LEONARD QUART: Looking at paintings


Rackstraw Downes, ‘110th and Broadway, Whelan’s from Sloan’s’, 1980-81, Museum of Art, Rhode Island School of Design

I have taught and written about filmmaking for most of my professional life, and have taught American drama from time to time. But I never felt like I knew enough about painting to teach art history or write critically about painting. However, my wife, who is a painter, and I visit many museums and galleries. And over the years I started, instead of focusing on the subject, to look, with his help, more closely at the texture of paintings and their use of color, space, line, light and shadow. However, while I know and see more now than when I first started going to museums over 60 years ago, I am still a work in progress when it comes to responding deeply to painting. But recently, we attended the annual Armory Exhibition at the Park Avenue Armory, held annually by the Art Dealers Association of America. It’s an exhibition that gets you talking to gallery directors like Betty Cuningham (her gallery is located at 15 Rivington St. in New York), who has exhibited paintings by Rackstraw Downes in her Armory space.

Rackstraw Downes, “Under the 168th Street Hospital Complex”, 2012. Image courtesy of Betty Cuningham Gallery

I’ve seen Downes’ work at the Whitney Museum of American Art before, but rarely more than one painting here or there. He painted landscapes in Maine and Texas and interiors (his studio) on a panoramic scale, but he is best known for his New York cityscapes. And I have a particular interest in cityscapes.

His paintings would be best described as realistic with his sustained, meticulous and intensive exterior work process, and paintings that call attention to what is characteristic of the 21st– century cityscape. He does not paint what is conventionally beautiful, but the everyday world in which we live.

Some of his paintings focus on a four-block beach with the Columbia Presbyterian Hospital to the right and the overpasses and access and exit ramps of the George Washington Bridge to the left. It’s far from a comely scene, but it demonstrates, in Downes’ words, that “almost everything becomes a possible composition and motif. The longer you look, the more you see.

Rackstraw Downes, “Under George Washington Bridge Exit Ramp”, 2011. Image courtesy of Betty Cuningham Gallery

And it is true that those ramps and viaducts, which I have walked through countless times on my way up the Berkshires, have to be looked at with a fresh eye to perceive at least a spark of what Downes sees. Looking closely at his painting, I see the curvature of the ramp, the columns that support the viaduct, the range of muted colors, and the intricate web of shapes that fill the painting.

Downes is a good painter whose vision cannot be captured at a glance. I’m glad I learned to see more, but it’s clear that I’ve only scratched the surface.


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