Joseph Dudley Downing, a member of a prominent Western Kentucky family, became internationally celebrated in the 1950s and ‘60s for his creation of the “stapleage,” abstract collages of office supplies. Downing’s fame landed him a place in Herta Wescher’s history of the art form, Collage, published by Abrams in 1968.
Downing was born in Tompkinsville and raised in Horse Cave. He served in Europe during World War II, came home and studied art at Western Kentucky University in Bowling Green. The encouragement of legendary artist-teacher Ivan Wilson was crucial to his career.
Downing was persuaded to take up optometry as a career, and he graduated from an optometry school in Chicago, Illinois. However, the creative people in his social circle there induced him to take classes at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. By 1950 his mind was made up, and he hied himself to Paris to pursue his muse. Only two years later he was having a one-man exhibition in the French capital, a show that confirmed him in his decision. A fellow artist named Pablo Picasso attended the display and pronounced it “well done.” Downing became one of only three Americans to have exhibited in the Louvre.
His first significant American one-man exhibition came in 1962 at the Louisville Art Center. He had already had 10 such shows in Europe. Other Art Center exhibitions followed, and in 1965 Downing showed two-sided collages of painted strips of leather on wood. He also painted on roof tiles, antique barn doors, animal bones – and canvas. He worked in etching and lithography.
Downing’s works are in the Paris Museum of Modern Art, the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C. (a stapelage), the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, the Speed Art Museum in Louisville and the Owensboro (Kentucky) Museum of Fine Art. A museum dedicated to Downing is just outside Bowling Green.
Downing is one of the subjects of Black and White: Kentucky Prints and Printmakers from the Collection of Warren and Julie Payne.