Downes is a painter whose work I don't dislike, but in which I have only a little interest. I don't even know why I bought the book. Maybe it was theDownes is a painter whose work I don't dislike, but in which I have only a little interest. I don't even know why I bought the book. Maybe it was the unusually modest but extremely handsome format--it's like a blank mass-market paperback untouched by an art director. And I totally judge books by their covers.
Downes wrote for ARTnews, Art in America, The New Criterion, Bomb and other publications. His writing is often epigrammatic. (The long preface by John Elderfield is irritating because it quotes so many of Downes' best lines that the reader is about to read for himself. It's like serving the dessert first.) Writing about Charles Burchfield in 1970, he drops this line: "But although the vanguard is presumed to march in the name of freedom and originality, to some artists its revolutions tend to look distinctly like the palace variety, with built in exclusions as rigid as those of the academic whipping-boy it presupposes." Downes is a brilliant defender of a reactionary aesthetic. And by "brilliant," I mean he is an unusually good writer--the sentence above is a perfect example. He employs humor "the palace variety" and inverts the revolutionary program of modernism. He points out that modernism was invented in the name of freedom from the stultifying conventions of academic painting but had at some point become increasingly rigid and puritanical. And even though we can say we are in a post-modern period, our revolutions still seem to be "of the palace variety." Regardless of how social "social practice" art is, for example, the only people who concern themselves much with it enough to read books about it are art insiders like me.
Downes managed to make me think differently. It wasn't a drastic change; let's just say it made me appreciate Neil Welliver a little more and Barnett Newman a little less. And that's nothing to sneeze at! But more important to me as a committed hedonist was that reading Nature and Art Are Physical was pleasurable. Downes comes out of a literary background--he studied literature before switching to art. This shines through both in his elegant writing style and his erudite use of literary examples as well as artistic examples to explain his arguments. I like that he can easily analogize between different art forms.
For example, he wrote an article about Claude Lorrain. He quote the great English landscape artist John Constable on Claude, an artist that Constable revered: "Claude's exhilaration and light departed from him when he was between 50 and 60, and then he became a professor of the 'higher walks of art' . . . so difficult it is to be natural." Then Downes recalls that Paul Valéry, in comparing the poet's means to the composer's suggests that a poet uses the constantly shifting and evolving substance of human speech while a composer uses a set of specific sounds, "counted and classified," that are quite distinct from noise. (Keep in mind that Valéry was writing this 100 years ago or so).
So, "if the nature painter, who tries to respond directly to whatever is in view, might be said to resemble the poet in Valéry's comparison, Claude increasingly resembles the composer. His drawing expeditions to the Campagna decreased sharply after the age of 50 . . ." Claude's later works were constructed by looking at elements of his earlier work.
What I love about this small section in a longer piece about Claude is the effortless way Downes brings together three artists (Claude, Constable and Valéry) and three art forms (painting, music and poetry) into a tight and perceptive critical insight.
Likewise, Downes' essay "Henri Rousseau and the Idea of the Naïve" was a revelation because could connect naïve art (i.e., "outsider" art--the shifting nomenclature of this kind of art was noted by Gary Fine in his book Everyday Genius) to Schiller's essay "Naïve and Sentimental Poetry," where Schiller compares poets who seek nature with poets who are nature. Given that this is a subject of long interest to me (since the 80s when I first saw work by Henry Darger and Adolf Wölflli), I found Downes' long meditation on the subject eye-opening and fresh--or as fresh as an essay from 1975 about German poetry can be. But this, not surprisingly, is typical of Downes. He writes in "What the Sixties Meant to Me" that the Hegelian or Marxist idea of dialectical progress was a category error in Modernist theory, and that artists often make their personal breakthroughs by looking into the past instead of the future. ...more