Pinnacle

Thomas Downing
SAC 1989.1

acrylic on canvas

1980

46 x 96 inches

117 x 244 centimeters

Gift of Jerry Crowley

about the work

According to his wife, Downing always painted on the floor. He would  dilute the paint with water and lay raw canvas flat across the floor  stapling it down, afterwards soaking the canvas in the paint to create  his characteristically vivid, hard-edged fields of color. Pinnacle is an  excellent example of this method. Like so much of Downing’s work, it  is, more than anything else, a visual record of the monumental,  uncompromising stubbornness and dedication with which he pursued his  craft. In the words of former Corcoran director James Harithas, “He  stayed much closer to the original idea [of the Washington Color School]  than any of the others. Every time we met we talked of the same thing –  the spirituality of color.”

about the artist

Tom Downing once wrote “that which is properly termed art is cultivated  through the practice of timelessness.” Grandiose pronouncements like  this - statements about art as a whole, often made in the style of  formulas, were characteristic of the period of American art in which  Downing came of age. Compare the obscurity and vaguely religious flavor  of Downing’s statement to Clement Greenberg, -“realistic, naturalistic  art had dissembled the medium, using art to conceal art; Modernism used  art to call attention to art”, or to seminal minimalist Donald Judd, “I  think the [art] experience involves a certain immediacy between you and  the canvas, you and the particular kind of experience of that particular  moment.”  


Downing, like many mid-twentieth century American painters, was  searching for a new approach to art-making by experimenting with  different ways to use traditional mediums. Part of this experimentation  was with the philosophical underpinnings of their work - thus the  strange verbage recounted above. Mid-century artists had a tendency,  although they often thought of and spoke of themselves as ascetics, to  describe art in dramatic terms. But their work itself was quite  authentically ascetic. The work of well known artists from this period  such as Judd, Stella, etc. can be described without exception as hard,  austere, and rigorous. Although Downing was as dedicated as these more  famous painters, he never had their visibility, and his work never  commanded similar prices.  


Downing was a mercurial character who frequently argued with jurors and  gallerists over how his work ought to be perceived and exhibited,  sometimes even coming to blows. At times he would refuse to sell his  works at any price, while at others he practically gave it away. In 1964  he had been one of a select group of artists chosen to exhibit in the  Sao Paulo Biennale, an exhibition which catapulted Judd, Stella, and  Barnett Newman, among others, to stardom. But Downing unexpectedly  declined the juror’s invitation to exhibit at the Biennale and as a  result worked in relative obscurity for the rest of his life.