By Daniel Shkolnik / Video courtesy Gorky’s Granddaughter – Christopher Joy and Zachary Keeting


Levni and his Son

When I first met Karacabey Levni Sinanoglu, I thought he was homeless. His salt-colored hair went whichever way it pleased and his train of thought was freer still. That day, Wednesday May 11th, the two of us were eating udon at separate tables outside a Korean-owned mart on New Haven’s Whitney Avenue. He struck up a conversation by saying something about the war flags of Genghis Khan. Later, he compared what the Dali Lama had once told him about the psycho-physical continuum to the work of philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein.

I instantly liked him.

We—or rather, he—talked excitedly for about half an hour. When he finished his udon he thanked me profusely for the conversation, took my hand and shook it. I felt his palm twitching as if something were misfiring on the other end. Levni gave me a flurry of books I ought to read along with his number, told me to call him, and walked off down the street.

Three weeks later, he was found dead in his Erector Square studio.

Levni Sinanoglu was not a homeless man, but a painter at the tail-end of a troubled spiral. His excited, addled monologue was most likely a hint of the manic depression he shared with his late father. His twitching hand perhaps a symptom of alcohol withdrawal. But even in his last days, Levni’s Hippocratic kindness, his “did you get it?” humor, and his savant-like intellect shined through his troubles even as those troubles rose to claim him.

Levni was born in 1964 to Paula Armbruster, former clinical professor at Yale, and Oktay Sinanoglu, former Yale chemistry professor and two-time Noble-prize nominee. He grew up in Northford, Connecticut and as a boy painted caricatures of his classmates, selling them for 25-cents a pop, his mother says. As Levni grew older he and his art matured in tandem, and in 1996 Levni earned his MFA in painting from the Yale University School of Art.


Alternative Landscape

Upon returning to New Haven from a traveling fellowship in the Middle East, Levni befriended Clint Jukkala, now a dean at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art. Jukkala and Levni shared adjoining studios while Jukkala completed his own MFA at Yale. “During those few years he was my chief art critic,” says Jukkala.

“[Levni] had this amazing ability to make connections to things when he was in a clear state,” Jukkala recalls. “He could never see anything in isolation. Everything was part of something else.”

As a result, he’d get lost in his own ever-splitting thought stream and often show up to appointments an hour or more late. “It was frustrating at times to be his friend,” Jukkula says. But then, when he did show up, “he’d give you these amazing moments of clarity, insight, and generosity … it was always worth it.”

Both artists bonded over the colorful work of Paul Klee and the metaphysical paintings of Giorgio de Kiriko. And while Klee’s color theory and Kiriko’s bizarre surrealism can be seen at play in Levni’s work, his paintings offer sweeping vistas into a vast interior realm that was entirely his own.

Early in his career, Levni often painted otherworldly landscapes and mysterious temples inspired by his travels in the Middle East. In one painting, a shark lies outside the door of a temple at night. In another, a concentrated orange beam shoots out of a monumental, sea-green structure. Into nearly all these dreamscapes, Levni released flocks of colored birds that flew freely through metaphysical scenes. As a whole, these early paintings seem to be supported with an invisible, grid-like rigging, a kind of unseen Cartesian scheme that give his paintings the aspect of blueprints for unbuildable worlds.

Nicholas Halko of Gateway Community College, under whom Levni taught art in the early 2000s, remembers these early, “epic” works. Four to five feet across, they were large enough fill a respectable swath of a museum’s wall, and Halko supposes that’s where Levni intended them to hang. He painted frequently, remembers Halko, “full of ambition for the future.”

When he saw him again, circa 2015, Levni’s work was very different. His output during his last years was predominantly smaller pieces painted often on the front of postcards or the back of envelops. The pieces were murky, difficult to make sense of, resembling details of much grander works.


Family Photographs

It’s unclear what precisely precipitated the change in Levni’s life, but it’s clear Levni was struggling. According to his sister, Elif Armbruster, he had a history of substance abuse that began at the age of 15 or 16 while attending Choate Rosemary Hall. While teaching at Hampshire College in the mid- to late-2000s his marriage to Saglar Bougdaeva went south. He had a relationship with another woman at Hampshire which also ended. But perhaps the defining blow was the death of Levni’s father in April of 2015 which, despite their turbulent relationship, affected the painter deeply.

In 2015, Levni came looking for a teaching position at Gateway. From his earlier years at the school, Halko remembered Levni as an “excellent” teacher, “bright” and filled with a “spark of vitality.” (Gateway had been ready to offer Levni tenure.) But during his second stint at Gateway, between fall semester of 2015 and spring semester of 2016, it became clear to Halko that Levni was not his old self.

His lectures became increasingly difficult to follow. He began showing up late, then missing classes altogether. He denied that he was drinking though he often carried around mouthwash. According to Halko, Levni once showed a video of himself lecturing from years ago. Afterward, one of the students commented, “I want to have that guy teach the course.”

During one of his last conversations with him, Halko tried to get Levni to pull himself together. Levni responded, “perhaps I’m not meant for this world.”

Levni completed his second semester but had to submit his grades from an alcohol rehab program says Halko. About a month later, on June 1st, Levni was found dead in his art studio. The official cause of death remains unclear. The Coroner’s findings were still pending as of this writing.

Levni’s death was not a suicide according to his mother. She says if it were, “there would have been a letter—probably a book.” Instead there were sketches and half-finished works in his studio—signs that could mean he planned to continue painting. He and she were making plans for a road-trip to Washington to see friends.

His memorial ceremony was held on June 18th at Yale’s Dwight Chapel. Those in attendance filled the hall. There was barely room to stand along the walls. Family and distinguished friends spoke to his memory.
I thought of my encounter with Levni outside the Korean mart, wishing I had more of him to remember.

Levni left behind what any artist might hope to leave: an embodiment of his humanity. His soul can be found scattered amongst his mysterious paintings—at times intimate or obscure, playful or transcendental. Together, his works offer a generous glimpse into the the private realm in which Levni lived, and one might hope, the landscape in which he wanders now.

3 replies
  1. Shaun
    Shaun says:

    I was very saddened to hear about the passing of an old friend, with whom I wish I had kept better contact with throughout the years. Levni was as free a spirit as I have ever met. He was all forms of madness, bizarre habits, awkwardness in society, general clumsiness, and his hair was always a wiry mess. I will always think back upon our lengthy conversations about art, life and history.

    Come back. Even as a shadow, even as a dream.

    • Ana Mas
      Ana Mas says:

      I just discovered this artist and hope to meet and learn from him. I was crushed to find out he passed away. My heart is filled with sadness and hope the quote you posted comes to fruition. My condolences for your loss.

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