Friday, September 4, 2009

Breakthrough Summer

Philip Koch, Evening Hillside, graphite and white pencil
7 1/2 x 13 7/8", 1971

You can go a long time just banging into things in the dark.

As an undergraduate art major at Oberlin College I made a ton of paintings and drawings, learned mountains of new ideas, and produced very few pieces I could be genuinely proud of. My first 9 months in graduate school at Indiana University pretty much continued this confusing pace.

Then events sharply pivoted, though even after all these decades I can't say exactly why. Perhaps imperceptibly the forces had been building up to the breaking point. In June 1971 the barn door burst open and out came the horses at full gallop. My work, all of a sudden, got good.

Always before a terminally impatient artist, I managed to slow myself down from my usual headlong-rush-method of painting. The passion burned as strong as ever but I found ways to temper and modulate it. A big part of the success was I finally accepted that the artists of the past could be an active source for contemporary painters. The above drawing was deeply indebted to John Frederick Kensett and John Constable, two 19th century painters who could draw in graphite like angels. I spent hours drinking in reproductions of their work in books from the University's Art Library.

Right now I'm cleaning up my studio from a flood (fortunately with lots of heavy lifting I saved all my paintings). But it meant moving work I haven't looked at in sometimes many years. This morning I came across this Evening Hillside. It brought a flood of its own of old memories.

The whole month previous to doing this drawing I had been feeling a new current starting to move through my oils. I didn't quite trust myself that it was actually happening. Sitting on the grass outside a dorm working up this drawing it just struck me "hey, I'm not imagining this, I am finally onto something in my work." Not that it's the piece I was most proud of from that year, but this was the moment I started to trust my instincts.

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