Friday, May 20, 2016

Mysterious Backgrounds- Wichita Art Museum's Burchfield Hush Before the Storm

Burchfield Penney Art Center posted this Charles Burchfield watercolor today on their Facebook page. It's Hush Before the Storm from 1947 that's now in the Wichita Art Museum. What with the cheerful blossoms in the immediate foreground one might at first be tempted to see it as just a pretty picture and move on. But we're talking Burchfield and with him there's usually more going on.

I think one of the best pieces of advice I could give someone who wants to experience a painting more deeply would be for them to spend more time enjoying the painting's background.

What caught my eye in this Burchfield was the sky. The crazily active shapes in the trees could have monopolized the painting.  It would have made his idea too simple and we would grasp the composition too quickly. But the artist cleverly invents countering shapes in the sky that answer back to the noisy arches and angles in the trees. 

Very often I think master painters reveal themselves with the touch of their brush. Burchfield artfully lays in these parallel rows of little brushstrokes in his clouds. He makes a point to keep changing their direction as he moves around the sky. You don't know ahead of time which way they're going to move so you keep looking.

For me the slate gray color for the approaching storm clouds is the perfect foil for the warm greens in the front half of the painting. Burchfield wants you to look at his sky so he invests it with a host of little unexpected moves to seduce your eye. 

We'd better keep moving. Judging by the look of that sky it's going pour on us soon.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Tapping Into the Past

Burchfield Penney Art Center is great about posting a different Charles Burchfield painting on their Facebook page every morning. A recent one is this lush watercolor, August Morn, 1933-49, a view Burchfield painted from his backyard in Gardenville,NY of the backyard of the Arbarella house next door. I love the painting for the way packs in an incredible amount of information and detail. In less able hands it would have been an overcrowded jumble. Yet Burchfield evokes a feeling of an intimate and even cozy space. He organizes it beautifully, with a big role assigned to the prominent and impenetrable row of sunflowers that wall us off from the neighbor's yard.

One of Burchfield's great talents was finding extraordinary possibilites in the close at hand.  

It's always a mystery how some artists manage to orchestrate their forms and their emotions together in a powerful visual duet. I think one reason Burchfield's creativity functioned on such a high level is how seriously he would relive and relish his most vivid memories. 

When I saw August Morn I realized that for Burchfield his neighbor's Gardenville backyard appealed to him because it so clearly reminded him of the views from his own boyhood home.
Here's a photograph I took standing in the back of the home where Burchfield grew up in Salem, OH. That sloping one story addition on the right side house is a dead ringer for the Gardenville, NY house he would paint decades later.

Imagine the thriving garden that was there in Burchfield's day. Maybe you can't go home again, but Burchfield did the next best thing.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Blistering Vision- Burchfield's Coke Ovens

Philip  Koch, Coke Ovens Leetonia, Ohio,  
vine eharcoal, 12 x 9", 2016

This morning I was reading the notice for the upcoming exhibition at Burchfield Penney Art Center, Blistering Vision: Charles E. Burchfield's Sublime American Landscape (on display July 8 through October 23, 2016 in Buffalo, NY). Last summer I had begun a drawing that relates to BPAC's exhibition but never completed it to my satisfaction. 

One of the themes of the show will be to demonstrate how Burchfield blended the tradition of romantic 19th century American nature painting with his own awareness of the growing threat posed by industry. In Burchfield's work are some of the first stirrings of environmental consciousness in 20th century American painting. 

Just a few miles east of where Burchfield grew up in Salem, Ohio is  Leetonia, home in his day to a major coal mine and a field of open air coke ovens. Beehive-shaped brick enclosures built into banks of earth, these ovens would burn 24 hours a day generating the enormous temperatures needed to produce coke, a fuel necessary to make steel. 

Reading the description of the show, I immediately remembered my trip last summer to Leetonia, Ohio where Burchfield had painted the slightly other-worldly coke ovens. How I'd felt when I was working in Leetonia came back to me full force. I went back into that unfinished drawing. Sometime later it was done.

Philip Koch working on the drawing  above 
of the coke ovens in Leetonia, OH, August, 2015

When I visited the Leetonia ovens I found extensive rows of these brick-lined little caves. Peering into the black holes in the earth you couldn't help but feel the place had an almost surreally intense personality. For Burchfield, whose imagination was so easily stirred, the sight of these ovens flaming away at night made a haunting impression on him. Seeing the gaping mouths of these ovens all these decades later I found myself intrigued but a little unnerved. 

The sublime implies a side of nature that inspires awe or even fear. Burchfield never shied away from any of nature's moods- he took felicitous delight in sunny fields, but also a devilish pleasure in the slightly haunted forest. His art beckons to us to open our eyes more widely and to take in both the beauty and the strangeness of this world.

Charles Burchfield, Coke Ovens at Twilight,  watercolor, 1920

Charles Burchfield, Abandoned Coke Ovens, watercolor,
1918, Wichita Art Museum

As the Artist In Residence at the Burchfield Penney Art Center this year, I've had an enviable opportunity to get close to one of our greatest painters. Burchfield, a profoundly emotional man, labored to give his experience concrete form. His drawings and paintings take us to a place where we can feel some of what he felt  

As I read about the upcoming Blistering Vision show this morning I recalled the hundreds of discoveries I've made studying his paintings. Honestly it feels like a deep river of energy and knowledge. From that I got the momentum I needed to complete my drawing.

Monday, April 25, 2016

Koch Invited for a 16th Residency at Edward Hopper's Former Studio

Photo taken by Philip Koch of Edward Hopper's
 S. Truro, MA studioi n the early morning sun.

I'm a fortunate artist. 

Over the past year I have been the Artist In Residence at the Burchfield Penney Art Center in Buffalo, NY. On repeated visits there I've studied Charles Burchfield's painting and preparatory drawings at close hand as well as painted out in the landscape locations where he chose to paint. I've gained a far deeper understanding of Burchfield's methods and how his approach to the landscape changed over differnent stages of his career. Particularly valuable was a side trip I made to visit Burchfield's Salem, OH boyhood home.

Yesterday I received the invitation to have a 16th residency in the former studio of Burchfield's friend and fellow painter Edward Hopper in S. Truro, MA on Cape Cod. As an artist myself who originally was inspired by Hopper's work to turn from painting abstractly to working as a realist, the chance to work in the space where Hopper made so many of his world famous paintings has been remarkable. 

These two painters Burchfield and Hopper came to know each other because they showed in the Rehn Gallery in New York. Despite the marked differneces in the styles of their realism, they deeply respected each other's work.

Coupled with my experiences on the Burchfield Residency it's also led to some real discoveries about what each artist needed to best stimulate their very individual kind of creativity.

One is how differently these two realist painters approached their subjects. Both were deeply invested in direclty experiencing the landscape, often going for long walks or drives in search of material. Burchfield so often would find his material close at hand. He literally painted his backyard dozens of times in both Ohio and later in the Gardenville suburb where he lived the second half of his life. Often he would paint the interior of his home or studio, so window sills, closet doors and stairways became his major actors.

Charles Burchfield's painting of his Gardenville, NY studio, 
The Studio, watercolor, 1942. Collection
of the Burchfield Penney Art Center, Buffalo, NY

Hopper on the other hand seemed to relish finding subjects at a distance from where he ate his breakfast. With a few notable exceptions, almost all his work on Cape Cod was painted from locations at least a half mile or more away from his studio building. 
Somehow his painter's imagination got fired up better when he had more of a feeling of freshly discovering a new road or house he'd never seen before. Rarely would he paint the same place more than once, preferring to head out in his Buick to find something new to excite his eye.

Edward Hopper painted this subject a couple miles north of
his S.Truro studio. Corn Hill, oil on canvas, 1930, McNay
Art Museum, San Antonio, TX

Burchfield rather preferred the close at hand. Subjects often excited him more if they were familiar. Often he would paint the same building or yard over and over again, always varying his interpretation.

These two artists were blessed with abundant talents. For each of them one of those talents was the ability to recognize what way of working suited them best. They embraced it and the rest is history.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

The Cat Story Behind This Painting

Philip Koch, Lizzie's Day, oil on canvas, 18 x 16", 1980

Above is an oil I look at with wistful recollection. Hanging in my hallway it greets me when I come home. I did it on location in the Cylburn Arboretum in Baltimore. I had started it during a string of exceptionally beautiful Fall mornings. It went well and I decided to add something to anchor the empty forgeground. I persuaded my then girlfriend Alice to model for me out at the park that coming weekend. 

When I met Alice she had emerged from a difficult period in her life and had even had a close call with a life threatening illness. Through these times she explained to me that she had felt the most comforted by, of all things, her cat Liz. Unfailingly devoted to Alice, Liz would always end up near her, offering that mysterious companionship that cats can be so good at. Liz of course would listen and to Alice's mind, Liz understood.

The same week I was working on the Arboretum painting Liz took seriously ill. Upon examination the vet was pessimistic but had us leave Liz overnight at his clinic for observation. Glumly we left and drove to park to have Alice model, both of us suspecting we wouldn't be seeing Liz again.

The autumn light that morning was shining down on us and the trees through a barely perceptible mist. It lent a quiet glow to everything it touched. It was quiet and stunningly beautiful and both of us felt comfort from that. Liz died the next day.

I wanted to somehow honor this small cat who had been such a confidant to Alice so I chose the title Lizzie's Day for the little canvas. Still have it as it has too many memories to put it on the market.

Three years later I did an expanded version of that painting. I wondered if I should also title it Lizzie's Day. Liz though was an authentic and modest girl. I think she would have wanted just one painting named for her. 

Philip Koch, Bright October Day, oil on canvas, 54 x 48", 1983
(Detail below)

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Here Comes the Night

Charles Burchfield, December Twilight, watercolor, 1932-38
Wichita Art Museum

Edward Hopper, Automat, 1927, Des Moines Art Center

Charles Burchfield and Edward Hopper, two of the giants of realist painting in 20th century America exhibited together in the same art gallery in New York and had a long term friendship. Despite the marked differences in their vision, they deeply respected each others painting. 

Both of them elevated times of day to play a key role in their paintings. Here are two paintings that focus on darkness- while very different each has its own intense poetry.  Ironically Burchfield's watercolor, while the spookier of the two, contains less black than Hopper's strangely empty storefront window. 

Intriguingly at the top of their paintings both artist employ a repeated pattern to create a recession into a far distance, Burchfield with his rows of low clouds glowing dark red and Hopper with his reflected saucer-like light fixtures.

Both artists are adept colorists. Wisely they make their highlights pulse with energy-  contrasting both warm hightlights and cool highlights against each other and creating a bit of magic. Burchfield lights warm yellows in three of his windows that feel ever so different than the pale band of light he streaks across his horizon. 

Hopper in turn ramps the light up way up, but plays off a whole range of yellows against an icy cool white table and an only slightly warmer white trim around his windows.

Burchfield and Hopper were known as outwardly reticent men. But deep within them burned an intense emotional fire. Each in their way had the visual resources to give us lifetimes of remarkable evocative work. 

Monday, March 21, 2016

The Best Rainy Night Painting Ever- Charles Burchfield

Charles Burchfield,  Night of the Equinox, watercolor,  
40 1/8 x 52 1/8", 1917-55, Smithsonian American Art
Museum, Washington, DC.

I was just looking at what has to be the wettest painting ever painted, Charles Burchfield's watercolor above. What caught my eye was the water gushing from the downspout on the side of the house and feeding a small lake where the yard used to be. 

I remember pulling on my rain boots as a six year old and happily splashing my way through just such suddenly appearing streams.  I'll bet Burchfield had just such a reverie as he painted. In the detail just above he paints the puddle as a huge waterway, giving it as much personality as the mysterious shapes in the sky.

Last year when the Burchfield Penney Art Center invited me to be their Artist In Residence for this year they suggested that I might travel out to Burchfield's childhood home in Salem, OH. There Burchfield came of age and there he made many of his early masterpieces. Looking at Night of the Equinox  this afternoon
I realized Burchfield used his Salem home (at the left) and the neighbor's house at the right with the tall chimney for the setting. Just to be sure, I contacted Nancy Weekly, the Burchfield Penney's Curator and she confirmed my suspicion. 

To make enough space in the foreground for his enlarged puddle, Burchfield more than doubled the distance between his house and the building at the right (which was known as the Weaver house, according to Weekly).

Here's a photo I took last summer of the low house that's at the right of the painting showing how narrow the alley between the houses is in reality.

Burchfield was after a different reality- one that celebrated the forceful wind and rain. To be truthful to those feelings he had to rearrange the big forms in his composition to tell that story better.

One other liberty he took was placing a small shed right in the center of his composition. I suspect he wanted a form that the swelling stream could disappear behind. Here's another photo from last summer of the backyard showing how the space is actually far more empty.

Here's the view of the Weaver house from one of Burchfield's second floor bedrooms.

I made a drawing of the view out that window while I was in Salem.

Philip Koch, Salem Rooftops, pastel, 14 x 10 1/2"

Here's a vine charcoal drawing I made on that visit standing in what would be the far middleground of Burchfield's watercolor looking back toward the Weaver house on the left and Burchfield's house at the right. Currently I'm using this drawing as a basis for a 5 foot wide oil of Burchfield's house and will be showing it soon.