New York

Rackstraw Downes

Kornblee Gallery

Rackstraw Downes’ new land-and cityscapes are peculiarly riveting to the gaze and linger in the mind with a peculiar stubbornness. Talking with the artist helped me think about why. Downes, who paints on site, denied being in the least influenced by photography—specifically the use of the wide-angle lens, which the look of his smallish panoramas suggests. It seems that the wide-angle effect, of a space more capacious than even the paintings’ long horizontal format would appear to make possible, is arrived at by straight perceptual means.

Indeed, though the space of the paintings does look subtly distorted, condensed, curved, it lacks the “belled,” convex distortion of the wide-angle photograph; if anything, it feels concave, enveloping. This is the way we truly experience space, Downes believes. The trick, if that’s what it is, is in keeping in mind the scene to be painted as a surround; the peripheries are turned toward, rendered, as it were, head-on at an angle. (This is mostly my guesswork here, by the way, and not Downes talking.) Ordered on the flat canvas, the scene exerts a terrific magnetism. From no distance is it possible to take in the picture as a whole thing; one is drawn almost kinesthetically, with a sense of being gently but firmly located, front and center. The effect is to make each scene—Central Park, Riverside Drive, Maine beach or countryside—a place.

Downes’ radical tinkering with spatial conventions of landscape contrasts oddly and pleasingly with the conservative look of the paintings, whose reminiscences of the Barbizon and Boudin have drawn comment. These reminiscences have most to do, perhaps, with the handling of the light, as a pallid radiance adjusted to the fiction of a particular weather and time of day (it takes Downes years to finish some pictures). Actually, the impulse in the work seems both older and newer than the 19th century, more Dutch or Flemish in its meticulous detailing and more modern in its vernacular acceptance of a nature everywhere interpenetrated with a settled industrial culture.

Downes’ pastorals are sternly undreamy, and for all their skill are rarely virtuosic (an exception being a stunning rain-slick Broadway). The pigment is bone dry, which undercuts the “painted” feel very much to the benefit of the realism. The emotional tone is restrained sometimes to the point of chilliness, even where the light is golden. The pleasure, for me astringent and intense, is in multiple felicities austerely marshalled in the service of fact. Looking and looking at Downes’ new pictures, one feels continually that one has only begun to look.

Downes is currently editing a selection of art criticism by the late Fairfield Porter, a painter whose idiosyncratic theories of art and culture were of a piece with his revitalization of neglected early-modern styles. (In both he was resolutely anti-Cézanne.) It’s a nice conjunction, for as an artist of pragmatic but searching intellect (however different they are in most other ways), Downes seems a natural heir to Porter. He is clearly also ambitious to help raise the realist position to a status of intellectual respectability and influence, an effort that, with the impetus already given it by Linda Nochlin among others, seems a little less quixotic every day. Realists often have didactic inclinations, of course; it’s an aspect of their commitment to the world. What’s rare is seeing that wished-for authority so thoroughly backed up in the work itself. With his new paintings, Downes becomes a formidable presence in American art.

Peter Schjeldahl