An exhibition like this seemed almost inevitable.

A year since winning a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant, artist Rackstraw Downes is the subject of a sweeping new solo exhibition that includes a healthy selection of his cinematic views of the Maine landscape.

“Rackstraw Downes: Onsite Paintings, 1972-2008” opens today and remains on view through March 20 at the Portland Museum of Art. It’s the museum’s major winter exhibition.

The show features more than 30 works, including many large canvases that Downes completed when he lived in Maine in the 1970s and 1980s. There’s also work from New York City and vast panoramas that Downes completed near his current home near Presidio, Texas.

Born British, he started out as an abstract painter. Downes now paints highly realistic urban and rural scenes, and he often takes viewers to places populated by man-made and natural objects — Portland’s Back Cove on a rainy day, its slick blacktop streets glistening; the mouth of the river at Belfast, with a bridge overhead and train tracks off to the side.

Susan Danly, curator of contemporary art at the PMA, was surprised when she learned that this exhibition, organized by the Parrish Art Museum in Southhampton, N.Y., is the first survey show dedicated to examining Downes’ career.

“He really hasn’t had anything until now,” Danly said. “He rose to prominence at the same time as the photo-realists, and I think he got lumped into that group. As that group went out of favor, people stopped paying attention.”

But Downes, 70, is not a photo-realist painter. He paints with precision, and adheres to the principle of painting only what you see, good and bad.

But Danly detects a great deal of abstraction and minimalism in his work. He uses architectural elements such as farm buildings and barn roofs as geometry, setting up his paintings to be read from multiple perspectives.

“He paints the landscape, but from a very cognizant approach to painting the landscape. He’s not just recording what’s out there, but a conceptual approach to what’s out there,” Danly said.

Downes began his drift away from abstraction after arriving in Maine in the early 1960s, soon after receiving a master’s degree in fine arts from Yale. He came at the suggestion of Alex Katz, who was his teacher at Yale. He bought a farm near Belfast and began painting minutely detailed plein-air landscapes.

“His whole formation of landscape painting occurred here in Maine, ” Danly said. “When he moved here, he was abstract. But he changed.”

Downes completes most of his work outdoors. The sky always seems to play a major role in his work, and Downes is particularly aware of the edges of his paintings. The activity is not necessarily concentrated in the middle of the picture.

He stayed in Maine for 20 years, then moved to New York. He now works in Texas and rarely paints in Maine anymore, although he shows up to teach now and again. He has deep associations with the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture.

Downes won the MacArthur genius grant in 2009. It’s a $500,000 prize with no obligations.

“I will use the award to continue my work without thinking about money anymore,” Downes told The Portland Press Herald after he won the award.

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at:

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