), but it wasn't until later I realized he really was a famous painter and not just another struggling artist who hung out in diners.

Rackstraw has shown at a range of very blue chip galleries, including Marlborough and Robert Miller, and currently exhibits with Betty Cunningham.

Rackstraw is perhaps best known for his paintings of places most people pay little to no attention to, places that populate the space between other places we do pay attention to, like our homes, workplace etc. Places we drive past without noticing, like industrial parks, construction sites, housing projects, refineries, and landfills.

Rackstraw Downes, Mixed Use Field on Texas Coast, 1987, oil paint on canvas on board, 11 3/4 x 58 5/8 inches

He paints them in a traditional plein air process but with a unique point of view that simulates what such vistas look like if you could see with a wide-angle vision. In other words what the space far to your left and far to your right looks like from that vantage point without flattening the landscape. This is just one of the devices he employs toward his overarching exploration of "seeing." He's really very serious about it. In a recent interview with the also brilliant publisher of The Brooklyn Rail, Phong Bui, Rackstraw plead his case this way:
[I]n a short essay called "Seeing and Copying," Valéry says that when you draw an object you realize that until then you had never actually seen it, even your best friend’s nose. I think of that as a rather serious matter: you don’t know what things look like, in terms of a drawing, but you do know what they look like in terms of your life. If you’re walking down the street you say, "Oh, there’s Phong." You don’t say, "Who the hell is that?" Recognition is there: you have an image you carry in your head. You don’t know what the image looks like on the page ‘till you draw it on the page; it’s a construction. When you make a painting, you’re constructing out of observations. I’m totally opposite to the Duchampian notion that the idea is what counts. I don’t feel like that at all. For example, I have a strong interest in environmental issues, and one of the aspects of my painting that has relevance to that is that I don’t use anything technological—my materials are terribly simple. You know, the brush hairs are from an animal, the wood from a tree, the canvas from a plant. I spend hours and hours looking at real things with as much concentration as I can muster and everything comes from that concentration. That is something that our rapid tool-bound society does not ask you to do. I’m constantly asked, "Why don’t you take a photograph of this thing?" Well, I want to make a painting.
Here's another piece (unfortunately only available in black and white, but it demonstrates how impossibly well he draws). No, it's not a photograph.

Rackstraw Downes, Twelfth Ave at 134th Street, (2003), oil on canvas.


Anonymous Macallan said...

Bravo. Brilliantly written blog post.

I'd love to see more of his stuff so I'm off to the google cave.

5/16/2005 01:37:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Thanks Mac,

Most of what you'll find on line is on the Betty Cunningham site, which is too bad, because it doesn't include images of his 2000 exhibition at Robert Miller (nor does the Robert Miller site), which was a tour de force.

5/16/2005 01:45:00 PM  
Anonymous Macallan said...

I found a couple of interesting links of works:

and there is a color version of "Twelfth Avenue at 134th Street" in this flash:

5/16/2005 02:38:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

Wow the 70's images on that dfn gallery page show just how much he's improved over the past 30 years. Of course you can't tell much from a 72-dpi image, but...

One thing I heard someone say about Rackstraw's work, and in the Robert Miller exhibition you saw this, he actually looks not only at the object he's painting, but at the air between him and the object and he nails it...the color in all his shifting shades of the actual air between him and the object...they are miraculous in real life.

5/16/2005 02:47:00 PM  
Anonymous Macallan said...

I'd like to see his stuff in real life. Might actually drag my lazy butt to a gallery or museum that has his work. If you here of any SF Bay Area showings let me know.

5/16/2005 03:04:00 PM  
Blogger Jackmormon said...

A lovely artist, but I have a quibble with the framing of your post. A lot of the drawing that is being shown right now is drawing for the sake of drawing, not drawing for the sake of a different medium. That was the lesson I came out of the beautiful Rubens exhibit with. All of the critics were kvetching that audiences didn't respond to Rubens's technical mastery as they had to the more hyped (and perhaps more accessible) Da Vinci drawings exhibit, but the Rubens drawings all seemed, to me, to be preparatory--already painterly. What's coming out now has tended to pick up on those drawing traditions that weren't so much subordinated to painterly techniques: etching and comics, to name the first that come to mind.

I agree with you, however, that the drawing explosion might have gotten a bit out of hand.

5/17/2005 12:13:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

but I have a quibble with the framing of your post. A lot of the drawing that is being shown right now is drawing for the sake of drawing, not drawing for the sake of a different medium.

Good point. I realized that as I tried to formulate the transition to Rackstraw, but got pressed for time and couldn't figure out a better one. my lazy bad...

I agree with you, however, that the drawing explosion might have gotten a bit out of hand.

I was talking with a dealer who's uberhot program has launched a few of the stars in this galaxy and he was noting how there's a large number of inferior imitators getting press as well...I agree with him, but think history will sort this out despite his best efforst.

5/17/2005 12:49:00 PM  

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