Downing was born in Suffolk, Virginia, in 1928. He received his A.B. in 1948 from Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Virginia, and studied at the Pratt Institute, Brooklyn, from 1948 to 1950. In 1950, through a grant from the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Downing traveled throughout Europe, enrolling briefly at the Académie Julian in Paris. Downing returned to the United States in 1951, and after serving in the Army, moved to Washington, D.C. in 1953 to teach. The following year, he enrolled in a summer course at Catholic University where he studied with Kenneth Noland, one of the founding artists of the Washington Color School of painting. Noland became a good friend and a major influence on Downing’s work. By 1956, Downing was an established member of Washington’s artistic community, associating with the Washington Workshop Center for the Arts and later, in 1958, with the Sculptors Studio, where he had his first one-man show in 1959. Downing shared a studio with Howard Mehring, and in 1959 they and Betty Pajac founded Origo, a cooperative gallery in Washington, D.C. Downing was also included in several major group exhibitions throughout the 1960s, including renowned art critic Clement Greenberg’s seminal exhibition, “Post-Painterly Abstraction” of 1964.
Downing’s work explores the formal possibilities of color and color-space, freeing it from traditional associations, making it the sole subject of his compositions. The Phillips Collection’s work, Dream Rate (1962) illustrates his distinctive style: circles of varying hues and sizes appear to float within undefined space, each particular set of colors on a different plane confronting the viewer with an essentially flat composition that simultaneously alludes to space. Downing’s specific color choices suggest an awareness of Josef Albers’s use of color-space illusionism, the theories that might have been transmitted from Noland. Yet Downing declared that the pulsing effect of his color-mediated space was related to Helen Frankenthaler’s and Morris Louis’s works.
As a teacher from 1965–1968 at the Corcoran School of Art and Design, Downing also influenced many Washington area artists including Sam Gilliam and Rockne Krebs. In 1971 Downing moved to New York to teach at the New School of Visual Art, and after a brief tenure at the University of Houston in 1975, moved to Provincetown, Massachusetts. Downing had many exhibits during these years, several of them in Washington: two at the Osuna Gallery in 1979 and 1980 and at The Phillips Collection in 1985, the year of his death.