Nature and Art are Physical
Writings on Art, 1967-2008
by Rackstraw Downes
EP 28: NATURE AND ART ARE PHYSICAL: WRITINGS ON ART, 1967-2008 comprise the selected writings of Rackstraw Downes. “I’ve written about art in two different ways. First, by narrating the circumstances under which one of my paintings got painted, and how the process went forward. In this case the story, not an idea or an aesthetic point of view, is the issue. Second, by reviewing a show, or a book, or assessing the achievement of an artist or a group of artists. Here, the physical character of finished works, with the thoughts and ideas that emanate from them – or, if a book, its intellectual thrust –, is the issue.” Some of the topics and figures discussed are the fallacies in Modern Art criticism, “Post-Modernist Painting,” “The Conceptualization of Realism,” “Henri Rousseau and the Idea of the Näive,” Ensor and Morandi as printmakers, Cézanne’s drawings and Roger Fry’s letters, Walter de Maria’s Lightning Field, Charles Burchfield, Picasso, Samuel Beckett, John Marin, Rudy Burckhardt, Claude Lorrain and John Constable, among others, in the course of which he explores the “meaning” and “tenses of landscape” and asks such questions as “is technology a new form” and “what have we made of the landscape?”
Bill Morris, for The Daily Beast (06/04/14), writes: “The cream of [Rackstraw] Downes’s half-century of writing has just been published by Edgewise Press in a magnificent collection called Nature and Art Are Physical: Writings on Art, 1967-2008. It is a delicious stew of essays, lectures, a previously unpublished letter, and reviews of books and gallery shows, the work of a polymath fluent in the fields of art history, literature, criticism, ancient history, travel writing, music, movies, even meteorology.
“Downes, now 74 and the recipient of a MacArthur “genius” grant, studied literary criticism at Cambridge before taking up painting in the ’60s. He soon became disaffected with the hard-edged abstractions he was making – and with the rising tides of Minimalism and Conceptualism, and all the money then flooding the New York art scene. (Some things never change.) As he set out to paint rural landscapes in Maine, Downes found himself drawn to such figurative painters as Fairfield Porter (another painter/critic/author), Alex Katz, and Neil Welliver, who had also started out as abstractionists and were also trying to fly solo against the prevailing winds.
“‘In this sense they were moderns; that is to say, artists who did not share or observe an inherited body of knowledge, skills, or critical precepts, or specified aims,’” Downes writes in one of the book’s finest essays, ‘What the Sixties Meant to Me.’ He adds, ‘It was Picasso who, I believe rightly, identified working in solitude and so sharing no goals, as the common denominator of the Post-Impressionists, the founders of modern art. I think that the figurative element in this work was not an attempt to oppose abstract painting, but to enlarge and increase the resources of painting.’”
JOHN ELDERFIELD, Chief Curator Emeritus of Painting and Sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art, has provided a comprehensive introduction.
RACKSTRAW DOWNES was educated at the University of Cambridge and Yale University. He is the recipient of Guggenheim and MacArthur Fellowships, and was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1999. His work is in the permanent collections of the Art Institute of Chicago, the Museum of Modern Art, the Ludwig Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Hirshhorn, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and the National Gallery of Art. His essays have appeared in The New York Times Book Review, Art in America, ARTnews, and Art Journal. A monograph on his work was published by Princeton University Press in 2005. Other books include Under the Gowanus and Razor-Wire Journal; In Relation to the Whole: Three Essays from Three Decades – 1973, 1981, 1996; and the volume of writings he edited in 1979, Art in Its Own Terms, by Fairfield Porter.
First edition paperback, April 2014, 200 pp., sewn, bound and printed in Italy, with a two-color cover and a black and while photograph of the author on the frontispiece.