“I wasn’t expecting a third epiphany.”
I’m seated across a kitchen table from Robert Lostutter, sunlight illuminating the long line of tall, west-facing windows in his loft. Laid out on a nearby table are over a dozen small drawings, part of a set of nineteen which form the basis of his new work, “Songs of War.” Rendered in the exquisitely precise detail the artist is known for, they, too, are something entirely unexpected.
“This work is really different from what I usually do,” says Lostutter, in his understated way.
Lostutter’s most “usual” or perhaps better-known works, which he’s been making since the early 1970s, are his watercolor portraits of a kind of hybrid species, combining human and avian features. They sport elongated, beak-like noses and feathered caps and cheeks, which contrast and complement their sensuous lips, fulsome teeth and seductively smooth chests. Their gaze is penetrating and remote. Beautiful and regal, posed in front of intensely glowing color fields that almost seem to undulate, they are both familiar and strange, a potential if smoldering dance partner or a creature of prey, preparing to peck you.
The new graphite works, as well as five watercolors, are also intense. Their subjects though, offer a radical departure from his preening young birdmen. They look a bit like gargoyles, dressed in outfits that marry the style of medieval court tunics to our moment’s ubiquitous puffer jackets. Lizard-like tongues protrude from gaping mouths lined with crumbly, rutted teeth, noses look like miniature architectural corbels and skulls sprout thumbs or are cleaved, revealing the brain matter within. Their brilliant blue but vacant eyes and hanging jaws speak a derangement.
John Corbett, who along with Jim Dempsey, is presenting the work at their gallery Corbett vs. Dempsey, thinks the figures are “very disturbing,” adding: “They contrast this incredible refinement of execution with this incredible crudeness of form. That’s part of what gives them particular power.”
“Songs of War” is Corbett’s fourth show with Lostutter and the gallerist thinks the new work speaks to our times and “the constant state of embattlement we’re in.” War is clearly a backdrop. The show’s title derives from a poem that will also be on display (Lostutter has composed a poem for each of his shows since around the mid-seventies), the first two lines of which read:
The human race goes off to war with dancing hands and singing feet
And they return, if they come back at all, slashed and torn in mind and bone
If Lostutter is consumed by the hellscape delivered by our endlessly apocalyptic news cycle, it doesn’t show. Rather, he radiates exuberance, still under the spell of the creative outburst that birthed this new work. He jokes about friends who through the years, watching his consistent output, would groan “Not another head.” Now the view has changed. “I see a road that I wish I had found forty years ago.”
Lostutter’s first epiphany came in high school. His maternal grandmother talked his way into a college-level drawing class. While sketching a leaf for an assignment plein air, the teacher came over and demonstrated how, by playing with the pressure of his pencil point, he could darken and lighten, widen and narrow, the lines of his drawing. Lostutter says this unexpected lesson was a “wonderful thing that just opened up something in me.”
His second epiphany came much later, inspired by the work of artist Richard Lindner. In both cases, it was his recognition that these moments, though small in themselves, were also momentous portents that could lead him somewhere new, whether to the extraordinarily refined technique that is the mark of Lostutter’s entire oeuvre or to merging his love of birds with his interest in the human figure.
His most recent epiphany came in late 2018, as he was finalizing “Kyosei,” his last show at Corbett vs. Dempsey. Lostutter says for some time, three phrases had been running through his head, unbidden: “Stop Making Sense,” derived from the title of the 1984 Jonathan Demme performance documentary about the music group Talking Heads; “It’s Getting Late” and “It’s Time to Jump.” Eventually he wrote them down together in a sketchbook, an act which seemed to unleash their potency. Every night for the next two years, from midnight until four in the morning, Lostutter sketched and sketched, filling twenty-five notebooks in the process.
By what strange alchemy that fragmented, three-line earworm became a creative summons remains mysterious. “I knew what I had to do,” Lostutter recalls. “I took a sketchbook down probably that day. I got everything ready. And every night I couldn’t wait to get to my sketchbook work because it all went so well.” What is clear to him is that this proliferation of hundreds of creatures, some playful, others menacing, a collection he fondly refers to as his “Garden of Earthly Delights,” after the triptych by Hieronymus Bosch—represents both something he’s been building toward and a definitive break from the past.
Mystery, the imagination, memory, the past… All were strongly present during my conversation with Lostutter. He tells me some of his childhood stories, like the time he climbed out a window to escape his oppressive family. He fell to the ground, scraping his knee, but his description of what came next sounds straight out of a fairy-tale.
“I knew if I did this and walked to the curb, my grandmother would show up. That car would slowly (he stretches out the word—s l o w l y) come down the street and the door would open, and I would go into the car. It was the last time I had to do that.”
His story of the fall that ended in rescue represents another definitive break in Lostutter’s life, thanks to the grandmother he named Mimi, who launched his life as an artist, from teaching him how to draw when he was a baby to financing his education at the School of the Art Institute, against the wishes of his parents. After her death, Lostutter discovered hundreds of drawings she made but never shared with anyone, a moment that still gives him chills.
“There are people out there when you’re young, they will step into your life, give you something precious and then step out of your life.”
Lostutter has been graced with many of these as well, from his friend, the artist Ed Paschke, to the painter and educator John Rogers Cox, who at AIC took him under his wing, sharing secrets of Old Masters painters, such as “glazing,” a subtle layering technique that gives Lostutter’s watercolors and drawings their distinctive luminosity and depth. His memory is very good and his storytelling, which, like his art has a fantastical dimension, is even better.
When he describes a moment with his grandfather, a fellow bird lover, who in pointing out a great blue heron flying over a small, winding river, gave him an impression of color he says has stayed in his work, I feel I am standing right next to him on that summer afternoon in a 1950s Kansas countryside, seeing and feeling the “late day sun, the orange ochre light, all this rich green of the trees that grow alongside a river and that blue heron.”
After more than seven decades of steady and acclaimed output, Lostutter seems to me perfectly poised between past and future. He is busy writing a memoir (a two-foot stack of index cards represent both his organizational system and the hundreds of edits he has already made along the way). Despite his dyslexia, his writing is flowing—and, he thinks, getting better. He is thrilled that the Morgan Library in New York acquired the set of drawings and poem of “Songs of War.” He sees so much more potential in the shelf of sketchbooks he’s just begun to tap. I marvel at his devotion and stamina. His drawings and watercolors can take two or three months to complete.
Still puzzling over his new direction, I ask him if he finds the figures horrifying or monstrous. After a pause he responds “Are they monstrous? I don’t know. Some are a little scary,” adding, “I love these drawings.”
His partner of fifty-nine years, Bill Heaton, agrees, saying he is “very curious” to see how people react to the work. “Because nobody is expecting this.”
Nobody, except maybe the artist who says, “I have a certain amount of time left here. And there’s so much I want to do.” It all came down to confronting a question: “Can I jump at this age? Can I really do that? And… I did.” At eighty-three, Lostutter is still up for playing the long game, even as he’s changing its terms.
Robert Lostutter “Songs of War” at Corbett vs. Dempsey, 2156 West Fulton, on view May 5-June 17.