Lynn Umlauf (1942–2022)

Lynn Umlauf with her twin sister, Madelon Umlauf, in Austin, Texas, April 1, 2016. Photo: Gwenolee Zürcher.

IT TOOK A FRACTION of a second for the smile of happiness on my face to freeze and an icy chill to seize me when, beginning of February, I opened an email from the Zürcher Gallery announcing an exhibition by Lynn Umlauf. Under her name were the dates 1942–2022. Lynn had passed on February 2 in her New York home/studio on the Bowery, and I had not seen her since the damned pandemic began. Almost two years! The pang of regret is acute, still.

Rendered all the more poignant by her absence, the exhibition brings together paintings from the ’70s and a number of small, incredibly intense, at once tender and violent watercolors she threw on paper with premonitory urgency last October and November while convalescing in a rehab center with a view on the Hudson River. Particularly moving are the seven she painted on a single day, which hang in the room adjacent to the main gallery space. The paintings from the late ’70s are shaped canvases, each consisting of two or more irregular pieces of thick, sturdy paper, painted monochrome with pastel mixed with gum arabic and marouflaged on canvas. The technique is entirely Lynn’s: The beveled cuts are rough, even brutal; the shapes are sometimes awkward and never pretty; the surfaces curl away from the wall and throw a shadow on it; the slightly faded colors and powdery texture conjure Italian frescoes, and the result has poise and elegance. These paintings brought me straight back to the time of my burgeoning friendship with her, when the debate on abstract painting revolved around issues such as whether canvases could still be stretched without being desperately conservative, whether single panels could have more than one color on them, or whether recessed space and figure-ground relationships were still tolerable.

She and her husband, the larger-than-life painter Michael Goldberg, who died in 2007, were an integral part of my love affair with New York City long before I moved here in 2013. How many times did I tour the galleries with them or attend dinner at their place, in Michael’s cavernous studio, by myself or with some of their close artist friends? Red wine was flowing, jazz music would fill the room, and the conversation was always on art, always serious and dedicated, always with clashing points of view yet profound agreement on what really mattered.

Like her father Charles Umlauf (1911–1994), Lynn was a sculptor through and through. I believe this will be recognized when a major museum gives her the long overdue retrospective her art deserves. Not to say that she was not a painter; she was a painter. But I think her originality shines best if we call her a sculptor who doubled as a colorist. “You have to walk around the paintings,” she once told David Shapiro, who interviewed her. And: “I’ve never seen a sculpture that has enough color.” She thought and saw in three dimensions, even when she painted, and especially when she drew. Which is to say that she embraced a kind of abstract illusionism that was taboo for many painters—and sculptors, too—in those days when Minimalism was defining the game for the artists who had not gone fully conceptual.

In the ’80s, Lynn’s work grew polychrome and baroque, began to integrate new materials such as corrugated cardboard and wire mesh, and eventually left the wall to become freestanding or hanging structures. Mixing steel mesh, irregular, hand-bent aluminum rods, sometimes Plexiglas plates and, more recently, light bulbs and colored fluorescent tubes, her sculptures in the round are chaotic, centrifugal, almost dismembered. But they have a virtual spine that holds them together.

And so had their maker. Lynn’s inner strength was of a piece with her composure, her linear slender physique, her aquiline profile, and her asymmetrical haircut whimsically covering one of her sparkling eyes. She was always true to herself, blunt verging on rude one minute, disarmingly sweet the next. She spoke truth to power and didn’t care to placate people. She was a great teacher, and she loved collectors because they collect art. She was attentive and open to the art of others, even when it seemed incompatible with hers. I never heard her say anything she didn’t think. I’ll miss you forever, Lynn.

Thierry de Duve is Evelyn Kranes Kossak Professor of Art History at Hunter College, City University of New York.