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Showing posts from March, 2011

The Excitement of Jean Michel Basquiat

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A few years ago I attended a talk given by a leading figure at one of New York's most prominent auction houses. It was sponsored by the Baltimore Museum of Art which had asked him to come down and speak about the comtemporary art market. He had a lot of Jean Michel Basquiate paintings coming up at his next auction, so he naturally included that artist's work in his talk. When he came to the Basquiats he commented to the audience "My hedge fund managers really eat up the Basquiats."

Proabably so. Basquiat was a young artist who fell in with Andy Warhol and managed for a few years to get into the headlines. Then a heroin overdose took him. Below are two paintings by earlier artists, George Inness and Caspar David Friedrich, two 19th century landscape painters. What do they have in common with Basquiat? At first glance, not much.

Well, beyond all the paintings being made with paint, they share a few other traits. All three place dramatic large dark shapes against light…

My Traveling Museum Show

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The Saginaw Art Museum up in Michigan just posted a bunch of great photos from their recent opening for their Art 4 All group exhibition. My eight museum nationally traveling show Unbroken Thread: The Art of Philip Koch will be showing in these galleries starting Dec. 9. Hope any Midwestern readers in the area will come and say hello. Just before that the show will be at the Peninsula Fine Arts Center in Newport News, Virginia July 23- October 2. Here below is one of the spaces where my work will be hanging at PFAC.


Since these gallery spaces are huge and I'll be expanding the show by adding some new paintings and drawings to the exhibition. The idea for this show came from Eva J. Allen, Ph.D., an art historian, who graciously curated the exhibit and wrote a scholarly essay on how my work relates to the grand tradition of American landscape painting in the show's 92 page color exhibition catalogue.


When the first serious landscape painters started working in this country they bo…

Surgery for Artists

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In a real operating room I'd faint at the first incision. Yet isn't there a fascination at the notion of plunging beneath the surface to grasp things by their bones and move things around to make them work right. Painters are partly just squeemish surgeons. Like them we want to grab a scalpel  and get to work, we just don't do so well with real blood.
I like operating on little paintings, especially when doing exploratory work. You make changes quicky, can graft limbs back on if amputations don't work out so well, and families of your patients who die on the table never coming after you with pesky malpratice suits. I love painting large canvases, but it's my work on "little patients" that teaches me how to master the big ones.
Above is a plein air vine charcoal drawing I did on Deer Isle in Maine two summers ago. I was drawn to the contrast of the light early summer greens of the foreground peninsula contrasting the heavy darks of pines on the second promen…

The Most Over the Top Painting, Ever

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This is a painting that was a huge inflence on my decision to switch to painting landscapes. It's by the German Renaissance painter Albrecht Altdorfer. He's often credited as being the first european artist to do a purely landscape oil painting (instead of having the landscape just be a background for human figures). This one is titled Battle of Issus and was completed in 1529. If my memory serves me correctly, I ran into this completely-over-the-top painting in the art history textbook I was required to buy for my Art History 101 my freshman year at Oberlin College, Jansen's History of Art. (And if I'm wrong about that being the book, it was in another survey-of-art book I purchased shortly after that). 


At the time I was painting abstract canvases under the influence of the art stars of the day, Frank Stella and Jules Olitski. Lacking much in the way of drawing skills, this was about all I could muster at the time. But blasting away in acrylic paint I churned out doze…

Roofs and Skies

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This is a photo I took at the Washington County Museum of Fine Arts out in Hagerstown, Maryland this morning. Here the workers who constructed the new roof over the Museum's enclosed courtyard are painting the beams that hold the large sheets of glass in place. It will be a couple more months before the courtyard project is completed but you can see it's going to be a great addition to the Museum.

Below is an oil that's hanging in an exhibit now of the WCMFA's galleries of 19th century work from the Museum's Collection curated by Elizabeth Johns. The Museum has an amazingly good collection of American painting from this period, especially so when you think of what a modest sized city Hagerstown is. This one is Pool in the Meadow by Hugh Bolton Jones (1848-1927) who I'm proud to say studied at the art school where I teach, the Maryland Institute College of Art.




Some years ago I got to talking to a professional gardener. He was an aging hippie but seemed a very …

A Memorial

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Philip Koch, Asgaard oil on panel, 12 x 12", 2011

Here's a new small oil I just finished painting last evening. This is one of those out-of-my-head compositions that summarize a host of memories and emotions. I used to live out in the Cascade Mountains in Washington State. They're huge, snow covered for many months, and have improbablely sharp pointed silhouettes. When I lived out there I was deeply involved in my enthusiasm for the East Coast mountains that had fascinated my favorite 19th century painters. Those eastern mountains were forested, rounder, and a little restrained. The Cascades seemed almost like a stage set or an invention from the Disney studios- I just didn't know how to deal with them back then. And there was something else too. For reasons I didn't understand then, the snow covered Cascades, beautiful as they were, left me feeling uncomfortable and lonely. 
Years later I started looking more at Rockwell Kent's work, especially his wonderful en…

An Artist's Guide to Tea and Chocolate

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This is a vine charcoal drawing I did on loecation in Deer Isle, Maine that I'm thinking about turning into an oil painting. It's restrained and sparse  In reality there was also a background- an unbroken line of trees that stretched off to the right side of the drawing. It didn't fit with the shimming atmosphere I was aiming for, so I eliminated it. 
There's an amazing flexibility to working in vine charcoal- with just flick of a finger you can change a whole hillside. It invites you to make alterations in  the idea you started out with. Honestly I'm not sure I'd have been able to be so radical with my "surgery" of this place had I been working in another medium. Sometimes vine charcoal seems so subtle and light that it reminds me of drinking a delicately flavored tea.
Below is a photo I took of my palette earlier this week as I was just starting to go into painting a big passage in the sunset of one of the six foot wide paintings in my studio. Oil pig…

Secrets About Seeing from Edward Hopper

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Here's a striking portrait of Jo Hopper, the spouse of the famous painter, by Hopper himself. It has a forcefulness to it. You get the feeling Jo was a woman of energy and substance (she was). She looks like the kind of person who could surprise you at any moment.

Artists have to evoke such feelings with their limited means of shape and color. So over the centuries they've learned what works and what doesn't. Hopper was a master at finding expressive shapes for his paintings. By shapes I really mean silhouettes.  Let's take a fresh look at Jo Hopper by turning her upsidedown. This is one of the best studio tricks artists have been using all these years to see more than the average person- try it. It works.


























Standing on her head like this Jo is in some ways far easier to see- our usual habit of looking first to the eyes and mouth gets subverted. Instead, your eye goes to bigger issues. Look at how architectural Jo looks. Mostly her silhouette is drawn with straight line…

Layer Cake and Picture Puzzles

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When I was a kid my sister Kathy and I would spend inordinate amounts of time putting together those big 1000 piece picture puzzles. I loved them. One particular favorite was of a covered bridge flanked by maddeningly intricate marsh grasses and forests. To put the darned thing together required incredibly sharp observation of the colors and patterns. But just as much one had to study the distinctive silhouettes of the cut out puzzle pieces to see if they might be the right one to fit the annoying empty hole in the left size of the bridge. Honestly, I can't imagine a better training for an artist-to-be.

Above is an oil by a German-American painter Oscar Bluemner done in the first decades of the 20th century. Look at the elegant spaces between the yellow houses where Bluemner planted his trees. Their thick bending trunks push back agains the encroaching architecture. Here the artist is consciously playing off two very different kinds of flat silhouetted form against each other. Th…

Geometry of Living

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Philip Koch, Cape Cod Morning, oil on canvas, 30 1/2 x 50", 1994
Collection of the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art, Iowa

I was once told it's important to live a balanced life. Couldn't agree more and ever since I've been looking for someone who's got that. I'll let you know when I find one.

For everyone I do know it seems more the opposite- that we're all caught up in the swirls and flows of currents we don't control. Of course we make our own lives happen by paddling and steering as best we can, but just as much, life happens to us. Precarious as it sometimes feels it's still very possible to have a good life.

That's why we have painting and music- reminders that the seemingly unconnected parts of our lives can achieve moments of elegant balance. Above is one of my paintings from a few years back (my scanning- of-old-slides-project continues apace). Sean Ulmer, the Curator of the Cedar Rapids Art Museum wrote me last fall to tell me he'd just…

Fighting the Headwinds

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When you make a painting it's a little like sledding uphill or pushing back against a strong headwind. As difficult as this is, a lot of painters have succeeded. How? One way I'm convinced is their experimenting with the same basic idea. They give it different forms until they finally get it right. For painters, this means working on several different versions, often at radically different sizes.

Above is my studio this morning. On the left easel is a 45 x 60" oil I've been working on again after a long time. At the right is a new oil study, North Passage, oil on panel, 18 x 24" that I finished last week.
The new small painting is giving me great ideas on how to resolve the big guy at the left.

The large oil has a real history- it's had several different stages and I've had a continuing urge to keep fiddling with it. Sometimes I just plunge ahead and work directly on the large canvas. Other times though it just feels better to work out the in-progress pa…