‘They Were Like Challenges to Me’: Watch How Rackstraw Downes Engages With Great Landscape Painters Who Came Before Him

As part of a collaboration with Art21, hear news-making artists describe their inspirations in their own words.

Production still from the Art21 "Extended Play" film, "Rackstraw Downes: Some Painters." © Art21, Inc. 2012.

In a recent article, the New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl described the landscape artist Rackstraw Downes’s work as evidence that “painting can be truer than photography,” and looking at the detailed compositions, it is easy to support that claim. The British-born artist moved to the United States to attend Yale University and since then has devoted his practice to a genre popularized centuries ago, with artists like John Constable, Claude Lorrain, and Jacob Van Ruisdael.

In a 2010 interview with Art21, Downes describes his labor-intensive process, and his appreciation for the progenitors of plein air landscape painting, saying “They were like challenges to me. ‘Can you do this that well?'”

Production still from the Art21 “Extended Play” film, “Rackstraw Downes: Some Painters.” © Art21, Inc. 2012.

The generational gap is collapsed when it comes to his interest in the work. “Some of these artists who’ve been dead for several centuries, their work seems entirely apropos to your own concerns right now,” he told Art21.

Downes has adopted the naturalistic method of painting where every detail is given equal importance; the telephone wires traversing a city street and the scrub brush dotting the Texas hills are precise and exquisitely detailed mirrors of the environment. A new show at Betty Cunningham Gallery includes a series of studies based on Downes’s studio and living space from varying perspectives, as well as vistas of mountain ranges and few city scenes.

Watch the segment, which originally appeared as part of the “Art in the Twenty-First Century” television series on PBS, below. “Rackstraw Downes: Paintings and Drawings” is on view at Betty Cunningham Gallery in New York through October 14, 2018. 

This is an installment of “Art on Video,” a collaboration between artnet News and Art21 that brings you clips of newsmaking artists. A new season of the nonprofit Art21’s flagship Art in the Twenty-First Century television series premieres this September on PBS. Watch full episodes and learn about the organization’s education programs at Art21.org.

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