Skip to main content

Rackstraw Downes: A Wider View

Rackstraw Downes was Swarthmore College's 2020 Donald J. Gordon Visiting Artist and in conjunction with this award, the List Gallery presented Rackstraw Downes: A Wider View, from March 5 to April 5. 

Curated by List Gallery Director Andrea Packard, Rackstraw Downes: A Wider View features more than 20 paintings created between 1966 and 2017. The selected works reflect the artist's intense focus on the appearance, history, and evolving character of his chosen subjects, be they farmlands in Maine, underpasses or architectural interiors in Manhattan, shipping lanes or landfills in New Jersey, or radio towers and ditches in Texas. This mini-survey presents acclaimed panoramas—one measuring more than nine feet long—side by side with smaller and lesser-known landscapes, portraits, and figure studies from the mid-1960s. The exhibition also features several recent paintings of spaces in or near Downes's New York City studio.

Rackstraw Downes offers a broader perspective, not just by working in panoramic formats, but by synthesizing empirical observations over months and years, challenging conventions that too often alienate us from our changing environment. A Wider View also allows us to appreciate the consistency of Downes’s creative practice over the five decades since his first one-person exhibition, which took place at Swarthmore College in the fall of 1969.

This exhibition was made possible by the Donald J. Gordon Visiting Artist Fund and the ongoing support of the Gordon Family. An accompanying catalog, with essays by Andrea Packard and Alfred Mac Adam, was made possible by the Kaori Kitao Endowment for the List Gallery and additional gifts from Kaori Kitao, William R. Kenan, Jr., Professor Emerita of Art History, Swarthmore College.

Artist's Biography: Rackstraw Downes was born in England in 1939. He received a BA from Cambridge in 1961 and a BFA and MFA from Yale University in 1963 and 1964 respectively. He became a United States citizen in 1980. He is the recipient of the Guggenheim (1998) and MacArthur (2009) Fellowships, and was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters (1999). A retrospective, Rackstraw Downes: Onsite Paintings, 1972-2008, was organized by the Parrish Art Museum in 2010. It traveled to the Portland Museum of Art, in Portland, Maine, and the Weatherspoon Museum in Greensboro, North Carolina. Notably, in 2009, he delivered the Ninth Annual Raymond Lecture for the Archives of American Art; in 2011, he participated in a Wyeth Foundation for American Art Conference at the National Gallery of Art, entitled Landscape in American Art, 1940-2000, where he delivered the address “From There to Here”; in 2012, he was featured on PBS’s critically acclaimed Art 21 series; and in 2015, he delivered the inaugural Betty Jean & Wayne Thiebaud Endowed Lecture at the University of California, Davis.

Downes’s essays have appeared in The New York Times Book Review, Art in America, ARTnews, and Art Journal. In 2014, Edgewise Press published a collection of his essays titled Nature and Art Are Physical: Writings on Art, 1967- 2008. Other publications by the artist include Under the Gowanus and Razor-Wire Journal (Turning the Head Press, 2000); In Relation to the Whole: Three Essays from Three Decades–1973, 1981, 1996 (Edgewise Press 2004). Downes introduced and edited, Fairfield Porter: Art in Its Own Terms (Zoland Books, 1979, reprinted by the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 2008). Rackstraw Downes, a monograph with essays by Robert Storr, Sanford Schwartz and Rackstraw Downes, was published by Princeton University Press in 2005.

Downes is also the subject of the film Rackstraw Downes: a painter, by Rima Yamazaki (40 mins.). Robert Sullivan's review, “A Film About the Painter Rackstraw Downes,” was published in The New Yorker in September 21, 2018 and Chris Packham's article, “Patient and Transcendent, ‘Rackstraw Downes: A Painter’ Honors the Act of Creation,” was published in The Village Voice in April 26, 2017.