The Discipline of Observation
Rackstraw Downes’ Drawings at The New York Studio School
Does drawing matter anymore? It is a common question made all the more pointed by the absence of drawing in exhibitions of contemporary representational artists. All the early Modernists were great draughtsmen. Yet today, few painters draw and fewer still exhibit their drawings. Rackstraw Downes is one of a select minority that includes the most enduring painters of our day.
If drawing is seen merely as skill in copying something, then cameras and projection devices can do an end run around it. And certainly, a knowledgeable painter can make efficient use of photographs, as did Manet and Degas. But if drawing is grasped in its fullest sense, as a means of understanding and interpreting what you see, then it remains as critical today as it was for the artists of Lascaux. As the title of this exhibition suggests, drawing is not secondary to Downes’ painting but an integral part of the process.
On display are seven series of drawings, fifty-seven works in total. All are unframed and hinged to the walls end-to-end as they might be in Downes’ own studio. The installation is intended to underscore their role as exploratory studies, not independent works of art (though many of them are). This is as much a tutorial in the discipline of observation as an exhibition. It is not the object on paper that matters; it is the artist’s own decision making—mental acts of selection and refinement—that is the true subject here.
Consequently, motifs appear in multiples, each one a variation that turns on some distinct, if subtle, consideration. Beehives along a road, for instance, are drawn from six vantage points, each one providing a different compositional rhythm. Hives are blunt structures. Pictorial interest is dependent on observing them in the right sequence. Downes probes the effect of them in a static line, in clusters from alternative angles, or close up in a triangular format. Every change of position ensures a change in design which, in turn, requires alterations in emphasis. The ensemble illustrates what the artist phrases “the ever-shifting balance between schema and nature.”
Downes works on site. His paintings begin and end in the landscape where, in his words, “you learn about the site as you proceed.” You can see the consequence of that—so different from starting with a fixed idea—in his approach to the golf cage at Chelsea Piers. He begins his studies from within the cage, looking out at the boats of the marina. Gradually, concentration shifts from the scene to the structure. Attention focuses on the arc of it until, in the sixth and last study, the cage becomes a simple abstract convexity. What began as nondescript housing for sports practice transforms into an architectural wave, curving gracefully in space.
What to accentuate, distill or omit is not something the mechanical eye of a camera can decide. Ten drawings of stacked pipe sections at a water-main project, eight studies of substations along an electrical grid or three interior views of a staircase from the same difficult perspective are illuminating. Each page repeats the same motif while Downes sifts for the principal note, the dominant feature, mass or directional line that takes us to the heart of the whole. Some details are clarified, others muted, each variant registering a shift of concern. Here, textural interest or a rhythmic balance of parts; there, placement of a ground line or vanishing point.
There is a moral dimension to this exhibition that waits to be noticed. Downes’ commitment and sheer stamina in revisiting troublesome terrain is no small lesson. Nothing substantial in art can be had without long effort. There are no short cuts to high achievement, something quite different from celebrity. In a culture increasingly confused by the two, such an exhibition is eloquent in its appeal for a humble love of the labor of art making.
Sound drawing derives from more than manual dexterity. It is rooted in qualities of mind. John Ruskin, in “The Elements of Drawing,” advised his readers that learning to draw would enable them to “understand the minds of great painters” and to “appreciate their work sincerely, seeing for yourself … not merely taking up the thoughts of other people about it.” The Studio School benefits more than its students with this show.
“Rackstraw Downes: Drawing as Part of the Process” at the New York Studio School (8 West 8th Street, 212.673.6466).
A version of this essay appeared in The New York Sun, Thursday, June 3, 2004.
Copyright 2004 Maureen Mullarkey