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Don Koestner: An Art Well Done

A tribute given by Stephen Gjertson at the memorial for Don Koestner, January 30, 2010.

It is my distinct privilege to say a few words today about Don’s art. As an artist who has known Don and been familiar with his work for almost forty years, I can say without hesitation that he was the finest and most varied American impressionist landscape painter in the second half of the twentieth century. Although his physical body was small, his artistic body of work is truly monumental. Few landscape painters in the history of western art have painted landscapes with as much truth and poetry as Don Koestner.

Sunrise after Snow, 1995. Oil on canvas, 26 x 30.

Don’s art was his response to the beauty of nature that he saw everywhere. This response embodied the artistic principle of humility before nature, yet he was no mere copyist. He knew that art was made by what Rex Vicat Cole called “an intelligently truthful copy of selected parts of nature.” Don was fond of saying that the light effect was the subject of much of his work, and the effects of earth and sky that he painted were almost as varied as nature itself. He recorded every time of the night and day in every season of the year. He had a well-developed visual memory — that faculty so essential to the landscape painter — and he painted fleeting effects that sometimes lasted only a few moments: the steam rising from Lake Superior at sunrise, the sun glinting off ice shards along the coast in winter, a double rainbow after the rain, a storm over the prairie, the reflection of clouds in the water, the last rays of the setting sun.

The foundation of Don’s art was his extraordinary ability to see and render the subtleties of out-of-door color values coupled with the capacity to design and finish his work with the care of a studio painter. He used whatever methods he needed to achieve the result he was after. He painted his impressionist works directly from nature and he also worked in the studio from notated drawings, color sketches, memory and, for subjects far from home, occasional photographs taken by Fern. He used multi-layered direct painting, smooth pastes of paint, dry-brushing, broken color and glazes and scumbles applied in the studio. He ground his own paint and, for fifty-five years, used Maroger’s medium, which he insisted was perfectly sound when made correctly, and the fine condition of his paintings testify to this.

The Remains of the Arch, 1996. Oil on canvas, 36 x 28.

The methods that Don employed were never rote, but unique to each work, painted to achieve the end that he was after: the effect of light and atmosphere that he saw or recalled. I remember telling him how marvelously he had captured the rich warmth of a prairie landscape in the afterglow of a sunset and he told me that he had glazed the entire painting with vermilion. After one painting session on a landscape of the hills inland from Lake Superior, I saw him cleaning his palette with a palette knife and dragging the left-over paint onto the lower part of his canvas. “What are you doing?” I asked. He replied that he was creating a texture to paint over the next session. I recall watching him work on a mid-summer painting of Fern sitting on the ground amidst a mass of green foliage. He was rather vigorously painting the landscape elements in russets and browns and ochres. I said, “That color is pretty warm, isn’t it?” “Yes,” he said. “I’m painting the color of the landscape underneath the leaves. I’ll cover it with the greens later and let some of this show through beneath it.” He often said that nature is warmer than you think.

Glass and Silver, 1978. Oil on canvas, 29 x 33. Collection of Mrs. Harvey Dow.

Don’s greatest strength was painting directly from nature and he once told me that he could accomplish in forty-five minutes working outside what it took him days to achieve working in the studio. Don’s best works exhibit a rare synthesis of impressionist vision with a profound sensitivity for the poetry and beauty of nature. His sophisticated eye for seeing the subtle relationships of outdoor color values made him one of the finest artists working within the impressionist painting tradition, and the quality of his work should assure him a lasting place in the annals of American art history. Some of his paintings of Lake Superior, particularly those looking down into the water from the cliffs in front of his home, are the most truthful transcriptions of the color and evanescence of moving water done from life in the history of art. The paintings of the rock arch on his property, done in every season, time of day, and type of weather, are superior in every way to the celebrated haystacks and cathedrals by Monet; likewise, are the paintings of the island off of his shoreline. His still lifes, though rare, exhibit the same sensitivity to visual truth and technical skill. Glass and Silver, in particular, is a masterpiece.

Through his paintings, the dedicated simplicity of his life, and his friendship with younger artists, Don has influenced a generation of American landscape painters. He gave his time and expertise freely to those who were serious about landscape painting. As his art reaches a wider audience, I am confident that those with eyes to see will recognize the excellence and importance of his achievement and his work will positively and profoundly influence future generations of artists. What I can affirm with certainty is that the lives of everyone here, his family, friends and fellow artists, have been enriched by the life and art of this humble, gentle and exceptional man.

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