Sunday, July 25, 2010

Visual arts coverage in the Sunday New York Times tends to play it safe, both in subject and criticism. This morning’s Times features a profile on English-born New York City pleine air painter Rackstraw Downes, whose defeatured landscapes bring to mind the photo-based work of Vancouverites Roy Arden and Arni Harraldson.

In recounting what he has seen and heard during his six-hour painting sessions, my favorite story concerns a one-sided conversation Downes overheard while painting near a phone booth. “But John,” the woman said, “we can’t let the apartment dictate the nature of our relationship.” (If this is not already a New Yorker cartoon, it could be.)

As the anecdote came early in the article, I was curious to read what Downes (age 70) might have to say about the art of his time, specifically minimal and conceptual practices. Only near the end do we discover that he and Frank Stella studied under the abstract painter Al Held at Yale in 1961, and shortly after that, the profile’s author, Dorothy Spears, begins a paragraph with this inversion: “Flying in the face of 1970s minimalism, Mr. Downes’s landscapes continued to buck reigning art world trends in the next decades.”

As for Downes’s opinions, the closest we get is Held’s implication that his student, Downes, was, in Spears’s words, “overly influenced” by his teacher's work, and that hearing this was a “fateful blow.” Another indication could be based on what Downes heard near the phone booth, his meant-for-laughs recounting of a conversation concerning spatial determinates and human subjectivity, which, to my mind, is one of the great art conversations of the last fifty years.

Clearly this figurative painter has no time for the work of Michael Fried, nor his critics, the artists Dan Graham, Jeff Wall, Rodney Graham and Ken Lum.

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