Contributed by John Mendelsohn / Fred Gutzeit died on January 3, 2022 at the age of 81, leaving a legacy of inventive paintings, watercolors, prints, and installations. Over six decades, his art embodied a love for the visible world, and a spirit of inspired enquiry into the invisible energies that lie beneath it. This notion of exploring “deep nature” and the discoveries of modern physics were animating forces throughout his career. He spent his life as an artist in Lower Manhattan, living and working in a loft on the Bowery, and was a vital part of the downtown art scene from the 1960s until his passing.
Gutzeit had a distinctive set of artistic talents, and a joyous, idiosyncratic independence. He had the ability to create morphing visual fields that became poetic evocations of life as an energetic matrix. These qualities allowed him to forge his own creative path, one that both led to recognition, and at times, to a struggle to have his work fully seen and appreciated. Through the vagaries of a life in art, Gutzeit was known for a nearly obsessive work ethic, for his generous support of other artists, and for his wry humor and personal warmth.
Gutzeit’s story as an artist began in Cleveland, Ohio, where he was born in 1940 to immigrant parents – his father was from Germany and his mother from Austria. His excellence in art was recognized early on, starting in elementary school, with the principal’s suggestion that he take private art classes, through his studying at the Cleveland Institute of Art, where he was awarded full scholarships for three years, and graduated in 1962.
In a sign of his artistic independence, Gutzeit turned down Yale University’s offer of a full scholarship to attend its MFA Program, and instead accepted a traveling scholarship to Mexico from the Cleveland Institute of Art. He settled in San Miguel de Allende for 10 months where he produced numerous drawings, paintings, and prints.
In 1963, Gutzeit moved to New York and began studying lithography at the Pratt Graphic Art Center. He received an MFA in studio art from Hunter College in 1979. Living on the Bowery, with its “Skid Row”, both exposed him to the harsh realities of urban life, and opened his eyes to the visual power of the real world. This insight was expressed in a series of large-scale paintings of concrete sidewalks and chain link fences. Keenly observed, these works combined a kind of heightened realism with a sense of abstraction.
In the same spirit, Gutzeit started collecting discarded work gloves, which he then bejeweled and encrusted with found materials. The psychedelic ornamentation of these objects anticipates the richness of pattern in the work that he would go on to produce.
In the mid-1980’s, Gutzeit began painting in the Catskill Mountains of New York. He wrote, “Rather than looking ‘out at the landscape’, I looked down into a scene. And, thinking of looking down into our natural world led me to start reading about particle physics. For me ideas about quantum mechanics became a kind of mythology that I could push my painting to represent abstractly.”
Gutzeit’s early representational images of nature informed the new Deep Nature work that followed, initiated by a series of intensely patterned drawings in black and white. In the early 2000s, a momentous realization for Gutzeit was seeing into nature’s visually rhythmic phenomena, such as rippling water and the bark of an oak tree, and reimagining them as graphic patterns that resembled the waves and distorted grids of Op Art.
A major series of abstract, densely rhythmic paintings that followed expressed the artist’s concern with nature, physics, and opticality. Gutzeit wrote of this work, “a static square made dynamic by black and white made from red, yellow, and blue—expressing the notion of vibrations evolving into shapes as a play on the quantum world of ‘wave particle duality’— to play the shapes as a musical composition — done six-foot square as a human scale.”
At the same time, two more factors were influencing his paintings: mathematical representations of space/time, and the digital processing of images. The mathematical models that intrigued him were of Calabi-Yau Manifolds, representing folded space, whose properties apply to theoretical physics, particularly in superstring theory. These forms appear in the work as vortexes of energy, bulging, twisting, and reforming in constant flux.
Gutzeit’s paintings from the 2000s have this quality of manic transformation fully revealed, with digital images of unfurling geometric patterns bent and deformed. The original digital outputting has been tiled and affixed to the canvas, and made into a continuous image enhanced by direct painting, with the image’s fractal-like repetitions at radically changing scales.
Through the 2000s examples of this work appeared in solo exhibitions, at venues including TimePrism, Prague; Mansfield Art Center, Mansfield, OH; Rupert Ravens Contemporary, Newark, NJ; and Sideshow Gallery, Brooklyn, NY. In 2007, Pocket Utopia in Brooklyn presented an installation that wrapped around the entire gallery. It was inspired by the work of the wave paintings of the artist Lee Lozano, who Gutzeit knew in 1970.
In SigNature, Gutzeit’s last major series, he used the signature of individuals writing their initials as the basis for drawings and paintings. The signatures turn into multi-colored arabesques, arrayed against flooding watercolor or intensely patterned fields. Larger grid paintings, completed just before the artist’s death, combine many of the signature pieces in miniature, and are overlaid by linear tracery, with the individual elements joining a mass of impersonal energy.
Lynn Maliszewski, in her review for The Brooklyn Rail in 2014, wrote “Gutzeit knows that even abstract renditions of reality link to observations. His attempt to render the murky sandpits of identity through abstract means relies on thought rather than chance. He captures an essence, as inexplicable as first impressions or body language, through sinuous form and fervent mayhem.”
The SigNature paintings were exhibited in solo exhibitions at Tregoning Gallery, Cleveland; and Brian Morris Gallery, Pratt Manhattan, and VanDerPlas Gallery, all in New York. The series was part of a 2021 retrospective exhibition, Deep Nature Unfolded: Fred Gutzeit, Paintings from 1965 to 2021, which was presented by the Catherine Fosnot Art Gallery and Center, New London, CT.
Gutzeit was the recipient of three Pollack-Krasner Foundation Awards, and fellowships from the Vermont Studio Center, Soaring Gardens Artists’ Retreat, and the Helliker-Lahotan Foundation. His work is in the collections of the Shenandoah Museum of Contemporary Art, Strasburg, VA; Cleveland State University, Cleveland, OH; and National Gallery of Art, US Department of State, Library of Congress, National Building Museum, all in Washington, DC.
Gutzeit was an adjunct professor at City University of New York from 1993-2021. He is survived by his partner, the artist Elizabeth Riley.
NOTE: This obituary draws upon the catalogue essay by Catherine Fosnot for Fred Gutzeit’s retrospective exhibition, and a review by John Mendelsohn that appeared in d’Art International Magazine.