Cityscapes: Rackstraw Downes

Rackstraw Downes (born in Britain, 1932-) received an MFA in painting from the Yale School of Art, beginning as an abstract artist. After attending some lectures by Fairfield Porter he began working on landscapes and cityscapes in a realist style, and always from life.

These meticulously rendered cityscapes are not as large as you might think, but his wide-angle views give a dramatic sense of sweeping space. The details are acutely rendered, his intentions not to romanticize the world or create a scene of aesthetic beauty so much as to show you what is really there, and to perhaps prove that the harder you look, the more interesting things are. In an interview with Hyperallergic, Downes says that he has spent quite a lot of time painting in a particular four block section of New York City, and the more time he spends there looking, "the more there is to see".

Well regarded by other artists, his work doesn't have widespread public recognition. This may be because his subjects are often so nondescript- even though he is able to show that the ordinary can be deeply fascinating.

As with many plein-air painters, Downes typically paints in three hour sessions, twice a day, but atypically a painting may take years, given the changing seasons. He doesn't research promising images ahead of time on the computer, and never uses a camera, as he doesn't own either one. He usually hauls his gear on public transportation to his painting locations, although he'll occasionally take a taxi. 

110th and Broadway, Whelan’s from Sloan’s 1980–81 oil on canvas 21 1/4" x 38 1/8" 1980–81

Demolition and Excavation on the Site of the Equitable Life Assurance Society's New Tower
at 7th Avenue and 52nd Street 32"x36" 1983

Under the J Line at Alabama Avenue oil on canvas 20"x32" 2007

Twelth Avenue at 134th Street, Study 2003
We are a sound bite culture. My work is very slow; it evolves very slowly.  
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.

The current theme in the Art Room is Cityscapes.

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  1. I studied with Rackstraw at the University of Pennsylvania when I returned to college after having four children. He was a wonderful enthusiastic teacher. He forced the students to go outside and paint and it was a revelation to have to work so fast, catch the light or people walking by. I will forever grateful to him for that experience.

    1. Nancy, that must have been great. Did you also study with Neil Welliver? Maybe you knew my sister, who studied painting at Penn too? Her name is Dana, and she has this to say about Rackstraw Downes: "He never showed us his paintings, and I was sure he was an abstract painter or at least very expressionistic. One of his TAs showed us some of his stuff and I was surprised at the realism. He was very intense, very British, very passionate, and really pushed each of us. I'm so happy he's still painting- at 82!"


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