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Rackstraw Downes: Beginnings and Endings in Narratives

Updated on April 19, 2016
Dunham’s Farm Pond. (1972) Oil on canvas; 16 7/8 in x 21 in. Private Collection, New York Courtesy Betty Cuningham Gallery
Dunham’s Farm Pond. (1972) Oil on canvas; 16 7/8 in x 21 in. Private Collection, New York Courtesy Betty Cuningham Gallery
Presidio Horse Racing Association Track, 4, Looking East, South And Southwest: The Judges' Tower and Spectator Shelters (2006). Oil on canvas; 15 x 106 inches Courtesy Betty Cuningham Gallery
Presidio Horse Racing Association Track, 4, Looking East, South And Southwest: The Judges' Tower and Spectator Shelters (2006). Oil on canvas; 15 x 106 inches Courtesy Betty Cuningham Gallery

By: Raymond Abernethy


In Chapter 2, "Endings in Narrative Art Histories" of Writing About Visual Art by David Carrier, the author states that an artist is born, works, and dies and in doing so the artist's history has a beginning middle and end. In this essay I will be discussing two works from the beginning and present of artist Rackstraw Downs and his progression in visual narratives.

Upon graduating from Yale University’s graduate program in 1964, Rackstraw belonged to a generation of artists who started paying acute attention to what realism had to offer to an increasingly rigid logic of abstract works being made in the mid-1960s. Shifting away from his roots in abstraction he began painting in plein-air. This way of painting opened up his palette and with that, the sense of space and atmospheric light that is a distinct characteristic of his work. Though plein-air painters usually consider themselves landscape painters, Rackstraw does not. He thinks of his works as being depictions of his surroundings. These surroundings span from Maine to New York to Texas.

One of Rackstraw's earlier pieces titled Dunhams’s Farm Pond (1972), depicts an airy, overcast landscape on the country side. This work is a stepping stone in understanding what interests the artist has and what can be seen in later works. Observing the formal qualities of this painting, his roots in abstraction take hold and can be seen in the loose handling of the paint and large masses of color. As a master composer of a picture, Rackstraw directs the eye of the viewer directly forward to a small pond in the foreground that mirrors the spacious sky above. The idea of planting a pond in the center of the composition which mirrors the sky, opens up the picture for a brief moment. This brief moment of contemplation of the space in which we are observing are the gems that Rackstraw captures and makes present in his work.

A more recent work by Rackstraw that feels closest to what his works encompass is a painting titled Presidio Horse Racing Association Track, 4, Looking East, South And Southwest: The Judges' Tower and Spectator Shelters (2006). His composition has changed over the years into a more panoramic view, allowing an overall feeling of space and for viewer to feel as if they are standing in the paintings with the ability to turn their head 180 degrees. In doing this the viewer has a perfect understanding of the layout of the land in which this Racetrack sits. The artist describes the experience of finding this space as an accident. He hadn’t realized for about an hour that he was observing an abandoned race track. The fact that this track lay abandoned in the middle of nowhere was intriguing to the artist. Strange findings like this one are key staples of his work: the idea that these odd findings, when brought to attention, can tell a story.

In observing these two works and thinking about beginnings and endings in narratives, one could associate both works with histories in art. Era’s come and go but still leave footprints that can be appreciated with the right set of eyes. Rackstraw's works ask the viewer to stop and consider the narrative that is surrounding them, and it is in this that he becomes one of the great living contemporary realist painters.

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