The New Yorkers: Susanna Heller, Karlis Rekevics and Rackstraw Downes

Eyes on the City: Drawings by Susanna Heller and Karlis Rekevics at New York Studio School, June 8 – July 16, 2023 / On-Site, Major paintings by Rackstraw Downes & Stanley Lewis at Betty Cunningham, April 29 – July 28, 2023

Susanna Heller, “Tunnel Entrance” (1998) Mixed media on paper, 11.25 x 9 inches

What happened was that after my painter friend and I saw the show at the Studio School we headed down to the Lower East Side and it was so hot we decided to stop in at Betty Cunningham and there we stayed in the AC on a couch (bless her!) discussing these three remarkable artists who take new York as their subject.

(Stanley Lewis is a wonderful painter but too rural for our theme.)

Susanna Heller was always in motion. I wonder if there is an inch of New York pavement that she didn’t cross or stand and draw on. She wanted to draw everything in the city all at once and devised this beautiful stenography to do it. She covered the waterfront; she took aerial views; I remember some remarkable drawings of an historic church uptown smoldering after a fire; she drew the ruin of the towers after 9/11. The weather (and the air itself) is always a part of these drawings, sometimes benign, with blue skies and scudding clouds, but often  a storm is either threatening or upon us.

Susanna Heller, “Untitled #126” (2009) Mixed media on paper, 6.5 x 8.5 inches

She gathered these drawings in piles and meandering shapes on the walls and floors of her studio and used them to construct paintings that embody the city and make it alive. The clouds loom, the river rushes and eddies. I remember the first one I ever saw: a view of the harbor  that somehow also brought to mind the  immense hulking figure of Rodin’s Balzac.

Susanna Heller, “Untitled #61 (From the 91st Floor North)” (n.d.) mixed media on paper, 9.75 x 11 inches

This drawing epitomizes the magic of Heller’s drawings and paintings: an aerial view of the city and piers that evokes a battleship rushing through the ocean.

Susanna Heller, “Razor Wire — Skyline, River, Skyline” (2008) 15.5 x 47.5 inches

Razor Wire… rushes looping by setting us on the other side of the barbed wire, but in the middle, if you can pause: this exquisitely framed landscape.


Susanna Heller, “Razor Wire — Skyline, River, Skyline” (detail)


Karlis Rekevics, “Broad Ordinary Occasions #11” (2020) Charcoal and gesso on paper, 51.5 x 51.5 inches

The lush blacks and clean geometries and relatively slow pace of Rekevic’s work contrasted with Heller’s is an example of inspired curation.
Rekevics travels along and crosses under the BQE to get to his studio, and he has isolated the architecture and I get that. Somehow the span above turns the experience into one of crossing a no-man’s land (but more on that in a moment) and though there are cars and isolated pedestrians, they can’t compete with the structure itself looming above.

Karlis Rekevics, “Broad Ordinary Occasions #11” (detail)

Charcoal on gessoed paper is beautiful and Rekevics uses it deftly. I spent time figuring out how this fence was made; I suppose with a ruler and a sharpened eraser. There is a ghostly image of another fence behind this one. The white areas also have a rich pentimenti.
There seems to be no weather under the BQE (though it leaks sometimes) and no real daylight either. It is always good to escape to the other side.


Karlis Rekevics, “Broad Ordinary Occasions #15” (2021) Charcoal and gesso on paper, 51.5 x 51.5 inches

I’m not sure to what extent these underhighwayscapes are invented but in an interview Rekevics suggests that they are not based on photographs, but on experience—and they feel that way.
In the odd way that life is often synchronous with art I heard this week that migrants bused up to NYC by De Santis and kicked out of housing in Fort Greene were encamped under the BQE—and these drawings popped into my mind—so not a no-man’s land but a kind of shelter, as it turns out.



Rackstraw Downes, “A Bend in the Hackensack at Jersey City” (1986) Oil on Canvas, 30.5 x 81 inches


Rackstraw Downes, “Under the West Side Highway at 155th Street, Looking South” (2011)
Oil on canvas, 16.5 x 66 inches

So as I said we ended up at Betty Cunningham and thereby created an even better show.
Downes looks across the eddying river to the other side as Heller does and has stood under the highway like Rekevics.  Karlis Rekevics is new to me but I immediately recognized my own experiences. Rackstraw Downes and Susanna Heller are so familiar that I’m not sure whether they have reproduced my New York or created it.


earlier post on Susanna Heller

Sketchbooks Number 2: Susanna Heller

on Rackstraw Downes

Rackstraw Downes: A Peek Behind the Curtain and Perspective (almost) without Orthogonal Lines