Winter show surveys a ‘genius’ works

110th and Broadway, Whelan's from Sloan's, 1980-81, Rackstraw Downes, 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

     (PNAN-ME) “Rackstraw Downes: Onsite Paintings, 1972-2008” exhibition goes on view Thursday, December 16 at the Portland Museum of Art, featuring paintings more than 30 major works ranging from the artist Downe’s earliest  Maine works to his later paintings of the New York City skyline and the vast views near his home in Presidio, Texas.

     The show traces the artist’s career through major examples of his work painted in Maine, Texas, New Jersey and New York, including two haunting depictions of the untenanted interior spaces in the World Trade Center in 1998. His scenes of Maine in the exhibition will include a dam in Fairfield, a Skowhegan softball field, a Searsmont lumber yard, Portland’s Back Cove, the mouth of the Passagassawaukeag River in Belfast and a view of Portland Harbor.

     His landscapes depict scenes generally overlooked or dismissed for lack of a traditional aesthetic appeal, with subjects ranging from the roadways, urban detritus and industrial backyards of the East Coast to the oil fields and vast, empty scrubland of Texas. Considered one of the most distinctive representational painters of his generation, Downes’ artistry is deeply rooted in the history of painting, and he has written highly regarded essays on visual and literary artists as varied as John Constable, Fairfield Porter and Samuel Beckett.

     Turning from abstract painting in the early 1960s, and encouraged by the work of his fellow painters Alex Katz, Fairfield Porter, Neil Welliver and Jane Freilicher, he developed his panoramic style by studying 17th-century Dutch landscape painting. He pursued a unique approach to realism that defies the standard platform. He begins each work with drawings and oil sketches before meticulously painting each scene on site. In order to capture the precise details of lighting and weather, he can spend many months completing a single piece.

     Born in England in 1939, Rackstraw Downes received degrees from the University of Cambridge and Yale University. His essays have appeared in the New York Times, Art in America and Art Journal, and he was a recipient of a 2009 MacArthur Foundation “genius” award. His work is in the permanent collections, like the Art Institute of Chicago, Museum of Modern Art, New York, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and the National Gallery of Art, Washington.

“Sprowl Bros. Lumber Yard”, Searsmont, ME, 1978–80, Rackstraw Downes, oil on canvas, 43 3/8 x 20 7/8 in., Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., Museum Purchase, 1980.

     The exhibit remains on view through March 20, 2011 and then travels to the Weatherspoon Art Museum at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro for May 28-August 21, 2011. Also for more information on this exhibit, including other programming at PMA, see

Published by on November 2010. Filed under Archives, Maine. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

Comments are closed