Geometry of Living

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 installed this painting in the galleries showing selections from the Museum's Permanent Collection. Maybe some of you Midwesterners can go take a look.

The painting's composition places the yellow house smack dab in the center of the canvas. Left at that I could have had an overly centered arrangement where the house just sat there dead still. But what had caught my eye about the motif was the energetic asymmetry of the adjoining spaces. To the left the trees politely march, alternating between bands of light and dark. They're a bit like the white and black keys on a piano. To the right of the house, all hell breaks loose, with trees soaring up into the heights and the lower branches dancing around in the most irregular rhythm.

Imagine for a moment how the house feels. One one side you have order and logical arrangement, and on your other shoulder you've got an explosion happening. Sound familiar? The poor house has to relate to both kinds of activity, and it does. Notice how the horizontal top of the roof lines up exactly with the tops of the trees at the left. And borrowing a note from the irregularity of the right side foliage, diagonal shadows snake across the most prominent of the yellow walls. In its way the house takes a nod in both directions.

The task of the painter is to spell out the relationships between the big actors. I wanted the house to stand out as an individual and also seamlessly become part of the team of architecture, roadways, and dense living forests. Painting the house much lighter in tone and brighter in its yellow hue took care of the house's unique personality. A little more tricky was getting the house to join up with the rest of the surrounding spaces. One device that helped was placing dark trees both in back of and in front of the house. It's a little like a sandwich with the bread holding the lettuce, tomato and mayonaisse together
(I'm vegetarian so my BLT leave off the bacon).

In the last few years I've become more intrigued with the image of the untouched natural world and have stopped including roads and architecture in my paintings. But for many years before houses and trees together were my bread and butter. My eyes always loved the high contrast of color and form between organic nature and the human-made geometry and colors. The hundreds of such paintings I made of that jarring combination radicalized my eye. I got comfortable with striking contrasts of form and color. Now as I explore painting of simply lakes, mountains and forests, I'm borrowing many of the abrupt movements of color change and colliding shapes that the architecture paintings trained me to see. It's a welcome part of my baggage now. And my sense of balance is getting better...


  1. Hi Philip, I started out this morning doing some research on Abbott Thayer and ended up on your blog! Very fine. I'd like to add your link to mine.

  2. Abbott Thayer is such a wonderful painter- delghted you're banging the drum for him and his work.

    He was an influence on one of my favorite aritsts, Rockwell Kent, early in Kent's career. Thayer had hired Kent on as a studio assistant. After seeing some of Kent's own paintings was so impressed he told Kent to quit the job and concentrate on Kent's own work.

    You have to admire how Thayer overcame whatever envy or pettiness to give Kent such encouragement. Coming from someone of Thayer's stature it much have meant a lot to Kent.


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