Worlds beyonds words: Lynn Kotula

Lynn Kotula, Oil Can with Funnel, Squash and Garlic
2018-19, oil on canvas, 15 x 28 inches

Contributed by Carol Diamond / Admired and respected by her artistic community, beloved by friends and family, Lynn Kotula passed away in February 2021, after living with stage IV cancer for more than six years. During that period she overcame many physical challenges to do some of her best work. After earning her MFA from Parsons in 1980, she spent the next 40 years dedicated to painting still lifes and landscapes, in her New York City studio and in and around Lois Dodd’s house in Blairstown, New Jersey, where she spent her summers. She exhibited regularly at Bowery Gallery since 2012, and, before that, at Prince Street Gallery. She exhibited with the Zeuxis group and had work included in shows at Lori Bookstein Fine Art, Lohin Geduld Gallery, BCK Fine Arts Gallery (Montauk) and The Painting Center, among other galleries. I feel privileged to have known Lynn, to have experienced her warmth and courage, her authenticity and artistic voice. The following is a 2022 catalogue essay written by John Goodrich on the occasion of “Lynn Kotula: A Life in Painting 1984–2020,” her final exhibition at Bowery Gallery.

Every now and then we might pause a moment, glance about our surroundings, and experience a brief, intense epiphany: What a wonderfully rich and varied world this is! In so many of its particulars, it exceeds our perceptions, our understanding, and even our powers of description.

When we do try to describe our extraordinary surroundings, we tend to resort to words—the medium in which we generally think and communicate. These accounts, when written or spoken by the poetically inclined, can seem truly luminous, and complete. Consider these opening lines from David Foster Wallace’s, The Pale King:

Past the flannel plains and blacktop graphs and skylines of canted rust, and past the tobacco-brown river overhung with weeping trees and coins of sunlight through the moon the water downriver, to the place beyond the windbreak, where untilled fields simmer shrilly in the A.M. heat…

Lynn Kotula: A Life in Painting 1984 – 2020, installation view

Painters, however, engage a nonverbal language. Their expressions may be just as complex and complete, but they work in a perceptual region between the word and the physical world. (Indeed, they must, if they wish to express something beyond words.) This zone is some- what rarefied, not so much pre-verbal as “averbal,” and it requires a departure from our customary ways of sharing experiences. One can think of every painting as an exchange-place for optical incident, a place confined in its fixed dimensions and ingredients and yet capable of highly eloquent representations of our world.

Lynn Kotula, Towards Grave Hill #2, 1995, oil on canvas, 12 x 18 inches

I was fortunate to have known Lynn Kotula for close to 40 years, as both a friend and fellow painter. Even early on in this acquaintance, aspects of her character fixed in my mind—her humor, her generosity, and also a certain reserve, which was not so much a matter of withholding, but of astute judgment about when and how to engage. In conversation, she was invariably curious about others, but never invasive. She was lucid in her opinions, and never fretful in expressing them. Above all, in my memory, she was “the adult in the room”—alert to all interests, and skillful at turning any conversation toward a helpful direction.

Lynn seemed to be also a fairly private person, one possessed of intensely personal observations and judgments, often unspoken though available for the asking. She was reluctant to discuss her own paint- ing, and on only one occasion did she agree to talk publicly about her work. This was for a slide lecture she prepared in 2006 as a favor to her friend David Dewey. Many years later, we can benefit too; a num- ber of the notes for this lecture, as movingly honest and insightful as ever, are quoted throughout this catalog.

Perhaps most crucially, her thoughts and impressions were offered, over and again, in the form of her paintings. Lynn left us what any artist would hope to leave: a chronicle of a visual understanding of the world. As it happens, Lynn was also a surpassingly good painter, and the record she leaves is one of a keen understanding of both our world and what painting can make of it.

Among the several Kotula paintings hanging on the walls of my family’s home is a landscape from 1995, Towards Gravel Hill #2. We never tire of its celebration of life’s quirky plenitude: the fields of yellow- and reddish-ochre that stream across the painting’s lower half, capturing the groundplane’s swift curl into the depths; the compressed bands of foliage facing us in the mid-distance, voluminous in its lit and fluffy shadowed zones; a distant field—the most vibrant note of all—sounding the depths of the gap between trees; beyond everything, a warmly vacant sky. If we stare a while, lesser events emerge: the very darkest note—the tip of a tree—setting off the lighter bulk of the tree directly in front; the crisp, singular note of a telephone pole delicately bisecting the band of foliage.

In this painting we experience not wizardly technique, nor conceptual sleight-of-hand, but a delight in the visual ways and means of nature, in which every element is made to count, in its own time and fashion. Such a painting could only have been created by someone who had experienced both the rich variety of the visible world and the remarkable possibilities of painting, as demonstrated by the works of such great artists as Corot, Matisse and Bonnard.

Lynn Kotula was born December 4, 1945, in Morris- town, New Jersey. Throughout her childhood, she enjoyed drawing. “I had been a sort of animist,” she recalled in that 2006 slide lecture. “I felt that in looking at something and drawing I could become the thing—absorb it.”.

Her father was a successful magazine illustrator, especially in the 1940s and 50s before magazines began incorporating color photography, and Lynn had fond memories of gazing among the brushes and paints in his studio.

Her first experiences with contemporary art, however, were less happy. Early studies with a “real NYC painter,” who insisted that abstract painting was a pursuit of “a nothing,” left her cold. She also felt little interest in the “happenings” staged by fellow students in her college art department. In 1968 Lynn graduated from Douglass College of Rutgers University with a BA in History/Art History. She went on to earn an MA in Early Childhood Education at New York University.

The year 1968 brought a change of residence and an introduction to an artistic community that was to change the trajectory of her life. She described the sea-change in that 2006 lecture:

It wasn’t until I graduated from college with a BA in History, moved to New York and started meeting artists who were working from life and doing work that excited me, that I learned that there was a place for me in the world of contemporary art. And I was in exactly the right place to start. There were lots of painters working from life and with a variety of approaches. And plenty of passionate, articulate teachers, wonderful artists themselves. And I gradually learned that thinking abstractly was not thinking about “nothing” but thinking about something”—something essential—that would become integral to my own work.

When she was almost 30 years old, Lynn embarked on the life of an artist. She quit her job teaching young children and began waiting tables at Paulson’s Supper Club on West 72nd Street in order to devote her daylight hours to painting. Over the next several years, she studied with Gabriel Laderman at the Art Students League, with Leland Bell and Gretna Campbell at the New York Studio School, and with Bell and Paul Resika at the Parsons School of Design, where she earned her MFA in Painting in 1980. During these years in school, Lynn worked almost always from a model, with occasional outings to paint the landscape. She turned the living room in her West 121st Street apartment into a painting studio, eventually expanding the work space to include the dining room as well. For the next four decades, this studio served as the locus of her painting life in New York. She painted what was at hand: household objects and fabrics, set up on a couple of old wooden tables.

The year 1985 brought two important events. That year Lynn had her first one-person exhibition at Prince Street Gallery in New York City. It was the first of many solo exhibitions in the city, at Prince Street and later Bowery Gallery. She was also to participate in group shows at numerous other NYC venues, including Lori Bookstein Fine Art, Lohin Geduld Gallery, the National Academy of Design and The Painting Center, as well as many other galleries around the country. Her work was favorably mentioned in The New York Times, The New Haven Register and other publications.

Also in 1985, Lynn met Tony Stewart, a writer and filmmaker commencing on a new career in software development and consulting. As Lynn described it, she had occasionally spotted Tony at the local swimming pool, and one day took the opportunity of lounging strategically by the pool’s ladder. The gambit worked: a brief conversation led to dinners and, before long, romantic attachment. The two married in 1988, and the following year Lynn moved in with Tony, keeping her 121st Street space as a studio.

Tony recalls how, in their early days together, Lynn was inspired especially by Cézanne. We can get an idea of a working artist’s life—the practical struggles of a young painter, as well as Lynn’s distinct outlook—in this excerpt from her application for a grant in 1986:

I find that in the same way I approach my still life and landscape, I approach myself as a painter: feinting, making stabs, at last finding my mark. Now I am at a stage where I need to work more intensely in the landscape—to use what I have learned in the studio in facing nature’s intelligence and whimsy. I have been supporting myself as a waitress, which gives me the daylight hours to paint but not the means to do serious work outdoors. With a grant, I could have both.

As it turned out, Lynn didn’t receive the grant. The following summer, however, brought something even better: the opportunity of renting a floor in the painter Lois Dodd’s house near the Delaware Water Gap. Lynn and Tony commenced on what turned out to be a life-long routine: spending the summer months in the country, where Lynn could devote herself to both the landscape and still lifes set up in Lois’ studio.

Lynn Kotula, Blue Vase and Collard Greens
1997, oil on canvas, 23 x 36 inches

The leap from carefully composed still life to the broad, ever-changing outdoors took some adjustment, but the artist persevered, and settled into a year-round routine:

I spend most of the year indoors. From Labor Day to Memorial Day I paint orderly compositions from still lifes of my own design. In June I’m eager for the chance to return to the landscape. Whereas in painting from a still life I stand and look at my set up, constructing my painting from edges and cohesive forms; in the landscape, I stand in the midst of my painting, trying to distinguish the bushes from the trees and the vines. It’s disorienting at first to be without my open table top; but it’s challenging and fun to sort my way through the chaos of greens and find sense in this fluid environment. Outdoors, of course, along with the changing light, there are storms, bugs—AND—occasionally, a bear, something I never see in my studio.

Lynn Kotula, Green Barns, 1985, oil on canvas, 7 x 13 inches

Lynn used larger canvases for her still lifes, often working for weeks on a single painting. The still lifes appealed to her sense of order and contain- ment: “There’s something in the act of choosing and arranging that compels me. I like the step of devising before I paint.” In Lois’ studio, she usually set up the still lifes on one of two particular tables, with the light coming from behind the artist, so the objects’ shadows retreated into the depths. (By contrast, the shadows in the still lifes painted in the 121st Street studio, which had windows to the side of her tables, routinely flow left or right.) She never painted under artificial light, preferring to work even as the daylight dimmed to dusk. Working outdoors involved a wholly different scale and method of attack:

In the landscape I paint on small panels, aiming to complete a painting in one day, before the landscape is transformed by man or nature. I usually paint several paintings from a site, each time finding something more or new. It’s a little like falling in love.

The demands of still life and landscape painting, while very different, turned out to complement each other. “…as I paint I reflect on my still life painting,” she explained, “when I return to my studio, I have the landscape in my head. Each informs and enriches the other.”

Often asked if she were inspired by Lois Dodd’s work, Lynn’s answer was always the same: though a great admirer, she wasn’t consciously affected by working in Lois’ studio. But Lynn did allow that being surrounded by Dodd’s luminous paintings for several months each summer must have influenced her on some unconscious level.

Lynn would likely have disapproved of any attempt to sort through and categorize her lifework, but from our vantage point we can trace the broad outlines of her journey as a painter. In the late 70s to mid-80s she focused on evocatively rendered still lifes and landscapes that were capably, if sometimes conventionally, composed. From the late 80s to the mid-“aughts,” when she supplemented her still lifes with intense summers of painting landscapes near the Water Gap, her forms became more incisively— sometimes almost severely—modeled in light, and her compositions bolder and more abstracted. After 2008, when she began concentrating solely on still life, she often worked on smaller, simpler set-ups, modeling them in a more naturalistic and deeply atmospheric light.

An early landscape like Green Barns (1985) shows an acute sensitivity to light and a solid composition. But shortly Lynn was to embark on more daring designs, perhaps spurred on by an increasingly keen grasp of the fundamental dramas of the landscape.

We tend to take the spectacle of nature for granted, but an artist connects with its sheer optical intensity: the effect of a single ground plane sweeping towards the horizon from beneath our feet, with objects—each resisting gravity—marking out broad expanses of space. One senses in Lynn’s early landscapes a gathering realization that the intervals in a painting, to feel pictorially truthful, must be rhythmically maximized. Only in this way could one capture, in full measure, the landscapist’s proverbial “marriage of earth and sky.”

On the visual evidence of her paintings, Lynn did, as she described, fall in love with her landscape motifs. It’s fair to say that it was a “tough love”—a discriminating attachment that urged forms towards their most potent selves. In Blue House at Footbridge Park (1993), for instance, the darkish, leafy rise of trees fills much of the painting’s surface, introduced by the quick curl of a path at the bottom edge. Lynn introduced small, bright horizontals that have a major effect; they push back to distant patches of ground, accelerating the rising bulk of the trees. The sunlit façade of a blue house and far-away trees occupy the depths, staring mildly back at us. But it’s the foreground trees themselves, rendered in countless warmer and cooler greens, that hold before the eye as depths within climbing depths; one physically feels their clambering against gravity. Crucially, all these events are embodied, rather than scripted, in continuously, subtly weighted color.

Lynn Kotula, Blue House at Footbridge Park, 1993, oil on panel, 14 x 15 inches

Her landscape painting seems to have indeed affected her approach to the still life. As if inspired by outdoor light—by the organizing power of a single, directed source of illumination—Lynn began to practically carve her still life objects in light. Her paintings from the 90s tend towards more concise cast shadows and crisper, bolder divisions between color zones—a development especially evident in her still lifes. We feel the artist zeroing in on one of the paradoxes of painting light: shadows, utterly weightless in life, acquire remarkable pictorial heft on canvas.

Lynn Kotula, Wooden Bowl with Pear and Squash, Metal Tray, 2001, oil on canvas, 18 x 28 inches

In these years, Lynn talked less of Cézanne, and more about Matisse and Braque. Her paintings reflect a new delight in abstracted forms and rhythmic arabesques. In Wooden Bowl with Pears and Squash, Metal Tray (2001), she captures, with equal vigor, the light-modeled volumes and the intervals between objects. Colors are not merely descriptive; each one urges on a syncopated circulation of forms. Like a one-two punch, similarly inclined pears converse across the dividing arc of a bowl. An embracing flow of fabric lifts away from the opposing tilt of the bowl. Abstracted moments become tangible sensations. At the same time Lynn imparts a richly naturalistic gleam to the shadows on an acorn squash and a tray’s reflective rim. In-between, a complex of indescribable gray-greens and blues—shadows within shadows—beautifully locates the tray’s surface.

“I think that opposition is what nourishes me,” Lynn wrote in her 2006 lecture notes, “Abstraction/natural- ism. I need both and I’m always looking for ways to have one nourish or enrich the other.”

Lynn Kotula, Fruit and Geraniums, 1984-85, oil on canvas, 24 x 28 inches

Over the decades Lynn composed her still lifes with increasing assurance. While an early painting such as Fruit and Geraniums (1984-85) vividly renders every volume, they tend to all rest within a conventionally centralized box of space. But the expansive, limits-resisting spaces of the landscape may have carried over into such still lifes as the large, stately Blue Napkin, (2006). In this striking work, the artist not only evokes the delicate light descending on numerous off-white objects, but powerfully paces their movement across the canvas’ full 37-inch width. Subtle shifts of color define the independence of each object: the stretching coolness of the pitcher next to a warm and lumpily angling butternut squash; a rising vase paired with a rotund squash—both of them yellow, though in different fashion. In front, condensed upon the table, lies a knot of the most intensely articulated objects of all: fluted starfruit, bent eggplant, small napkin edging off the table. A complex hierarchy animates the rhythmic unity of the painting: this becomes large, because that is small, this looms as that retires.

Lynn Kotula, Onion, Measuring Pitcher and Trowel, with Shell and Lemon, 2013, oil/panel, 8½ x 16 inches

Blue Napkin, shows some of the tendencies that were to grow stronger in Lynn’s still life paintings. Her forms became brushier, softer, and more atmospheric, and objects tended to overlap more often and more fluidly. By 2008, she had almost completely stopped painting outdoors to concentrate on still life. She had tired of trying to find, as Tony put it, the few, opposing notes to all the “green, green, green.”

Lynn Kotula, Blue Napkin, 2006, oil on canvas, 22 x 37 inches

In the 2010s these still life paintings tended towards smaller, simpler compositions, with a closer point of view that cropped one or two—sometimes all—edges of the table. One gem from this period, Onion Shadow (ca. 2013), imparts a quiet monumentality to a handful of items. A large sea shell asserts its height like a building façade in sunlight, its matte whites setting off the dark glints of a metal pitcher alongside. Smaller notes of onion, lemon and pepper range below, a trio from which the first two elements can rise.

In 2014, Lynn was diagnosed with Stage IV metastatic cancer. Over the next six years she underwent a number of standard as well as experimental treatments. She endured several surgeries and prolonged hospital stays. Between treatments, however, she continued to paint with undiminished intensity. Tony describes this difficult but productive time:

…when she was finally able to go back to the studio she started making very simple setups…Not knowing how much time she had left, she wanted to start painting as quickly as possible and make as many paintings as she could while she still had the strength. From that urgency came a new kind of freedom, a lack of self-consciousness in the setup, and the result is the series of small paintings she made in the last five years of her life. She loved making these paintings; for a long time they came almost effortlessly to her, and both the process and the results gave her great pleasure.

The new objects that appeared in her set-ups include portions of baguettes and an antique oil can with a right-angled spout. A hexagonal pie pan, occasionally seen in previous years, makes a number of appearances. In Lynn’s vigorous paintings, these slightly odd items all acquire a rough kind of grandeur.

Lynn Kotula, Indian Measuring Can, Creamer, Shell, 2019, oil on panel, 8 x 16 inches

Lemons, Lime, Oil Can and Striped Cloth (2017) reminds us of how thoroughly Lynn was a colorist: a painter driven to make every hue leverage a composition. Registering the weight of light—from full, overhead illumination to rich shadow to mildly reflecting light—her colors impart to each lemon an almost boulder-like presence. Less eye-catching, but no less critical to the effect, are the patches of table and fabric between them. Neither overwhelmed by nor overpowering the lemons, the pressures of fabric and tabletop support the lemons’ progression across the painting. The artist clearly cared enough about her objects to make them not simply believable, but essential.

Lynn Kotula, Eggplant, Shell, Lime and Lemons with Small Creamer, 2018, oil on panel, 10 x 18 inches

New arrangements entailed new characterizations, and in a gem from the following year, Eggplant, Shell, Lime and Lemons with Small Creamer (2018), a shell’s lengthy, rippling contour—summed up in a few deft strokes—resolves in the compact notes of two lemons.

Lynn experimented stylistically as well, allowing the contours of forms to sinuously connect in Indian Measuring Can, Creamer, Shell (2019). The intervals between objects compress, so they tangibly huddle against the “other” of the surrounding space. Lynn’s admiration for Morandi had only increased over the years, and here we have the Italian master’s predilection for small, atmospheric, cloister-like spaces, only livened by Lynn’s own vital rhythms.

Lynn left a number of paintings unfinished at her death in February, 2021. Tony, however, believes she completed Still Life with Bread and Knife (2020). Indeed, this small work may represent her very last finished painting.

Though especially subdued, the artist’s colors once again impart an independent weightiness to each element. The cool lights of a white cup rise with sturdy simplicity behind a forbiddingly round onion, opalescent in its half-dozen coppery hues. A second round object, of a totally different nature, opens to the left.

This dish becomes the concave support for a garlic and the angular, articulated sections of a baguette, caught in cool reds and ochres. The rim of the dish, a delicate blue, glides beneath to separate chunky bread and the grasping folds of the fabric beneath. Ordinarily, a steel knife might seem the ultimate in both optical fanfare and symbolic portent, but here it lies coolly, placidly, a sliver of muted reflections. If it could speak, it might announce, “Carry on, all; I’ll hold the table’s front.”

Lynn Kotula, Still Life with Bread and Knife, 2020, oil/panel, 11 x 15 inches

In this small slice of the observed world, it is the optical dance of forms—not utilitarian context, nor symbolic purposes or assays in style—that counts. We know how each element belongs even before we know what it does. Is this something like the perceptions of a newborn, who knows a blanket, a bottle and a mother’s face before knowing how to explain them? Many things exceed our verbal comprehension, even as they self-evidently matter. How grateful we are to Lynn, an artist who sensed this, and so eloquently shared the experience.

— John Goodrich

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