The Universal Notebook: Fred Lynch and the passing of the art guard

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Because I wrote primarily about art and culture for many years, many of my closest friends are artists. And because I am now 67 and many of my artist friends are older still, I find myself writing with increasing frequency about the passing of an important generation of artists.

It’s not just tributes to the artists that I have been writing, but sometimes their obituaries as well.

It started back in 1998 when old buddy Alfred “Chip” Chadbourn died. Chadbourn inspired my original interest in art and I was pleased to be able to help out with his obituary and eulogy. And when my contemporaries Howard Clifford and Carlo Pittore died way too soon in 2003 and 2005 respectively, it was only natural that I would celebrate their lives as artists.

But over the last year, the passing of the art guard has been stunning with the loss of painter and gallery owner Tom Crotty last August, gallerist Dean Velentgas in March, painter the Rev. Paul Plante on June 30 and now painter Frederick Lynch on July 3. Plante was only 73, Velentgas, 79, Crotty and Lynch, 80.

But Lynch never struck me as an old man, just an old soul. I met him 40 years ago when he had a second floor studio on Exchange Street in the Old Port. He was as gentle, modest, soft-spoken and driven then as he was until the day he died.

Our personal collection of art includes a large red and white stripe oil by Lynch as well as a pair of figurative abstractions, one a watercolor, the other a print, a small metal sculpture and a couple of little maquettes. Lynch was one of my favorite artists and, as I have often said when asked to talk about art criticism, if critics had any influence on the art market, he would be a rich man. Everyone in the art world admired him as an artist and as a man.

When I went down to Saco last week to help Janice Lynch and her daughter Alyssa Bouthot work on Lynch’s obituary, I got a chance to see the last paintings and drawings he was working on until a few days before his death. I was amazed and pleased to see that he had managed to bring his art full circle, resolving decades of visual exploration.

Lynch’s paintings in the 1970s and into the 1980s were colorful figurative abstractions such as the 1986 Seven Sentinels that hang in the stairwell of the Portland Public Library. Over the past 30 years, however, his work became increasingly mathematical and geometric as he analyzed the visual dynamics of line, plane, pattern, angle and color.

In his final Divided Man series, Lynch brought the internal logic of his art to an exciting end in oils, gouaches and ink drawings that re-introduce the human being albeit at a molecular level, the human figure made of the same abstract structure as the background. All is one.

“The figurative depictions, many of them autobiographical,” Lynch wrote for an exhibition at Miller Yezerski Gallery in Boston that opened just five days after he died, “help satisfy an always present urge to combine my art and my life.”

I do not want to have to use this column to toll the bell mournfully for every artist friend we lose, as I now see the line moving faster and my place in it coming closer, but this edifying accomplishment of turning one’s life into a work of art is what the best art achieves and this transformational work needs to be celebrated.

Maine’s art history is as significant and defining as its natural history. We are people who work with our hands in a beautiful place. For a hundred years, the most important artists in the state were just passing through or summer residents. In my lifetime that has changed greatly such that the best artists in the state are now more often Maine natives and year-round residents.

The men and women who did the hard work of creating a local audience and market for fine art in Maine are leaving us. Lynch was one of the artists who carried the torch forward with dignity and determination. He will be greatly missed, but forever remembered.

Freelance journalist Edgar Allen Beem lives in Brunswick. The Universal Notebook is his personal, weekly look at the world around him.