The badlands of New Jersey unfold across the valley that rolls between the green foothills of the northern suburbs and the urban canyons along the Hudson River, a landscape much traveled but little seen. It’s an industrial prairie, sparsely settled, crossed by black rivers and shimmering wires and looping ganglia of highways and railroads. Hulking steel towers and cranes rise from the marsh grass and muck. If our entire state were some unzoned rural township, this would be the swath of it where old washing machines spend their afterlife.
For all their large and pungent presence, the badlands lurk mostly in the background of our lives. We park in them for Giants games and Springsteen concerts. We gaze idly into them from the smoky windows of commuter buses and trains. We try to pick out familiar landmarks within them as they roll past on the opening credits of The Sopranos.
Outsiders who see less of the badlands tend to pay them more heed. For travelers passing through them along the Turnpike, the badlands are a sulphurous first and sometimes only impression of the Garden State. But for Rackstraw Downes, one of America’s most acclaimed and collected artists, they were the reason to come to New Jersey in the first place. Looking out that bus or train window one sunny day over the last couple of decades, you might have seen Downes at work down in the badlands, a slender, improbable figure bent over an easel, stippling a wide, narrow canvas with a watch-maker’s precision, chasing the light on the side of a refinery storage tank, devoting weeks to capturing an image that in an instant had flickered past you unseen.
In his mid-sixties now, Downes is an eminence of the New York art world. Last year Princeton University Press collected his greatest hits into a volume so sumptuous and seductive, the editors at Amazon.com, describing it as “an overdue and elegant tribute” to “a true ‘artist’s artist,’ ” picked it as 2005’s top art book. “It might seem odd that a brilliant realist painter would choose to spend months working on a seven-foot-long canvas of a boring stretch of the New Jersey Turnpike,” they wrote. “But in Rackstraw Downes’ hands, ordinary or unappealing elements of the American landscape suddenly seem worthy of close attention.”
Downes was born in England to actor parents—his father taught Laurence Olivier to fence—but came to America to study and then stayed. He attended graduate school at Yale in the early 1960s with a whole constellation of future art stars—Chuck Close, Richard Serra, and Brice Marden among the students; Alex Katz, Al Held, and Neil Welliver among the teachers—and, like most of them, he believed devoutly in abstraction. But not long after graduation, while living in New York, he went into Central Park and started painting trees. “I want to paint exactly the way something is,” he once said, “find the beauty in that.”
He doesn’t paint in the studio from photographs, as many contemporary realists do, but lugs 50 pounds of equipment out into the world to paint what he finds there. His method is called en plein air, French for in the open air, a term that implies dallying among wildflowers on a Provence hillside. Where he finds beauty, though, is in the unloved precincts the rest of us ignore. He lived for twenty years in Maine, where he painted not waves crashing against a rocky coast, but the Penobscot Poultry Company service garage in Belfast and the rock-crushing operation at the Dragon Cement Plant in Thomaston. He’s painted oil fields and scrub prairie in Texas and gritty street scenes in New York City. “Abandoned land- and trashscapes may be the wildest spots we have left, since wild land is protected,” Downes once wrote of his subjects.
Collectors have snapped up his work and critics have praised it. His paintings hang in America’s finest halls of art, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan. His last exhibit in New Jersey was presented at the Walker-Kornbluth Gallery in Fair Lawn in 1990. “A realist esteemed by people, including me, who normally have scant use for realism in art,” the New Yorker’s art critic Peter Schjeldahl wrote of him. “He is the bard of weeds.”
A quarter-century ago, Downes started finding some of his best subjects in New Jersey. His canvas had been growing wider and wider into long, narrow, scroll-like panoramas. Because Manhattan is a vertical landscape, a friend suggested he cross the Hudson, to the widest skies nearest Manhattan: the great plains of the Turnpike. And thus came such works as The Butane Spheres at Bayway (1984), A Bend in the Hackensack at Jersey City (1986), and the ten-foot-wide U.S. Scrap Metal Gets Shipped for Reprocessing in Southeast Asia, Jersey City (1994).
And when Downes set up his easel in 1996 beside an S-bend in an elevated section of the Turnpike, he painted that epic sweeping arc of concrete and steel with the same precise love for light and color and form that John Constable once lavished on Salisbury Cathedral. He made it what it had always been, but also what we had barely noticed—what we might have seen for ourselves were we able to look at it through his eyes. He made it our cathedral.
Contributing writer Kevin Coyne teaches journalism at Columbia University.