An Alchemist Who Channels the Ineffable

Cynthia Knott works in her studio
Although she often starts her canvases at the beaches she depicts, Cynthia Knott works in her studio to finish them. Durell Godfrey

    “I bought my car based on what I could fit into it,” Cynthia Knott said recently at her Springs studio, gesturing at her all-terrain vehicle. “That way I can go on the beach and get out of the way of hurricanes.”
    All the canvases hanging in the modest workspace behind her house — about 10 in all that have been shipped to the DC Moore Gallery in Chelsea — were started on location at one beach or another in the last nine months and represent a whole new body of work. Ms. Knott figured out a way to put the canvases in her car, even when, at 7 by 4 feet, her reach would certainly exceed her grasp. In addition to the large paintings, she had done about 34 works on paper, seascapes done in watercolor and pastels, the drawing done with paint sticks.
    The term Luminist, used to refer to late-19th-century painters who were influenced by the Hudson River School, was apparently not coined until 1954. In Luminist paintings, brushstrokes are hidden and there is attention to detail as well as the effects of light on landscapes or seascapes — the spiritual significance of luminosity, as exemplified by Martin J. Heade and Frederick E. Church, among others. Ms. Knott’s paintings bring to mind some of the work of Newton Haydn Stubbing and J.M.W. Turner.
    While she nodded at the reference to Turner, she said that she was also “greatly influenced by Mark Rothko,” and by Dan Flavin.
    Ms. Knott has become well known in the last 20-plus years for her paintings of the sky, clouds, water, and horizon, which have been exhibited both in solo and group shows all over the United States, including New York City and the South Fork, and as far away as Japan. Her East End gallery is Pamela Williams in Amagansett; DC Moore represents her in Manhattan. She has amassed significant awards, appointments, and lecture invitations, and last year was awarded a Pollock-Krasner Foundation grant.
    Growing up in New Jersey, Ms. Knott spent a lot of time with her Irish grandfather, who had arrived in this country as an orphan and whose first job was in Philadelphia, where he was trained by a tailor. He taught her and her sisters to sew on buttons in such a way that they would never come off. “He loved having all seven of his grandkids at once,” she said. “He inspired us to tell stories, ‘head stories,’ which we had to make up on the spot,” she recalled.
    He also owned a quarry, where he took his grandchildren. He helped Ms. Knott in particular collect minerals and rocks that she would crush, producing pigments that she mixed with baby oil and put into little glass bottles. How could she have known then that much later on she would do something similar with ground pigments, linseed oil, paint, and other materials?
    Taking the children to the Jersey Shore, the old man enchanted them with sea stories, always autobiographical, and sang them sea chanteys. “It was important to him that we become characters,” she said. “He was the one who got my imagination going.”
    Ms. Knott at first wanted to study marine biology in college and went to Washington University in St. Louis, but she turned out to be more interested in drawing what she saw under the microscope, and after a semester, she dropped out.
    Her parents were not pleased, so, to pay her tuition for night classes at the Boston Museum School, where she earned her B.A., she had to work by day at the Pewter Pot Muffin House and Dunkin’ Donuts.
    She got her B.F.A. at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan and worked pulling prints for Robert Blackburn, with whom she had taken a printmaking workshop. Louise Bourgeois taught her gravure.
    Ms. Knott felt at home in the city, with “the essence of being in New York City and the energy level, you felt you were more in the mix of the downtown art scene,” she said.
    After finishing at Visual Arts Ms. Knott studied textile design and, when a friend suggested she try painting directly on fabric, she ended up painting on silk and being sidelined into a whole “fashion thing,” as she called it, selling their creations to Halston and having them photographed for Vogue by Vera Wang and Jade Hobson.
    “I wanted to paint, and so I painted with hot wax and foam rubber brushes on silk,” she said, even saving the newspaper that was used to catch the excess dye under the silk and using it for her first show at a gallery in Lower Manhattan.
    Marriage and a move to upstate New York attenuated slightly her gradual move toward being a full-time painter. She and her husband bought a five-acre farm for a song, built a house from scratch, and raised chickens, sheep, and goats. While she was there Ms. Knott took a plein air-painting course at Hudson Community College.
    “I started noticing the phenomenon of natural light, which was when I decided: I want to figure out light,” she said. After a stint at the Vermont Studio School, she was accepted to the M.F.A. program at New York University and proceeded to commute from the upstate farm to the fifth-floor walkup she had kept in the city.
    After Paul Brach gave her a graduate show she was picked up by the Tibor de Nagy gallery, which gave Ms. Knott her first solo show at about the time when her husband decided he wanted to move to the East End, which is how she fetched up in Springs.
    “I didn’t want to do genre painting,” she said. “I looked out at the sea and the horizon line and watched it go by.” She studied Cartwright Shoal, on the south tip of Gardiner’s Island, and looked at the horizon line “that comes and goes and changes colors,” she said. “I prefer the light in Springs; it is buoyant and luminescent.”
    “The real source of the artist’s identity is how you make your marks — the delineation of the horizon line.” Ms. Knott underpaints the linen she works on, which has a texture, a nub to it, and which catches the copper pigment. Then she takes the mixture she’s made of oil paint, metallic pigments (sometimes gold, silver, or lapis lazuli, as well as copper), heated beeswax, Damar varnish, and linseed oil and layers that onto the surface with a palette knife and then a brush, scraping, in fact, through the paint right down to the linen, before reapplying it. The paste-like substance has the consistency of honey.
    Before she underpaints the linen, however, she has already sized or treated it with gesso and a type of glue. The whole thing is a process of many layers, “repeatedly scraped away and reapplied, creating a ‘skin of memory,’ ” she said. The varnish makes the surface hard and the oil paint dries through oxidation and the movement of air over the encaustic, which is why she has fans on all the time in her studio.
    The 200-square-foot space, which she is about to quit, has been the birthplace of 10 one-woman shows.
    In only one of the paintings in her studio was there no apparent or even subtle horizon line, just light floating above water. Some of her pictures are incandescent and uplifting and others brooding and dark, no doubt varying reflections of her own experience. In the 22 years she has been on the South Fork, she said, “I have gone through a lot of dark times, bright times, and muddled times.”
    She often gets invited to artists’ residencies and goes to the ones that are on water, such as at Fogo Island, a 25-by-14-kilometer island off the east coast of Newfoundland and Labrador. “I get excited to look at something that’s atmospheric,” she said. She has painted seascapes in Ireland, Scotland, and on the coast of Maine.
    Ms. Knott, who has been dubbed a “horizonologist” by her friend Billy Collins, a former U.S. poet laureate, signs her paintings on the back. She doesn’t want the letters to interfere with the viewer’s grasp of the whole expanse of water, sky, horizon, and light. “The horizon line has become my signature line,” she said.