Monday, May 22, 2017

Thomas Cole Drawing at Princeton & Burchfield Drawings in Buffalo

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Last weekend I did some time traveling. Or so it seemed. 

I took a trip with the Baltimore Museum of Art's Prints, Drawings and Photographs Society to the Princeton University Art Museum. Upon entering the Museum's galleries I fell almost immediately into an unassuming drawing by one of the great old masters of American painting, Thomas Cole (1801-1848), the founder of the Hudson River School of landscape painters. Titled simply Rocks, Trees, and Dog, Cole made it out probably while out on one of his nature hikes in 1846, just two years before his untimely death. 

As I looked at it I had the sensation that old as it was, it could have been drawn by Charles Burchfield (Am. 1893- 1967) whose drawings I've been studying the last couple of years in the Archives at the Burchfield Penney Art Center in Buffalo, NY. 

Modest as Cole's drawing is in scale, it has a lot to say-playing eloquently with themes of solidity and permanence v.s. forms that are delicate, and almost immaterial. Best of all he makes both of these qualities seem equally important and mutually dependent on each other. 




Charles Burchfield, untitled, 1915, ink and graphite, Burchfield
Penney Art Center, Buffalo, NY


Burchfield had the spirit of early 20th century modernism in his bones. Yet he shared with his predecessor Cole a deep love of wandering through the forest and recording his delights and discoveries. Both of these artists drew with a sharp eye and a palpable love for the forms of the natural world. 


Charles Burchfield, Study for the White Wings of September,
conte, circa 1960, Burchfield Penney Art Center



It's surprising how similar the feeling of these drawings can be, made as they are by artists so separated by time. 

There is an intriguing thread of continuity that runs through American landscape painting. Each generation of sees a little differently. And each has their own particular contribution to make to that long chain of art. I imagine art history like a beaded necklace that winds its way through time. Each artist adds their own take on what it looks and feels like to be alive in their time.  Some of those "beads" shine a little more brightly than others. And sometimes the light from one ends up reflecting on another's contribution from far later on in the chain. The jewels of drawing made by Cole and Burchfield can shine with a special luster. 



Charles Burchfield, Thistles, charcoal, 1961, Burchfield Penney
Art Center

P.S. This wasn't my first trip to the Princeton Art Museum as I have a family connection through my dad's brother. My uncle Robert A. Koch was an art historian at Princeton for many years. His specialty was Northern Renaissance painting and prints. In 1949 he was appointed Assistant Director of the Museum and later served as the faculty curator of prints. He retired from Princeton in 1990.



Thursday, May 18, 2017

Did Charles Burchfield Lie About Color?


When you've grown up in Western New York State as I did you know Spring comes late. Down here in Baltimore all our leaves have fully sprung forth for the year. It's downright green everywhere.

As I was driving yesterday I got to musing about this superabundance of the color green for us landscape painters. Nature's green hues are great for enabling photosynthesis. But the blunt truth for artists is it is almost impossible to paint the colors you see in the forest truthfully and end up with a painting with any life to it. 

Burchfield Penney Art Center just this morning posted the above Charles Burchfield watercolor, Maytime in the Woods, 40 x 33 inches, 1948-1963 on their Facebook page. It's one heck of a stunning painting. 

Seeing it forcefully reminded me of how realist painters, including Charles Burchfield, have to make art that talks about the internal experience. We can't simply report on the literal facts of what we have seen. As he did in so many of his paintings, in Maytime in the Woods Burchfield chose to work with a limited palette of hues- predominately silvery grays, yellows and brown.  

I believe this is how he envisioned his painting in his mind's eye as he worked. When it came to structuring his paintings, he had no choice but to transpose reality's hues into the colors he knew he could really work with. One of the engines that drive his paintings is the way he contrasts vibrant saturated yellows against the cool restraint of his grays. It's a combination he used masterfully over and over again.

Art takes us to a special place where feeling is intensified. Burchfield willingly altered the colors he saw out in the world because he knew doing so would open doors for his viewers to feel the world more deeply. His was not the literal world- he painted a landscape of the mind, and of the heart.



Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Seven Things Charles Burchfield Wants You to Know



A deeply thoughtful man, Charles Burchfield, through the example he set with his studio practice, had a lot to say. This is on my mind as next month I'll be returning to spend another week in Buffalo, NY as part of my Burchfield Residency at the Burchfield Penney Art Center. I thought it would be useful to summarize some of what I've learned from this artist. 

Here goes:

1. Value where you are. Trust that there is meaning in your immediate surroundings. Burchfield realized after only a brief stay in New York City that his creativity had always been most stimulated by close proximity to nature. The big city for him would have been a bad career move.

2. Prepare yourself for insight. He was constantly studying the world through the thousands of drawings he left us. When he got a good new idea it found its way onto drawing paper fast.

3. Be patient.  He knew often brilliance comes to us only slowly. There's no better example than Burchfield of a painter willing to work on a image for many months or years until he developed his idea to its final form.

4. Revisit your earlier achievements. Re-evalutate your path. In the last decades of his life after a long period of working more as a realist he rediscovered much of the visionary energies that had animated the paintings he'd made as a young man. He wasn't one to say "been there, done that." Instead he reached back to mine some of the sources that had propelled him forward as a youth.

5. Life's Potholes Don't Have to be Insurmountable. Reading selections from Burchfield's writings there a numerous journal entries where the artist poignantly reveals his sense of defeat and despair. Yet he made it through them and would return to his productive life.

6. Find a Way of Working that Fits Who You Are. The way other people do things might not work for you. For example almost all watercolorists work with their painting surface held nearly horizontal to keep the fluid pigment from dripping uncontrollably. Yet Burchfield found he painted in his studio better when his watercolor's surface was vertical. It was an odd way to work. Here he is with a brush in one hand and a sponge in the other, ready to catch the any unwanted dripping wet pigment.




7. Be Passionate. Burchfield wasn't afraid to have strong emotions. His embrace of the winds and sounds of nature was fervent. While outwardly polite, his feelings about what he didn't like could be extremely pointed.  In one of his private journals there's a withering description of a pretentious art museum director blathering about the "genius" of some Abstract Expressionist paintings Burchfield had no use for.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Mansard Roofs I Have Loved




Philip Koch, Mansard Roof, oil on canvas, 22 x 44 inches, 2017

Last Thursday evening I put the final touches on my latest painting (above). Then on Friday morning I viewed an Edward Hopper painting in the Philadelphia Museum of Art's American Watercolor in the Age of Homer and Sargent exhibition that reminded me how Hopper's influence has often steered me in my choices of what to paint. 

When I was a kid I'd see these mansard roofs in the old sections of downtown Rochester, NY and wondered about them- they seemed radically different than the California-modern house I was growing up in. To my young eyes they were unfathomably old and mysteriously exotic. But even then I had to admit they created a more striking silhouette against the sky than more ordinary buildings.

My painting stemmed from some drawings I made on location in Buffalo, NY as part of my being Artist in Residence at Burchfield Penney Art Center (BPAC). Tullis Johnson, one of BPAC's Curators told me that the building Charles Burchfield had used as the centerpiece of his famous watercolor Rainy Night was still intact in downtown Buffalo. So on a frigid January afternoon I hurried down to see the old structure. It was too windy to work outside but I was able to make sustained charcoal drawings of it through the windows of the adjacent Public Library branch.




Charles Burchfield, Rainy Night, watercolor, 30 x 42 inches
1929-30, San Diego Museum of Art


Burchfield's painting deftly used the low hanging clouds to catch the strange greenish glow that reflects up from the city's lights. But the looming shadowed building itself has a eerie personality. It seems likely Burchfield chose this building not for its age but for how its network of interlaced shapes would provide his painting with a deepened note of emotion.



Edward Hopper, Haskell's House, watercolor, 13 1/2 x 19 1/2 
inches, 1924, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.


Kathleen Foster, the Curator at the Philadelphia Museum who organized the American Watercolor show writes in her catalogue essay about Hopper's choice to paint subjects that were some 50  years old even in his time. "Hopper had no nostalgic agenda. Attracted by the complex sculpture of the the house, its dark and light patterns of window and sunlight, he simply enjoyed confronting the quirky palimpsest of the American landscape."

The American Watercolor exhibition continues through May 14, 2017.

P.S. You can see a selection of the preparatory drawings made by both me and by Charles Burchfield from the building in Buffalo at my earlier blog post.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

The Vanishing Sand Dune- Edward Hopper and Me


Philip Koch, From the Camel's Hump, oil on canvas, 42 x 72 
inches, 1983, private collection

I painted this large oil from a small plein air painting I made during my very first stay in Edward Hopper's former studio in S. Truro, MA.  The view is looking south at a panorama of Cape Cod Bay. The light is just after dawn. In the foreground is a strange feature- it's the hole in the ground where the distinctive dune pictured below once rose up. It was something of a landmark in Truro, known as the Camel's Hump.


Edward Hopper, The Camel's Hump, oil on canvas, 1931
Munson Williams Proctor Arts Institute, Utica, NY

That natural feature caught Hopper's eye during the second summer he and his wife Jo stayed on the Cape. He waited until the late afternoon's slanting light emphasized the dunes impressive volumes. To my eye it is one of his finest paintings and a keystone of the Permanent Collection of the Munson Williams Proctor Arts Institute in Utica, NY.

Unfortunately an over-eager contractor bulldozed the distinctive dune away to build the foundation for a new house. He had neglected to get the necessary building permits so construction was stopped. But the damage was done.

Hopper's viewpoint for his painting was beside the driveway that would be put in a couple years later when in 1934 he and Jo built the studio where they would live half of each year for the next three decades.


Sunday, April 9, 2017

Saved from a Cloud of Stinging Beasts!



Philip Koch, Dune at Paine Hollow, oil on panel, 13 x 26 inches, 1984

There is a very funny story associated with this oil. I was up on Cape Cod in June of 1984 painting in the Paine Hollow area of S. Wellfleet, working from a tidal inlet off of Cape Cod Bay. Things were going well for the first hour or so when the wind shifted and a cloud of tiny black flies descended on me. I toughed it out for another 10 minutes but the swarm overwhelmed me and I raced back to the car with my painting. When I got back to the rental cottage I looked in horror at the wet painting’s surface which was covered with the tiny bodies of the insects.

I asked my daughters if they’d like the job of removing the bugs if I paid them a penny for each insect. They were young enough that to them this was serious money. Armed with palette knives they began meticulously picking off the critters. They were taking their task very seriously so I left them to it and took a shower to get the remaining bugs off of me.  About a half hour later they proudly came and found me, announcing I owed each of them $3.00. It would have been more they explained, but that they felt bad for me- after each of them had reached 300 carcasses they threw in the remaining 64 bugs for free.

The painting survived surprisingly well, having only hundreds of tiny white scrape marks where each bug had been removed. As the paint was still wet I carefully smoothed over as many of these marks as I could without destroying the overall brushwork. The piece ended up with a surface that was slightly more agitated than usual but I liked how that reminded me of the whole experience.





Wednesday, March 29, 2017

An Arc of Connection: Winslow Homer & Charles Burchfield


Winslow Homer, An Open Window, oil, 1872,
Portland Museum of Art, Portland, Maine

Here are two paintings by two of my favorite American artists, Winslow Homer (1836-1910) and Charles Burchfield (1893-1967).  Differences abound between the hushed interior at the Portland Museum of Art and the glistening sunlight that dazzles our eye in the Memorial Art Gallery's landscape. Each has its own color sense and distinctive mood.


Charles Burchfield, Springtime in the Pool, watercolor, 
1922, Memorial Art Gallery, Rochester, New York

But both artists energize their paintings by doing something surprisingly similar- deliberately contrasting the regular horizontal or vertical lines in their compositions against prominently stated curves.

Winslow Homer's woman stands erect framed by the vertical edges of the window. Homer contrasts the straightness of the right side of her dress against the curving arc of his models left hip. 

Charles Burchfield created a landscape of fields that move mostly horizontally. Against that he made the line of the shore an abruptly curving shape, much like the outline of Homer's curved edge of the model's dress.  Imagine how much more predictable and how much more static both of these compositions would be if these strategic curves had been painted as simple straight lines.