Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Article from the South Bend Tribune


Inland, oil, 45 x 60, 2008 included in the Unbroken Thread
exhibition at the Midwest Museum of American Art

The 6/26/10 South Bend Tribune published a feature article on my exhibition at the Midwest Museum of American Art. Their reporter did a great job, interviewed me twice and came to the opening reception. The entire article is posted on my website:

http://web.me.com/philipkoch/Site/Unbroken_Thread.html

Monday, June 28, 2010

Adirondacks & Plattsburgh State Art Museum, Part II


In my book nobody captures the spirit of being alive quite so well as Rockwell Kent in his work on paper. Above are two currently hanging in the Plattsburgh State Art Museum's Kent Gallery. At the top is wood engraving Godspeed of 1931 where an angel guides and protects a lonely mariner crossing the vast sea. Who wouldn't want such a gentle helping hand from the the heavens? Kent creates a beautiful contrast between the angel's angular arms and the open sweeping flow of her skirts. The figure's silhouette alone imbues the angel with life and personality.

Underneath it is Pinnacle, a lithograph from 1928 where a dark silhouetted man breaks up the empty white sky. I love the little white space squeezed between the figure's right forearm and his hips. The man and the boulder share a massive yet elegant solidity. He seems to become everyman taking in the whole world. (If you click on the photo you'll get a larger version of the prints that shows much of their elegant detail).


Here below I'm standing in front of a wall of prints Kent made to illustrate a new edition of Moby Dick. Such a display constitutes an embarrassment of riches to me. It demonstrates Kent's remarkable versatility with composition and story telling. I tried to pick out a favorite but after a few minutes had to give up as I liked so many.




Here below is a close up of one of the more gripping Moby Dick engravings. The whale has grabbed a rowboat of sailors and is plunging downward with it.




Nearby the Plattsburgh Museum has a preparatory drawing for this print hanging and it's instructive. Notice while the drawing shows us a lot about the whale, how Kent kept pushing to tell us more about where the action was happening. As he goes further into the design in the later print version, he designs the space of the surrounding dark water to make the action feel more real. There's an important lesson here for all artists in seeing how Kent gradually works his way in stages toward a final vision. When I was a young artist I had this idea that the great artists had their work leap out of their head and onto paper in one fell swoop. It was an idea that celebrated my youthful impatience. I now value slow steady work towards a final goal. It's people like Kent who showed me this secret.




And here is a lithograph Kent made protesting the Cold War era Smith Act that the US Congress passed to silence its critics. Kent himself was forced to testify in front of the notorious House Un-American Activities Committee and for a time was prevented from traveling abroad when the State Department revoked his passport.





And here's my final Kent, a lovely little oil from off the coast of Maine. Titled Gold Rock, Monhegan, it shows the artist's knack for conceiving of nature in terms of expressive silhouetted forms. Compare for example the lively dialogue he sets up between the pyramid-like foreground rock and the camel hump shaped cliff in the background. Great light here too.




Of course the real reason I was up in the Adirondacks was the landscape. Here's a photo taken half way up Whiteface Mountain showing the low clouds colliding with on of the mountain's shoulders.




Here I am a little farther up Whiteface Mt., with Lake Placid in the background. Notice my jacket is zipped up against the wind at the higher elevation. Here you can get a sense of the sharper silhouettes of the Adirondacks that I like so much for subject matter. One can see the clear shapes Kent so enjoyed in many of the mountains here- no wonder Kent settled nearby.




Here are two of the vine charcoal drawings I completed while in Lake Placid. Each is 8 x 12" and drawn looking south toward the High Peaks region. And my focus in each is the silhouettes of the mountains against the sky. The Adirondacks just call out for that. I'll be using these drawings to make new paintings back in my studio.









And here is my wife Alice. Normally she is a hardworking nurse and therapist in mental health at a downtown hospital in Baltimore. Extremely dedicated, she works like a fiend. Except on vacation when she turns into a happy mellow vegetable. Here she is walking around a beaver pond at the base of Whiteface Mountain. If you look closely, you can see the beavers' den near the far shore just to the left of Alice's head.


Thursday, June 24, 2010

The Plattsburgh State Art Museum: A Little Jewel in the Adirondacks


I'm just returned from a painting trip to the Adirondack Mountains in the northernmost corner of New York State. I go there for the unrivaled wild terrain.

One of the key functions of art is it shows us how to see the world. As a painter I've learned enormous lessons from the artists who've trodden the path before me. No one has taught me more than Rockwell Kent, the American artist who lived from 1882-1971. I believe he is our finest printmaker, bar none. The biggest single influence on my own painting of the last 15 years is Kent's wood engravings.

One of my favorite small art museums, the Plattsburgh State Art Museum, has the above Kent wood engraving hanging now in its Rockwell Kent Gallery. It's always worth the drive up to Plattsburgh, NY to visit it on the shore of Lake Champlain just a couple of miles this side of the Canadian border. This wood engraving by Rockwell Kent captures the spirit of the man as well as of the Adirondacks in general. Plattsburgh has the largest Collection of Rockwell Kent's art and memorabilia.

A major body of Kent's work was originally destined for the Farnsworth Art Museum's Collection in Maine which was planning a major exhibition of Kent's work during the Cold War with the Soviet Union. Kent had planned the donation with the then Director of the Farnsworth. Some right wing members of the Farnsworth's Board pulled the plug on the Kent exhibition as Kent was an outspoken socialist. So the donation didn't happen. Kent later became friendly with the then President of Plattsburgh State University and donated a large body of work to them. It was later augmented by a second bequest from Sally Kent, the artist's third wife. I've always suspected the Farnsworth Museum has been kicking itself ever since as they lost out on a national treasure.

In his print above the artist portrays himself holding a pack against an intricately designed background of pine boughs and mountain peaks. Unlike the nearby and much better known rounded Green Mountains across Lake Champlain in Vermont, the Adirondacks are full of sharply pointed peaks and startling silhouettes. They actually look something like what Kent found earlier in his career in Greenland before eventually settling in Ausable Forks, NY near Plattsburgh.



Above is an early oil self portrait by Kent hanging in the Rockwell Kent Gallery. Kent studied with the famous American Impressionist William Merritt Chase and the leader of the Ashcan School Robert Henri, who persuaded him to go to paint on Monhegan Island off the coast of Maine. Kent did, fell in love with the place, and lived there a couple of years, building the house that the painter Jamie Wyeth lived in for years (until Wyeth bough his own island).

Kent also worked briefly as a studio assistant for the wonderful American painter Abbott Henderson Thayer (the fellow who painted his daughters as completely believable angels) and lived with the Thayer familiy up in Cornish, NH. Thayer to his credit realized the soaring talent in his assistant and urged young Kent to devote himself to his own painting. Below is an outstanding oil Kent painted during those early years, Late Afternoon in New Hampshire Field from 1905. I love the way he squeezes the sky into a vertical sliver of creamy yellow between the imposingly erect trees. Typical of Kent, the painting is forceful and subtle. He also shows us how many different kinds of green he can get to work together.



And here below is me in front of a giant billboard the Museum installed in an adjoining building. Kent had designed it to aid the Christmas Seals campaign. His angel is a powerful woman indeed but completely graceful as she sails over a winter field. Notice the wonderful way Kent again squeezes the empty space of the sky between her white wing and the uppermost fold of her dress. He then repeats the same diagonal in the angel's extended forearm. I love this poster.



The Plattsburgh State Art Museum publishes a three-times-a-year journal, The Kent Collector. I've been a subscriber to for years. It's full of both well and little known Kent images and articles about his life, his work, and his controversies. It's a bargain and I'd urge any Kent fan to subscribe.

While we were visiting the museum my wife Alice and I got to meet and talk with Marguerite Eisinger, an art historian who edits the journal and who has worked at the museum for a long time. I've been corresponding with Marguerite for some time as I had bought a Kent wood engraving (printed after the artist's death) through her from the Museum as a present for my wife Alice. The Museum sells them to raise money for their programs. It now hangs proudly next to our bed where we look at it daily. It's a gem and was a bargain. Anyway it was fun to finally meet Marguerite in person after all these years.

I'll show a few more of the works the Plattsburgh State Art Museum has up right now in my next post.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Sitting with the Muses



Arthur B. Davies, oil, The Goatherd, c, 1913, Midwest Museum of American Art

If you look up "museum" in the dictionary it will tell you the word comes to us from the Latin for "the seat of the Muses." I like that. Maybe that's why I have two inviting rocking chairs in my studio. Perhaps I'll put a neatly lettered sign on the door where passing muses may see it reading "Please Come In."

We need such visitors, artists to help us with our work, and the everyone else as well just to lend our lives extra meaning and some fun. Above is a painting from the Midwest Museum of American Art's Permanent Collection by a painter I think is absolutely wacky but sometimes very good. Arthur B. Davies is usually considered part of the Ash Can School of American painters early in the 20th century.

But you'll have to look long and hard to find ash cans in his paintings, unlike other members of that group like John Sloan and Robert Henri. Davies started out more of a landscape painter but evolved into a more personal and romantic vision. The paintings often feature nudes out in the landscape and seem to flirt with mixing classical mythology and a dash of dreamy reverie. Whatever the case, I always get the feeling looking at his work Davies was determined to have a good time. MMAA's Davies oil is no exception. Davies and I both studied at the venerable Art Students League of New York (though Davies made it to class a little earlier than I did).




Here's another of MMAA's Collection, Massachusetts Beach, an oil by Pauline Palmer (1884-1938), a Chicago artist who maintained a studio in Provincetown, MA for many years. It's broadly painted and shows a skillful shift from warmer to slightly cooler in the highlights as one moves from the immediate foreground to the middle ground shore. I also like the way Palmer tones down the blues in the sky, preferring to concentrate her brilliant color in the rocks and sands up close to us. Winslow Homer, a fellow student of the light along the New England coast advised painters to "never paint a blue sky," advice he himself usually but not always followed. Here Palmer shows us how to do it well with the color blue, giving it a whole wide range of intensities.





Here's a few more paintings from MMAA's current exhibition of my own work, Unbroken Thread. Picking up the thread I started when discussing the blue sky in the Pauline Palmer painting Massachusetts Shore, I'd like to comment on my skies. The large painting above is my Otter Cove. It was done out of my imagination, based on some memories of the many drawings I've done in the Otter Cove area of Mt. Desert Island in Acadia National Park in Maine. The famous Hudson River School painters Frederick Church and Sanford Gifford did wonderful paintings of the spot.

My own thinking for Otter Cove's sky was that I wanted to have a large gradation across its expanse of a cool low intensity blue violet grey. I kept it at a low intensity so I could make the oranges and yellows right above the horizon really strong. These are complementary colors after all, and it's almost always a good idea to make one complement stronger than the other complementary color if they're adjacent in a painting. Especially so if you're aiming for a deep believable space.




Above at the left is West from Monhegan, also an oil based on a vine charcoal drawning I did in 2006 on Monhegan Island in Maine looking back toward the mainland at the mountains in Camden, ME. The color choices are entirely out of my head. I do remember the day I did the original drawing the sky was, dare I say it, sky blue, and I didn't want to just repeat that. Instead I conceived of the sky as a broad gradation of yellow oranges ready to hold a network of darker burnt sienna clouds.

At the right above is my painting Inland. It does have some straight faced blues in the sky, just to show one can use that tricky color up in the top of a landscape painting. Never say never. I did contrast it against some noticeably orange clouds that in nature would have been varieties of pearl greys and whites.






Finally, in the distance at the left is my oil Ascension. As the title implies, it's about the feeling of rising up as much as receding into an infinite distance. And here I do put quite a lot of blue in the sky at the left. Then that color gradually moves into a warmer grey and finally a yellow gold at the right hand sky. One of the things I feel is critical to make my skies work well is to purposely keep the brushwork loose and visible. Especially on larger works when the sky is too smoothed down, it tends to go dead.

Always the lighter colors have to be applied over the darker colors when one paints a sky. It just works better. When one does it the other way around, the darker strokes look like they want to fall off and land on the floor. On a large painting, this means my palatte has to have many many puddles of colors mixed up ahead of time, ready to go. Generally I find the more colors one mixes up and has ready to go, the better one's decisions for the sky tend to be. The British painter John Constable, a fellow I learned a lot from when I was starting out painting landscapes in graduate school, claimed the sky was "the chief organ of sentiment" in the landscape. I have to smile at his 19th century style of exposition, but the guy had it right. I find if you can get the right mood coming out of your sky, the rest of the painting can be made to happen.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Again at the Midwest Museum of American Art


Here are some paintings from the Midwest Museum of American Art's Permanent Collection that were on display in the galleries adjoining their display of my own exhibition Unbroken Thread: The Art of Philip Koch. Above is an oil by John Elwood Bundy (1853-1933) that the museum lists as Untitled (Indiana Landscape). I was drawn to it as it reminds me so much of the landscape I used to paint out around Bloomington and Nashville, Indiana when I was first venturing outside to paint as a grad student at Indiana University.

Bundy probably did this one mostly outdoors too. He deftly focuses our attention on some trees far more than others by limiting his use of strong darks to only a few places in the painting. As it's mostly done in subtle umbers and yellows, this heightened sensitivity to tonalities is critical for the warm glowing atmosphere that ties the painting together.

Bundy moved to the small city of Richmond, Indiana and taught at Earlham College's Art Department. He painted the unassuming fields surrounding the town for years and created an impressive body of work. Apparently Richmond at the time was a bustling manufacturing center and supported a whole group of landscape painters known as the Richmond School. Bundy helped found what became the Richmond Art Museum, the only art museum in the US located in a public high school. Wish my high school had something like that. In fact, my school had so few art teachers that I wasn't allowed to register for an art class. (The guidance counselor told me the school's art classes "weren't for people who were going to go to college"). Back in 2003 I had a solo show at Earlham College's Leeds Gallery and served as the juror for Richmond Art Museum's annual regional juried show. It was an impressive little museum.



Above is an American Impressionist work by Robert Reid (1862-1929). Titled Bathing in a Stream, 1898 it achieves a delicate balance between lightly toned forms, each with subtly varying colors. Notice the way the tree branch of the upper left corner pushes the woman forward into our space. The tree is serves as an engine to rev up the energy in an otherwise tonally very restrained painting. The device works beautifully.

Compared to Robert Reid, I realize I love to paint with emphatic darks. Here are some images from my own show




Above is Brian Byrn, the Curator at the Midwest Museum of American Art, speaking to the crowd at the opening reception for their exhibition of my paintings on June 6. Just to the right of Brian on the far wall is Inland, oil, 45 x 60".

Below are more of the reception visitors. The large oil on the wall is The Song of All Days, 36 x 72"




Two of the museum visitors looking a Equinox, oil on panel, 30 x 45."




Below: Far wall, Down to the Bay, oil, 36 x 72"



And below at left: The Birches of Maine, oil, 40 x 32"






Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The Midwest Museum of American Art

I'm a huge fan of American regionalist painting and lap up any chance I get to see it. On Sunday I attended the Midwest Museum of American Art's opening reception for my Unbroken Thread exhibition. MMAA is the latest stop for this 8 museum traveling exhibition organized by the University of Maryland University College. I was in good company. Below are two paintings that were hanging in the MMAA's other galleries.



Grant Wood, (1892-1943) Sheaves of Corn, oil on wood panel, 1931

Years ago in the early '90's I had my first art museum solo exhibition in Grant Wood country at the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art in Iowa. As his hometown museum, CMRA has a huge collection of early Grant Wood paintings that all but hit me over the head. Ever since I've made a point of studying his work. Wood has a wonderful assortment of massively heavy volumes in his work. Notice the subtle modeling of his fields and hill sides in this oil. The amazing thing about him is the way he combines this with decorative pattern of the corn sheaves and the yellow saplings. The play between solid heavy forms and intricate weightless patterns enchants one's eye. One of his tricks is he knew just how much pattern to contrast against more restful empty areas. Brian Byrn, the MMAA's Curator told me this oil by Wood was chosen to travel to China to introduce audiences there to American painting during the Olympics. No wonder, it's a world class painting.



Charles Burchfield, (1893-1967), Summer Morning, watercolor, c. 1917

While Grant Wood almost seems to be sculpting his forms out of clay, one of my other favorite artists is represented in MMAA by this watercolor that was also hanging in the main gallery. Burchfield a contemporary of Woods and a fellow midwesterner couldn't be more different in depicting hills and fields. Instead of massive solid forms Burchfield can adopt a lighter touch where matter seems likely to dissolve into pure light and energy at any moment. That he manages to feel so deliberate and yet so felicitous with forms that look like they could pop up and dance across his page is remarkable.





The MMAA is housed in a big limestone building that must have once been designed for a bank that wanted to project an image of infinite stability. The building looks like it could survive an atomic blast. Below are the banner and the Museum's sign advertising the exhibition that greet passers by on Main Street in downtown Elkhart.





Here I am with Jane Burns the Musuem's Director since its founding and a guiding force in bringing the Museum into being. We're posing in front of my oil Inland. Visiting Indiana once again is full of memories for me (I had attended graduate school for my Masters degree in Painting at Indiana University in Bloomington from 1970-72 and lived again in the state for a summer painting its landscape in 1974). It struck me how much a painting like Inland could have been painted anywhere in the state, even though I hadn't consciously thought of it as a midwestern painting.




Below is Brian Byrn, the Curator and an artist himself. He gave my a personal tour of much of what is hanging now in the galleries. Here he is with an oil of mine, Edward Hopper's Road, that the museum added to its Collection in 1995 when they held an earlier show of my paintings. This oil is a studio adaptation of a smaller plein air oil I painted during one of my residencies staying and working in the famous American realist painter's studio in S. Truro on Cape Cod in Massachusetts. It is the view of Stevens Way, a narrow dirt road that winds the half mile in from from the main road to Hopper's studio. When I chose this view to make a painting I was excited by the curves of the road as is rose and fell going over the characteristic rounded sand dunes that make up the outer tip of Cape Cod. It was great in Hopper's day and it remains unchanged in ours.




Intriguingly, this same road is one of the issues in dispute in a long running legal battle between the owners of the Hopper studio and other neighbors and the people who want to build an enormous oversized mansion on one of the very last undeveloped stretches of coastline immediately adjoining the Hopper studio. One of the issues in dispute is the capacity of the tiny road to handle extra traffic generated by the huge new building.

But the far larger question is on whether we value our artistic heritage. Hopper looked out of his studio window daily for forty years as he painted some of his greatest paintings. I am convinced the unspoiled land helped put him in touch with the deepest recesses of his creativity and allowed him to paint art that is treasured the world over. To me who has had the unique opportunity to stay and work in Hopper's studio as a painter and to see what Hopper saw, this is a no brainer. There is no question we need to preserve something as unique as this. I fervently hope the courts rule the unfinished mega-mansion sitting on the Hopper landscape will have to be removed. To do otherwise is to diminish a big part of our history and ourselves.

And below is the new Assistant Curator at the Midwest Museum, Stacy Jordan posing beside my large oil The Song of All Days.



It's a painting that to me asks what is important in our lives. Naturally it's a sunset, but really it's a summation of the thousands of sunsets I've studied in my decades as a landscape painter. The light begins to fade and details and incidentals fall away leaving only the tall silhouetted pines against the sky. What do we remember of our day? The fading of the light seems to ask this of us. Unconsciously I think people are drawn to the landscape and its differing moods as they stir up in us such reflections. Living is a deep, serious business. Art is a tool to help us take that in and make sense of it. That's why museums do us all such a service.

I'll write more about and show more images from the Midwest Museum of American Art in my next post.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

The Great Tree of Art


Philip Koch, Inland, oil on canvas, 45 x 60", 2008


One of the lessons that came from my early teachers was seeing painting as a flat surface like a wall that you would then decorate by breaking it up into colored pieces. Even later as I came to focus more on building deep spaces and atmosphere, you can still feel in my work the brushstrokes as individuals who delight in doing their little dance up on the surface of the painting. Maybe one never completely outgrows one's early teachers. There's a side of me that's a crypto-modern artist.

In many ways it helps to envision the art world as a great tree with many branches. In the previous post, My Early Years As an Artist, I talked about my long route from a beginner in 1966 to my Master of Fine Arts program at Indiana University. Pretty much every artist I met along the way had a similar university oriented background. You could say we were all sitting together on the same big branch. I didn't know much about the rest of the tree.

Elizabeth Ives Hunter, the Director of the Cape Cod Museum of Art has a long personal history with another thread that runs through the American painting world. Her godfather was the conservative Boston painter R.H. Ives Gammell. In the summer of 2007 she organized a conference on realist paintings aimed at contrasting views of realism. She invited as panelists a few painters like myself and a few others who came out of the other branch of the tree. It's called the classical realist tradition by some or the academic tradition by others. So I was fascinated to meet a few of these painters from "the other side." Generally they seemed quite happy perching on their branch of the great art tree.

One of the other speakers was the landscape painter Stapleton Kearns. I liked his work and what he has to say. Some time later I discovered his blog and fell into the habit of reading it. He writes a lot about his own history and in particular about how he learned to do his kind of painting. One of his all time favorite painters was also one of mine, the 19th century American landscape painter George Inness. He writes about people like that and others from the Hudson River School tradition I find so intriguing. His research has turned up all sorts of weird and arcane facts and trivia about the old painters you're not likely find anyplace else. He also has an absolutely wicked sense of humor that breaks through his serious writing (a lot).

Kearns wrote a great series of post detailing his sometimes erratic course of learning to become a painter. He was one of a handful of students who studied privately with the same
R.H. Gammell fellow I mentioned earlier. He did this for something like three years. It was a very structured and hierarchical scene. The sort of training he received was so different than mine it blew my mind to read about it. Yet obviously from it he gleaned much.

Gammell, in turn, had studied with a now very well appreciated earlier Boston painter, William Paxton. Below is one of Paxton's oils. It's a vivid, complex, and deeply emotive painting. Paxton was influenced by French impresionism, but just as much the hand of Vermeer from the 17th century can be felt. Looking at it now, I think it has at least the formal complexity of the best Frank Stella painting, and to be honest, a great deal more. I wish some of my teachers had been Paxton enthusiasts.




From all this I conclude you can come to painting from a lot of different places. I never heard of Paxton when I was a student as all the buzz tended to revolve around the giants of modernism and surrealism (a favorite of a few of my teachers). We never got around to exploring the cultural backwaters of the painting world. That came later and I found there was much to be found in the more traditional 20th century painters.

Here are a few of Stapleton Kearn's landscapes.




Stapleton Kearns, Autumn Near Gorham, NH, 16 x 24"

I confess one of the things I like about Kearns is he likes a lot of the same kinds of sources to paint from as I do. The work above looks like a place I'd like to paint. In this piece one of the great pleasures is the subtle way Stapelton make the water's surface just a touch more rough than the pearly sky. So often twilight is just like that.




Stapleton Kearns, Jackson River, oil, 22 x 28"

This river in the snow painting has a cast of thousands when it comes to trunks and branches. You literally can't paint them all. I like very much the way the artist picks and chooses just a few trees to cast in starring roles and blends the rest into a series of colored hazy greys. It feels like the whole forest is there but that is as much by artifice as anything.




Stapleton Kearns, Mt. Adams & Monroe, oil, 24 x 36"

And here's a great essay in paint on creating a sense of atmosphere through carefully changing the edge quality of the forms from that of crisp potato chips up front to soft feathers in the background. There's also an expansive range of intensities in his oranges and yellows. Those two hues are very easy to overdo, and the artist's restraint gives the painting some of its sober power.

From my perch in the tree of art, I think my education was strongly biased toward self-education. My teachers influenced me of course, but they had a tremendous reluctance to impose their values on me across the board. In the way it forced me to look at my own heart as the ultimate guide through the jungle of contemporary art. As a cost for this freedom, there was an awful lot of silly and even ridiculous art going on in the painting classes I took. Often there was a dreadful lack of self discipline and active looking that held the students back from achieving what they were trying to do. Also there was a terror of getting stuck somehow in influence from the past that strikes me now as a little paranoid.

Looking over at the kind of instruction an artist like Stapleton received, there was discipline aplenty, and a much more focused range of tasks presented to the student. Practice at sharp observation and romance with the art of the past were obviously right up there on the front burner. Nothing is without dangers, and this kind of a beginning sometimes can ensnare an artist in an almost too reverential embrace of the old masters' vision. Yet other artists can come out of such an an engagement with the art of the past enlivened and fully armed, ready to do something fresh.

I don't think there are easy answers for how to train young artists. I don't feel completely comfortable on any of the trees branches. But at least I'm glad they're all there.








Tuesday, June 1, 2010

My Early Years as an Artist


Frank Stella, Harran II, 1967

Here are two painters who were among the first artists I started looking at when I first studied painting in the 1960's at Oberlin College. The top image is by Frank Stella, a painter who was the darling of the moment when I first started paying attention to comtemporary art. He was one the favorites of my first teacher Christopher Muhlert. Since I greatly liked my first teacher, it was easy to be influenced by his enthusiasm. And Stella's work at that time was easy to like. It seemed to celebrate clear clean color and simple bold geometry. Usually done on a huge scale, it simply bowled you over. A lot of Stella's work employed masking tape and acrylic paint. Needing a place to start my own explorations in painting I figured that was as good a place as any to jump in the pool. So I grabbed a roll of tape and made some simple paintings of sharp edged rectangles of color. It's a quick way of working, and I made lots of them. I noticed some of them were more fun to look at than others, though at the time I couldn't say why. Still, I was starting to learn something.



The second piece is by Mark Rothko. At the time his statements about color that was bold yet atmospheric at the same time seemed very attractive to me. So in addition to the "hard edge" Stella influenced paintings I was doing, I also experimented with brushy and fuzzy edged painting with Rothko's example in mind. Looking back on it, it's intriguing that one of my favorite issues in my paintings today is the contrast between making sharply delineated shapes and shapes where the edges blend away into indistinctness. There's a tiny bit of Stella and Rothko still whispering in the corners of my studio I guess.

There was another side to Stella's and Rothko's work that attracted me as well. I was starting to make paintings and I while I could draw better than most people, I was still pretty shaky in this department. In Stella and Rothko I thought I was finding work I could imitate without having to spend years polishing my technical skills.

I churned out a whole pile of simple abstract paintings my first year and started learning a lot about color, proportion, and layering the surface of the painting. But after a year of this I became frustrated with my progress. I knew my life at the time was rich, full, and complicated. Yet my paintings didn't reflect that. They seemed more clever exercises than thoughtful explorations.

I realized I wanted something else and started casting around for other influences. In the college's art library I found books on the realist painter Edward Hopper and realized I wanted to study his sort of painting. As Hopper did a lot of work from the human figure, I decided I wanted to draw from the model. My teachers. all committed modernists, scratched their heads a bit. One of them told me I would be wasting my time, but the other two at least thought there couldn't be any harm in it. But as for providing models in any art classes, well, there wouldn't be funds for that.


Edward Hopper, Evening Wind, etching

Undeterred, I put up signs around campus advertising a figure drawing coop to be held Wednesday nights in an unused studio in the Art Building. I collected five dollars from anyone interested and hired models for the semester. To my surprise, we had lots of people show up- for the two years I ran the sessions. One semester I had 50 people pay the fee and come at least a few times. I also was fortunate that my family's finances didn't dictate that I work full time in the summer.. Instead, I enrolled in the Art Students League of New York and did 5 days a week seven hours a day in front of the model in the summer of 1968 & 69. I learned a ton of new things and saw my ability to see stretch way beyond where I'd started. This was a very sweet time for me.

I also started visiting New York's many art museums. The New York Historical Society of all places made a big impression on me with its collection of 19th century American landscape paintings of the Hudson River School. At first I thought it was odd that I was drawn to these distinctly out of fashion painters. They could be sentimental, and sometimes their shortcomings technically showed up in foregrounds fragmented with too much detail. But often their sincerity in depicting the earth and sky's vividness came through almost in spite of themselves. Most of all I loved their attachment to deep space, changes in the light, and their delight in the sense of atmosphere. These things were a part of me I knew. I had grown up in a remote woods along the shore of one of the northern Great Lakes. These painters could have been painting my childhood I often felt when I stood before their canvases. Below is a typical example by the painter John Kensett. It's a view from Newport, RI, but the look and feel of the light and the water looks like my old backyard where I played with my friends.





I had gone on to grad school at Indiana University in 1970. Most of my teachers were primarily modernist in their orientation, though several used the figure in their work (James McGarrel, Robert Barnes, Barry Gealt, Ron Markman) and one, Bonnie Sklarski, was an out and out neo-19th century painter. All of them to their credit were open to the idea that my growing interest in re-examining Hudson River School painting could be a good thing. And all in their way encouraged my new direction even when it was something far outside their own esthetic. Looking back, I have to admire their flexible outlook. Sometimes you can learn important lessons from people who are very different than you.

Tomorrow I want to talk a little more about my history and then compare it with the example of an artist Stapleton Kearns, a contemporary landscape painter who comes to his work from an entirely different trajectory than my own.