As artists, we have to find the antidote to this darkness right now, to how everything feels so compressed rather than expanded.
Discover MFA Programs in Art and Writing
New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York City
The following is a transcript of the conversation.
Phillip LopateThank you I’m going to try to introduce Rackstraw very briefly while I look at his pictures. I’ve know Rackstraw Downes for about 20 years. We can no longer remember how we met, but I’ve been very impressed with his paintings. I love them, in fact. Rackstraw also is a terrific writer, and I think of him actually as the most articulate, well-read, and, really, the smartest painter I know. It doesn’t mean the best painter; it just means the smartest painter.
PL So I would like to begin to talk to you, Rackstraw. So you’re going to have to sit next to me.
Rackstraw Downes That would be a pleasure.
PL So we’re looking at, sort of, Rackstraw’s pictures. How many more do you think there are, as a matter of fact?
RD We’re almost finished! Yeah, yeah, yeah.
PL Let’s observe them in silence then.
(pause in conversation)
RD There’s four more slides.
PL I realize that, although I’ve known you for something like 20 years, there’s some things that I don’t know about you. So I’m going to find them out in front of this audience, because I never had the nerve to ask you. But what was your child like—childhood like…
PL You’ve never talked to me about your childhood, Rackstraw.
RD Thoroughly screwed up.
PL In what way?
RD I came from a very theatrical family indeed. Both my parents were on the stage, and they met on the stage. I had a fierce determination to get on with my work and not let anyone interfere with it. Because when my father proposed to my mother, she said, You may marry the stage, or you may marry me. And he foolishly made the bargain of quitting the stage and had a lousy marriage in consequence. The theatricality of the household had a lot of do with my own interest in art now. I mean, I like to paint and [to] paint exactly what I see. I will stand out there for weeks on end until I think I’ve got exactly what I see. I don’t want any exaggeration. I don’t want any theatricals in my painting at all.
PL But you did say in one of your pieces is this constant struggle sober accuracy and theatricality, so you obviously do have a theatrical side. And many of these paintings have a sense of a scene, you know. So you’re still struggling with that?
RD Well, I can’t get rid of my genes unfortunately.
PL Did you draw when you were a kid?
RD Yes, I did. Very badly, and [in a] very inhibited way. I still have some drawings I made in high school. But I was precocious in my tastes. I have a catalogue from [the National Academy] of a Leonardo da Vinci drawing show; I bought that catalogue with my own money when I was 8 years old. That was quite good to find that.
RD I still have it in my book collection.
PL But when you were a kid, you did not have the ambition to be an artist?
RD I did, and I was discouraged. Yes, I was told that I had literary talent and no visual talent. And that I should give up the idea of being…. I didn’t so much want to be an artist. You know, British are very good at applied art, I think. They’ve gotten much better at fine art in recent years. But when I was coming up in the late ’40s and so on—I was a kid in the ’50s—we were really very good at typography and graphic design and illustration. I mean, I think of [the painter David] Hockney as being a great illustrator, for example. I wanted to go into typography. I was actually a very good calligrapher and felt that typography would be a sensible field for me to get into.
PL You said that your first education was in literary criticism.
RD At university, at Cambridge, I read English literature. Everybody in England writes criticism. I think everybody writes in England. If you look at the letter column, correspondent’s column, of a magazine, they’re extremely literate—the letters. It’s considered quite out of the question for anyone to say, Oh, you know, I get so nervous when I have to write anything. That’s not…you don’t acknowledge that in England. You just write it, and you’re supposed to be good at it. And most are. Many British painters—this is a great fear for me—I think that many good British painters are better writers than they are painters. That was something that bothered me a great deal, and I didn’t want to be that. I did not want to settle for that.
PL Well, how did the ambition come on you to switch to art? And at what point did you migrate from England to here?
RD Well, those two questions are connected. I was a jazz fan when I was a teenager; I played the double bass. I won an exchange scholarship to come to this country [to go to school]. I had an extraordinary art teacher who studied with [German painter Josef] Albers. In England I would sit there drawing from the figure, and the art teacher would come around and say, Oh, yes, that arm is rather sensibly drawn, I must say. This guy at the school in Connecticut would come in the morning. There were only two of us that took the course. He’d say, Hey friends! OK, Bill! What are we gonna do today? We’re gonna make a new tune! Like Bach! Something like Bach! We’re gonna do it visually! How are we gonna do this?
And we were all terribly excited by all this. We thought the world was waiting out there for our efforts.
PL You fell for that American con-job.
PL How old were you when you came over here?
RD I was 17. But this guy was the real thing. He got exhibitions of [abstract expressionist artist] Bradley Walker Tomlin to the corridors of the high school. It was a remarkable thing to have at that point, you know. It was remarkable. I’ve been in touch with him recently. I lost touch with him for about 40 years, and just recently…. Actually he called me on Saturday when I was in Virginia. I hope we’ll have a meeting after all these years, because he made it possible. He tipped the balance for me and made me think, As soon as I finish that literary degree in England, I will come back and go to school where he went to school, at Yale.
Of course, Albers then was gone. So there was no Albers.
PL So who was there?
RD Well, for me, there was Alex Katz, Neil Welliver, and Al Held. Those were the three people who really worked [and] helped me enormously. They were very important…had a very important effect on me. The first slide that you saw up there was one of my paintings made in art school in 1964, very much based on Al Held’s imagery at that time and his method.
PL So you began in a much more…as an abstractionist.
RD Absolutely. Absolutely. I was only interested in abstract art. When I was there at that school in Connecticut with that teacher, I look at [Piet] Mondrian. I got to Mondrian via his interest in Bradley Walker Tomlin and his friendship with Tomlin. That took me to Mondrian’s Boogie-Woogie paintings and so on. I became passionate and avid reader of Mondrian. That whole aesthetic was very important to me, and I thought I’d go back and study with an Albers aesthetic. It was a completely different kind of school when I got there, and I’m glad it was actually.
I went with great pleasure to see the Anni Albers show at the Jewish Museum a couple of summers ago. It made me weep almost to see… It was an extraordinary thing. They had an idea, those people, that you do one little thing. You keep on doing it, and it creates a whole configuration that comes out of this obsessive, single-minded act of drawing a diagonal line over and over again, or whatever it is. You get these amazing structures that she made. Sometimes I think I like her stuff better than Josef’s [her husband’s]. Josef changes color; but when she changes color, she changes substance. She changes material too. It’s very rich stuff. I think her stuff is fabulous.
PL I think about his as kind of looser and wetter.
RD Well, he was, but he toned it down in the end. You know, he started out very loose. You splash around and you go through metamorphoses of the image, but in the end you kind of nail it down very hard.
PL So this was in…. What years were these?
RD ‘61-’64. Yeah, ’61-’64. The two art handlers, by the way, in that first slide, by the way, lifting that abstract painting onto the wall were Richard Serra and Jack Claes. They were classmates of mine.
PL Also what was your take in figurative painting then, or realist painting?
RD Well, when I was in my first year at Yale there was a show in the Yale art gallery called [Selections] From a New York Gallery. There was a Fairfield Porter in there and an Alex Katz, and I thought they were utterly dreadful. They were the total miss-outs of the show. I could think; [that’s] how poor they were. It was a gradual process through listening to other people; other students in the school were extremely interested in those paintings. Katz had been there as a teacher, and they [the students] knew how to look at those paintings. I had to learn that. I did gradually learn that and became extremely interested in it.
PL I remember that period, because I was going around with my brother to the galleries in the late ‘50s, early ‘60s. It was a very polarized time, I think. We were…. Non-objectivist painting was like a religion. We belonged to that religion. We worshipped that church. I remember the feeling of contempt—I think [that] would be the word—for painters, like Rafael Sawyer, for instance, painters who were realists. We felt they had missed the boat; in jazz terms, if you didn’t listen to bop you were what was called a “moldy fig.” So a lot of the realists we thought were the painting equivalent of moldy figs, you know? But this other group of Fairfield Porter and Alex Katz and Jane Freilicher: it seemed to me that they were figurative painters or realist painters who didn’t want to set-up in opposition to non-objective art, but—they were not opposed to this direction—but they wanted a space or a room for themselves. So in a way there were two realist camps. There was a realist camp like [William] Sawyer or John Cooke, for instance, and who basically were pointing their fists at the museums and saying, Let us in! Then there was this other group that felt certainly sympathetic to Willem de Kooning, but wanted to explore figurative art. Is that fair to say?
RD Yes, I think there were two very different schools of thought. I do. Porter… and Katz…. I remember Katz looking at a geometrical painting I had on my easel. He said, Oh, that’s very interesting, it looks like an early Winslow Homer!
There was no barrier there between figurative and abstraction at all! He meant that it had a sweet feeling to it. Like Sir Homer would crack the whip and took all those little boys in the field, you know? It had a sweet feeling. It was grey and yellow and white, and it was a sweet abstract painting. There was no division at all there. Fairfield’s house was full of beautiful de Koonings actually.
PL Well, how did people like Porter and Katz signal the art world and the art critics that they were good guys who appreciated non-objective art?
RD Well, that came very slowly indeed. I remember meeting a guy, talking to a guy named Jack Burnham who used to run the Nova Scotia School of Design, a very hot school for a while in the ‘60s and ‘70s. I mentioned Katz’s name, and he said, Oh, he’s just a Sunday painter!
There was no…. It was a total wash-out. That wasn’t counted. That simply did not count. I remember Janet Fish [a geometrical painter] telling me about how somebody in her building came into her loft and would refuse to acknowledge there was anything on the wall. They were willing to be sociable, but could not [and] would not see the stuff at all. That was interesting, I think.
But you see to me, I didn’t see any going back with Porter and Katz at all. I think they inflected abstract painting and gave it a new kind of challenge by wanting to pit it up against observation. The results were unprecedented. I think that the effect of abstract art, of breaking down the training…. My training was entirely as an abstract painter, entirely. The fact that it was broken down so much—that system of training—meant that when I went into it, it was all in discovery. I put down a little patch of yellow paint in the middle of a green thing; it looked like a patch of sunlight on a green field. I was absolutely shocked that I was able to do that. It was a discovery.
PL A rediscovery or a discovery.
RD Exactly! You know Baudelesque says it’s important to have a little naiveté. I agree with him.
PL Speaking of naivete, it seem to me when you look at some of the artists we’ve spoken about like Frielicher or Porter or Katz, sometimes they’re a kind of awkward that seems almost intentional in their drawing. I think a word you once used was ingenuous; there’s something ingenuous about it. To me that awkwardness or ingenuousness is a way of signaling modernity, if you will, or that this is not a relapse so to speak. So there’s this cultivation of a certain kind of naïveté or ingenuousness or awkwardness as I’m saying. Something that I think about in your work is that while you always respected that, you didn’t go in that direction. When I look at your paintings, I don’t see this awkwardness. I don’t see this ingenuousness. So… do you want to say something about this?
RD Yeah. I think you’re wrong about Porter and Katz and their naïveté, cultivating a kind of naïveté. I think Katz is one of the deftest painters we’ve got.
PL Oh yeah, I don’t mean in any sense non-professional. But for instance, his application of more or less flat color in areas seems more like an abstracting device than what you’re doing.
RD You know, Katz, I heard him once say to somebody, See how little will hold the form. Which is a beautiful phrase and I think explains a lot of the flatness in his painting. He’ll try to get the whole face with one flush of color and hit it here and here; and you’ve got the whole face. That kind of economy is part of a sophisticated art form. I think in Porter’s case too that Porter was very interested in something that I would call inscape like Hopkins uses—the internal character of a form. So he would actually deliberately make an elbow stick out, because he felt that the elbow was pointed. So you know, that had a strange awkwardness to it that was quite deliberate. He writes about that in one of his favorite painters Nicolas Vasiliev, how Vasiliev did this to the figure, and how it controls the humor of the figure or whatever Vasiliev is trying to do, you know whatever kind of mood he’s trying to create. So I don’t—
PL I don’t know if you saw this article by Sanford Schwartz that was a review of the Fairfield Porter show in the New York Review of Books. But he was put off by what he felt was this awkwardness that he felt in Fairfield Porter’s work. So there still is this problem of, Why or what is that?
RD I think that Sandy’s a fabulous writer and his piece on Catlin right now is absolutely brilliant. But I think he’s got that wrong.
PL But I still want to say—I don’t want to nag you, but I want to push you a little bit more. I feel that in some ways a lot of your rationale for your approach as a figurative artist, realist artist—I’m using these as shorthands—is you’ve written very well about primitivists like John Kane and you’ve expressed an interested in primitivists, but your work is not primitive.
RD No. It can’t be. How can it be? I have three degrees.
RD You know when they introduce these primitive painters, all the writers on naïve painting always say, I walked down this street in a little village in Florida. I found this barber. He had these paintings in the back.
You go down the street to that barber shop to prove that he didn’t have a degree, to prove that he didn’t know what he was doing. It is a guarantee that this guy is a real natural! He ain’t a trained singer; he just has a pure natural gift. That is what that writing is about I think. So I’m a sophisticated artist. I’ve been around. I know what’s going on. I know about drawing lessons. I know there’s a guy up at lead, teaching anatomy and so on. So no I’m not a naïve painter, but John Kane introduced me to painting in a certain spirit which was an innocence of spirit about the situation in which he lived in. I mean, he was a guy who would not go on strike. He didn’t like strikes. Even though he got his leg chopped of in a terrible accident, an industrial accident, which he really should have sued for…He put on a peg leg, and he learned to dance a jig with his peg leg. You know, he was just one of those up-and-fight-‘em guys. He painted a sentimental painting of Andrew Carnegie’s house. He went for the whole thing. When I see Pittsburgh painted by John Kane, I see a certain view of Pittsburgh which is a wonderful, wonderful counterattack by… the guy who did the abstractions of the Brooklyn Bridge—[Joseph] Stella!
RD —which are highly critical of industrialization. Do you see what I mean? And for me they gave me that amazing feeling when you get to Pittsburgh, and you say, Boy! These are America’s biceps! Look at those mills putting out!
It’s just you get a tremendous kind of buzz off that. I did. I think it’s an extraordinary thing. I know, I’m an environmentalist too; I have other takes on it. It’s not an undiluted take, but it’s part of it. It is part of it.
PL You definitely have an attraction to the industrial and to the creations of engineering. A lot of your paintings—like we saw some of these paintings about the Gowanus Expressway and the elevated subway, which is nearby where I live, I happened to find it very beautiful; but I thought I was very alone in finding it beautiful, because it’s also hideous on another level, you know, especially to have to live with the Gowanus Expressway which they keep threatening, or promising, to tear down. I’m going to read a passage from your Gowanus journal where you come across it for the first time. I’m not going to read the sex parts. Don’t worry. I won’t embarrass you.
This is at the beginning of the—Rackstraw kept a journal about painting these paintings, but also painting the razor-wire paintings that you saw toward the end. Here he’s talking about taking the train to Smith Street, the F train, which I know well.
So I got off at Smith Street and wandered around. Last year I started two oil sketches near there, which might be worth continuing with. So I looked at these sites unimpressed, possible but not alluring. Last week I went to the Bronx to see the Urban Mythology Show; and though I have sometimes called myself a sociological rather than a landscape painter, I realized I had not been, as the curators are, interested in the sociology of the Bronx at all. Not the fortunes or misfortunes of the inhabitants, not the dereliction or the rehabilitation of the neighborhood. It was a wonderful mix of the topography, of engineering, transportation. It’s a fantasy combination of all these elements of urbanization, a spectacular combination: the river, railroad tracks, artisan shacks and shanties, bluffs, locks, landmarks, towers, bridges, clover leafs. The subject in a way is a vantage point: the Washington Bridge as a lookout point, a belvedere, onto countless elements that make up city life. It’s the panoramic point of view as a Whitman, where the individual life counts for little, but the collective life is an extraordinary meal of endless courses, rich. So what I’m doing that’s mystery? It’s the two great elevated systems: the subway overhead on one hand, the highway on the other. Two types of L, I think I could get them both on one picture. Could I? I think of Gerhard Richter who said there are no single images anymore, and I think of how annoyed I was with him. But perhaps with his thoughts quietly marinating in my unconscious, I made a seven part painting including six different views of objects at [the Chinati Foundation in Texas]. It occurred to me that I would make not one panorama combining the two hells, but a pair of images with one hell in each. I sat down and tried to draw the underside of the supporting structure of the Smith Street L with a minute vignette of the Gowanus Expressway off in the distance. It was an apathetic performance, unconvinced and half-hearted. I soon got up from the very uncomfortable curb I was punishing my ass on and walked off. I approached McDonald’s from the rear. Here was the subject, the golden arches, very dark and beautiful and austere against the light, everything, the lampposts, the L with its tiny progress of vehicles, and its tall slender piers, always crisp, sharp like a new photographer would make it. One of the new contingency guides…. The colors are crisp too. I’m thinking of working there with the easel I have with me would be hard. I walk on, planning to try this some other day. I walk along a U-shaped walk, ending up again under the Smith Street station but on the other side of the Gowanus Canal. Here are interesting things again that support a structure, and later on another view of it with the new drawbridge not quite finished.
Anyway, you go on to say….
There are two tenses juxtaposed: one is funky steel covered with concrete to preserve the steel and the bridge is sleek. But the water, the old tires on the banks, the reeds—it’s all too known and sweet, too sentimental, the urban grunge picturesque all over. I move on, restless, slow, unexcited, but quietly curious.
It’s a passage which raises a lot of issues. It’s sort of the interest and then the kind of rejecting, No this has been done before. It’s too sentimental. We don’t want it to be urban grunge. So it sounds like you’re after something that captures the heroism of engineering in a way—but isn’t sentimental—that captures the overlapping of everything, you know? The panorama…. There’s a lot of ideas thrown out on that. So let’s start with engineering, why do these big structures interest you?
RD Well, you know the very representational paintings that were in those slides, there were only two or three of them, but they were all rural stuff. They were all from Maine. I was very interested in the life lived in Maine, very interested. I liked the farmers and their extreme modesty in their lifestyle; and I felt that their modesty and their carefulness about materials made the landscape [that was in Maine] possible. It was in terrific shape. You could go down a stream and catch a fish. It wasn’t…it wouldn’t make you sick, that fish. The stream was still babbling, and it was clear as a bell. That was partly because these guys weren’t greedy. They weren’t ambitious. That interests me a great deal, that style of life. However I have to admit that I did have artistic ambitions. I spent three months of the year in Maine, and nine months in New York. I wasn’t going to give up the excitement of the urban situation. I began to see all that kind of greener-than-thou stuff by the young people that moved in, to have a kind of hypocritical edge to it actually. Or a slightly self-righteous edge at least
PL The next person that moves in here is the spoiler.
RD Yeah, yeah.
PL I’m the last conserver.
RD I mean, yes, exactly. I think I had to acknowledge the fact and they do too, that, of course, they had electricity. And it actually came from the nuke plant on the coast. It’s very difficult to lead a truly ethical life. I also found that during in the summers in Maine—I was living in my own house, raising vegetables during the summertime. One summer I rented an apartment in Portland, Maine, and suddenly I did twice as much work, because I had nothing to do around my house. I didn’t have to look after my own place!
Now you have to resolve these things in your imagery, you see. Your imagery has to say something about this. We have to own the landscape we make. There’s a lot of dumps. I show two dumps: the dump at Fresh Kills and the dump in Meadowlands in those slides. And I painted those dumps because that’s where it all ends up! It’s my trash! It’s your trash! It’s our trash! We have to earn that dump. We are the civilization that’s created more, the more trash, than any other in history of mankind. Our populations going to double by the year 2015. What are we going to do with all this garbage? Where are all those computers going to? What are we—we have to deal!
PL The 21st-century is about garbage, yeah.
RD Yeah, we have to deal with that stuff! My imagery addresses itself that! Not because I love those dumps particularly. But there is also something beautiful about those dumps when I was painting those dumps in New Jersey, in the Meadowlands, two little boys came up to me.
We’re snake hunting down here, they say, all the great snakes are out here. But you know what? they say, This dump—this picture’s great! And my daddy drives a dump truck, and he’s going to be up on the top of that dump in a minute! Will you put his truck in for me?
And I realized, you know—these guys are called “garbage farmers” that run those dumps. They’re farmers! Garbage farmers! They’re farming garbage! Those things are called the Carney Alps. They’re from the town of Carney. Carney Alps! These people have a sense of humor about these things. They live it out, and they have an emotional investment in these structures. And you realize that that’s part of it too. It’s part of our society. I probably threw some of my junk in that dump. I can’t turn my back on that and say that’s not good.
PL So do you—is there any sense of difference between a landscape and a cityscape?
RD No. I don’t think there’s any such difference. No. That’s a very interesting question. I think that there’s a polarity between the two, but the dividing line is unfindable in our society, just about.
PL So do you think this is kind of more of an English or an American way of looking at it?
RD I just think it’s a realistic way of looking at things.
PL The reason why I say is because, I guess, the American, the Hudson River School, there is a tendency to idealize a landscape. Whereas in England they are much more conscious, and in Europe they are much more conscious that the landscape has been worked forever. It’s a work landscape. The economy, the sense of, for want of a better term, class struggle is very apparent in the way in how cultivated it is. So they can’t pretend—they can’t begin to pretend that there was a completely untouched place in….
RD Right, right.
PL So you’re bringing that awareness which is like Raymond Williams in “The Country or The City”, Cobbett’s “Raw Roads” you’re bringing that awareness of the land use—
RD It’s used. Every inch is used. Like in Italy, you see those gardens. That horticulture is 40-year-old horticulture. You start with the plant at the bottom, then you grow an elm tree, then you…the vine grows up the elm tree, and you’ve got four-tiered gardening. That is…that’s understood better. And my friend here in the audience tonight, lent me Johnson’s Tour of the Hebrides, and he talks about these islands being so inviting. Then he gets to the island. He takes a boat out the island. He says there’s nothing there but naked nature!
That’s nothing! You see, to me that’s the opposite of [Albert] Beirstadt going off the West to find naked nature, or even [Rodolphe] Bresden, the French etcher who came to the United States to find forests. I think the New World issue is an issue, and I think it has affected people’s perspectives on nature and horticulture and its relationship.
PL But you’re interested in—what’s your interest in panorama? Why panorama? I mean when you think of certain painters like Welliver or Robert Dash, they’re getting into the middle of it in a very myopic way, whereas you want to step back and be panoramic. What is that?
RD Stepping back is an interesting issue. Yeah, I think that’s part of it. But there is some psychological desire to step back and get a view of the whole thing. I think that’s true. And then I think there’s another issue, which is context. I don’t want to show anything without its context. So if I’m painting that river in the Bronx, you know that Harlem River in the Bronx, I want to show that George Washington’s high school is on top of the bridge there. I want to show that the cloverleaf comes in down here, and you enter it from a street in the Bronx. So I keep looking to left and right, because it contextualizes everything. You learn that from organic gardening. Immediately, you learn that all you have to do is put a little drip of something over here, and it kills your plants. Everything affects everything else. If you use a little DDT, it ends up in the North Pole. So there is some idea…. I wanted to deal at whole—
PL You look at this and collected that. It keeps adding. You keep adding pieces of canvas because you think—
RD That’s right. Henry James said relations never cease. They don’t! You know you go from this, this joins to that, and then it joins to that, and so on.
PL But if I may quote Rackstraw Downes—
PL You have a comment about Whitman that Whitman is a figure of the panoramic and also the democratic. And then you go on and say that he address these poems to Dia Camarato while is oddly un-individualized, impersonal, unnamed. And then you say, That’s the price of the panoramic view. It precludes acute and intimate focus. So in that sense do you think this is—I don’t want to put on the spot saying psychologically—but do you think that this reflects something in your personality that precludes acute and intimate focus?
RD I don’t know. I don’t know. You know, Adam Zagajewsky, the poet, says that it’s not the agenda, it’s not the tendency of the work, it’s not the intention of the work, it’s the manner of speaking. It’s the tone of voice, and the poet can’t know that. We can’t know ourselves like that, and I know it’s true. There are all kind of things in your work that you won’t…that you can’t… that you did not intend, but that’s not wrong. It’s simply your psychic energy that’s bubbling up there.
PL It seems like you want the long view, and a lot of your panoramic paintings have this kind of wide-screen proportion, which I think of as cinema-scope proportion, which is much wider than they are high.
RD That’s true.
PL Why do you favor that proportion?
RD Well there are a number of reasons. In the first instance, I am interested in what connects to what. I’m interested in what man has done to the landscape so I’m not very interested in painting the sky. So I never paint a high sky. I seldom paint a high sky.
PL And also you have problems painting a sky sometimes.
RD That I certainly do. I think that you learn to deal. I think you should never paint defensively, that is to say, I’m not very good at painting the sky, therefore I’m not going to go out and practice skies! I don’t like the sky! Screw the sky! Chop it off!!
You cultivate your talents, not your lack of talents.
PL Yes, you tilt your limitations away from the viewer.
RD That is right. Then schoolmaster talks, Go learn to paint skies, little boy.
That’s no good. Let’s just stick it to the schoolmaster.
PL But do you also think that a high sky is somehow more an opening for sentimentality?
RD No, no, no. There are some high skies in there. When I went to paint some radio tower down in Texas, I painted a very high sky. That painting is square. It’s as high as it is long.
PL But there are very few that are longer than they are wide.
RD That’s true. I think that—that’s very true. There are very few that are long as they are wide.
PL You know, Fritz Lang once said that—
RD —but that doesn’t—wait a minute now, let me finish here. You know, if you were to look up and paint a very tall painting, that would be a panorama too.
RD It’d just be a panorama in a vertical dimension. Rob Stone made a beautiful show at the MoMA one time. He had…. They were all long-view. They were called long paintings like this but he had a Berenice Abbott photograph that was a long column, a tall column, like…. That also is a long view, just as panoramic.
PL I do have to tell you that Fritz Lang once said that widescreen was good for nothing but snakes and funerals.
RD Tarkovsky didn’t agree with that, did he?
PL No, no. I actually like a widescreen.
RD Did you see that new print of the Tarkovsky. The Alexander—“Andrei Rublev”.
PL Yeah, I’ve seen it.
RD Unbelievable, those are the best panoramas I’ve seen. They were incredible.
PL Yeah, he understood panorama.
RD He did.
PL But I wanted to talk a little bit about this issue of illustration. Because that was the big bug about…. It was certainly in the ‘60s, you know, if you wanted to put down and artist, he was [called] an illustrator. So anyone who was in figurative realistic was afraid of being called an illustrator. So how did you grapple with that? What do think about that charge anyway?
RD I think of Neil Welliver down in Pennsylvania. You know, a student said to him, I’m worried. I’m worried if I’m just an illustrator.
He said, Illustrate!
RD He said, Mix your brush up with lots of wet paint and just go illustrate!
And, of course, you do that, and you don’t illustrate. And illustration—I mean, the idea to get past illustration is a great question of energy. It’s a great question of intensity and drive and a sense of the whole. Then you’re not an illustrator. That’s all. But nowadays, there’s a lot of what I would call “partial art.” Look at those beautiful paintings by Toba Khedoori at the MoMA right now. Are they illustrations? Well, you would have said so 30 years ago. She takes a tiny detail of a room and puts in the middle of a 14-foot square… you know, 14 × 14 foot piece of paper. Then you have this tiny thing, and it activates the whole thing! You feel this incredible intensity, and you don’t object to illustration anymore. Those are taste things, and they change.
PL Yeah, so you think they have changed.
RD Totally changed. Totally changed. Yeah.
PL And what about narrative? I mean do you consider yourself a storyteller?
RD Definitely, I think I tell a lot of stories about the site. Yes, I do. When I show slides of my work, usually all I do is tell stories about the site. And I did that once at Dartmouth, and a guy got up in the audience and said, I’m sick of your stories! Can’t you say something about your art?
But I said, My art comes from an interest in those stories and why I’ve developed it. I was very interested in the early years of the early 1970s in the rehabilitation of the detail. I need the detail to tell the stories. I was painting a chicken house in Maine. There were 140 windows in that chicken house. In every window, there was a light bulb turned on in the middle of the day. That’s how they get those chickens to grow faster. They never turn the lights out. They never go to sleep those chickens. They lead a miserable life. You know, I’m a vegetarian. When my fellows at the table say, Well, at least you eat chicken! I say, Least of all I eat chicken, because they have the lousiest life of any animals. But you know, I was telling a story about those henhouses by putting in each light bulb. That was an idea. So you get to detail, because you have something to say.
PL You don’t work from photographs, right?
RD I’ve never worked from photographs.
PL So it’s very important for you to go out in the midday sun and use your eyes….
RD Like a liner, you mean. It is. I like to use my eyes. You know, I was painting, and I showed a picture of some cows here around a farm pond. I made that in 1972. I went to paint that farm pond, and I didn’t know the cows would be there. The farmer milked very late in the morning; so during the hours that I was there his cows would get milked. He would come out of the pond and they [the cows] would go for a dip in the pond. It was a hot week in July, and then they’d go down the pasture to graze. This only took about three minutes, and I wanted those cows in that pond. I couldn’t—I wasn’t quick enough to paint them. So I went to town, and I bought a Polaroid camera. I took some snapshots of those cows coming out. I looked at the damn things [the pictures]. First of all, out of this camera came this disgusting package of white goo. I thought, This is revolting; I am never going to take another Polaroid picture. But then I looked at the shots that had been developed in there, and the cows legs are in positions I have never seen. And we all know about that famous bet between the governor of Pennsylvania and somebody in My Bridge photographs that would settle the bet. It was only by photography that they settled the bet as to whether horses had all four feet on the ground at any one moment. The camera sees much faster than us. So the camera arranged the site in a spatial arrangement that I don’t see. It was completely different from the way I perceived it. So I gave that camera away to my next-door neighbor’s son, and I learned to draw.
PL How do you deal with the changes—you learned to draw, you just did it yourself? I mean did anybody….
RD I did. I did. You know what I did? I went straight over to a neighbor of mine who had cows. I said, Got any cows in your barn chained up so they can’t move?
He said, Yeah.
So I went in the barn and drew these cows which were chained up so they couldn’t move, until I got pretty good at cows. Jim Lawl can confirm that because he was there last summer. He saw this going on. And I have the drawings, at first they were stiff as hell and had measurements and everything. Is this cow wide as it is tall? Is it taller than it is wide? You know all that stuff. It was difficult, but eventually I got it.
PL So how do you deal with painting a landscape day after day when the landscape changes? Since you’re so interested in change and land, do you suppose…you come back and not only are the cows not there but the farm’s not there.
RD Yeah, well that does happen, and it can be a very anxiety-producing existence in a way. It’s a problem. I’m painting, working right now. There’s a lot of grass in the painting I’m doing right now. I started the painting last year in the late summer and into fall when there was a drought! The grass was all yellow. This year, we’ve had fantastic rain since Labor Day, an immense amount of rain. The reservoirs are all full. They’d be down by 19 inches [the year before]. That grass is all green this year. You have problems, and those problems keep you on your toes. They’re excellent problems! (laughter) I couldn’t be a still life painter, because, you know, it would just sit there for me! Too obedient! You know what I mean? I want someone to get up and say, Hey, I’m not down. Screw you. I’m going to give you a hard time.
I’m up to the challenge. I want to do it, you know.
PL Yeah, you mentioned how there was a pile of scrap metal that you were trying to paint. It was sent off to the Japanese, and suddenly there was no pile of scrap metal.
RD That’s right. That’s right.
PL So what did you do with those smudges on the painting?
RD The scrap metal pile disappeared. The top of the pile disappeared. So I piled that metal over a fence, and I concentrated on the fence. And I made a tour de force painting of the fence, through which you could see just a little bit of the operation of that scrap metal going inside. Because the fence was perforated, the wind would go through it, you know? And you could just get a vague thing. And I thought, Now those Japanese guys that bought that scrap metal did me a big favor, because I did something I never would have dreamed of painting if they hadn’t taken that pile away.
PL So you keep adjusting….
RD Yes. I do.
PL It seems very important, in knowing you and reading the things you say, that you want to—you don’t want to conceptualize beforehand; you want to be open to accident. And this is perhaps the jazz lover in you, but you want to keep improvising in a way. Because on the one hand you are extremely intellectual, on the other hand you don’t want to have thought out a painting too much before you start painting it.
RD That’s right. That’s true.
PL You know, it’s not a contradiction. It’s just who you are.
RD I don’t think it’s a contradiction. I think Fairfield Porter was the same. He was a terrific intellectual, much more than I am. He started with Whitehead and all that, kept reading philosophy until the end of his life. I think he thought out his position but didn’t think at the easel. He thought in advance, you see what I mean? My position is not to think at the easel, but to go with the shapes, to try to identify with them in an instinctual way. I think that’s part of his painting. I think there’s a deliberate ruling out. You know, you could say Puissant is a very intellectual constructor of paintings. Fairfield’s paintings are not constructed like Puissant. They’re happenings, I think… sort of happening paintings.
PL And you want your paintings to be that way too, or no?
RD I’m a good deal more thought-out in my paintings than Fairfield is. No, I go through a long phase of preparation. I make many drawings of the site; when I’ve got the drawing that I think is the right one, then I make an oil sketch. I work on the oil sketch for many days too; sometimes 8 or 10 days I work on that sketch. Until I feel I’ve got all the objects in the right place, and I’ve got the scale. The scale is the most important thing of all. Then I determined the dimensions of the big painting from that. So there’s a much more conscious preparation, I would say, than in Fairfield. Fairfield told me—I don’t know if this is really true—but he told me that he never went back to a site, because the weather would never be the same, the light would never be the same. My light is much more generalized than Fairfield’s, much more. And it has to be, because I’m interested in all those little details. It would take me months and months to paint them in.
PL But does that mean that you are… If you’re painting a painting that’s in sunny conditions that you basically keep going back when it’s sunny… or….?
RD Mostly, yes. In the early stages I can use a lot of different light conditions, because you’re organizing the masses, let’s say. You want to know where the power plant sits; you shift it a little to the left, a little to the right. It doesn’t matter whether it’s sunny or grey. But as the painting comes further along and you’re working on the light and how much light you really want in the painting, then the number of hours I work gets shorter and shorter and the number of days I’m going to work on gets fewer and fewer, because the light then has to be very specific.
PL I was reading on one account where you said that you were working on two paintings, and you were clever enough to have one under rainy conditions and one under sunny conditions. So no matter what happened, you could go to work.
RD Right, right. That’s right. That’s the standard thing. Yeah. And also on that Gowanus painting, I worked on different sides of the expressway, so I was always in the shade. On the morning I was on the shady side; in the afternoon I went to the other side, and I was in the shade again. It was summertime in the painting, and it was hot as hell under there.
PL Well, I’d like to open the discussion up to some questions and comments if there are any in the audience. So, I mean I could just keep going on and on, but I’ve got no signal…. Yes!
Audience member (question inaudible)
PL I should paraphrase, because people in the back are not going to be able to hear the question. So, the question was very complicated, but it had to with Rackstraw’s quoting Gerard Manley’s use of the term inscape. It had to do with the spiritual and with putting a man in front of cosmic forces of nature. Do you want to say anything?
RD Well I’m not sure that’s how Hopkins used the word inscape. I’m not sure I agree with you about that. Hopkins to me—Inscape and Hopkins—is spiritual energy, but it’s revealed in a specific shape or form. Yeah, and I think that’s what Fairfield Porter was trying to do when he made these elbows stick out too much that Philip was talking about.
Audience member (inaudible)
RD Come up here! Take the [microphone].
Audience member (inaudible)
PL I’m going to have to cut you off. I like the idea of the urban Emerson, but my head is spinning. Do we have any other questions? The lady in the front, yes?
Audience member 2 (inaudible)
PL How long do you spend on each painting Rackstraw?
RD Yeah, well that’s…. Months. Months. My production ends up being four or five full-sized paintings a year. Then a lot of oil paintings and a lot of sketches to go with them. So somewhere between two or three months usually for a big painting, for a full-sized painting. Yeah. Not always done consecutively though. It could be…you know, because you only go 15 days in a month when the weather was wrong for it, you do some of that three months of this season and then some of them next season.
Audience member 3 (inaudible)
RD You think they do look like that or you want them to look like that?
Audience member 3 (inaudible)
RD I think it would be fabulous if they did, yeah. But you can’t hide it. You can’t hide the fact that it’s a long-term painting. I think that anyone’s going to get that. If you look at one of the oil sketches, it’d take two or three days. Then you look at it next to a finished painting, I think you’d see immediately that there’s a huge difference. You’d be able to tell. You’d be able to tell.
As artists, we have to find the antidote to this darkness right now, to how everything feels so compressed rather than expanded.