Thursday, September 29, 2011

Rage and Turmoil

And you thought you were having a bad day...

In the popular imagination artists are pictured as passionate. And honestly when I think of what it takes to stay at the easel making paintings over a lifetime, I think that word nails our personalities well. But I've come to the conclusion that emotions can to be too strong for an artist to tackle directly. Cezanne once said that while art wasn't the same as nature, it travels on a track that runs parallel to nature. It like that.

The above painting comes as close to a nightmare as any I've ever seen. At times of distress I've found myself looking through Google Images searching for this gruesome oil. It's Goya's Saturn Eating His Children. It's so ghastly I feel bowled over by it. And while I feel it's better than anything Damien Hirst will ever do, it's not one of Goya's better pieces. The image shocks us with its biting graphic action, but after you've seen that I think it doesn't offer that much of a second act for one's eye.

The ability to be passionately involved with one's idea is right at the heart of art. But to make a painting people are going to want to return to over and over one has to master an additional task- detachment. 

Painters have to go to all the corners and recesses of the painting, far away from the "action" and find new things to say there as well. Any painting with staying power is one where all the forms and  colors are intriguing in their own right. The forms themselves have to have to do the singing, not just describe the action. In the Goya for example, I feel Saturn's eyes are so dominant that they overpower the rest of the painting. 

Quite by accident I tripped over the painting below. It's a painting by Emil Nolde (German, 1867- 1956) Sunflowers in the Windstorm from the Columbus Museum of Art in Ohio. After viewing the ripped flesh of the previous painting, this one might at first seem pretty tame. But compare it to all the paintings of flowers you've seen. 95% of them border on saccharine and are predictably painted. It's pretty hard to say something fresh about a yellow flower, but that's exactly what this Nolde fellow managed to do.

Sunflowers are usually painted very yellow, but Nolde plays against our expectations by switching to an orange/ochre blossom at left and two extremely pale flowers on the right. To build their intensity he focuses instead on expressively shaping the petals into a distinctive rhythm. 

And what a wonderful contrast the pale light of the foreground has against the stormy mystery of the  sky. It seems daylight in front and night in the heavens. Nolde's authoritative paint handling lays down both with similar strokes and convincingly knits together two worlds that shouldn't really be connected. The sky reminds me ever so much of the earlier work of the decidedly un-modernist American painter Albert Pinkham Ryder (1847-1917). Like Ryder, Nolde builds a flowing network of darks that move across the canvas from side to side as a counterpoint to the stated round blossoms. 

Is the Nolde painting better than the Goya? To me it is something I could live with over time while the chomping Saturn seems more of an image designed for a one-shot shock. I'm glad Goya painted it because it is so hellish, and we humans have to find forms to express these most difficult sides of our lives. It's a perverse sort of comfort to know that Goya, at least once and a while, felt really really awful-
(you and I aren't the only ones to sometimes have to face that).

But to me art also serves to show us how to have a little distance on turmoil. We don't know for sure whether our sunflowers will survive this storm, but Nolde gives them a fighting chance. His painting seems more a dialogue between violence and grace. Knocking the tenor of his storm down a little bit he's  made a more emotionally durable painting. 

Art is long: Life is short goes the saying. Nolde's flowers seem ready to go the distance.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

How to Lead an Art Tour

My first ever trip to an art museum was in elementary school. We were taken to the Memorial Art Gallery in Rochester, NY. Perhaps it was in 4th or 5th grade.  I saw the museum's major Winslow Homer painting of his Prout's Neck, Maine studio glimpsed through the heavy fog. Even as a kid I'd heard of Homer as my parents had a wonderful print by Homer hanging over our living room couch. "Hey"I thought, "that's the guy we've got at home!" Obviously I was a real art world insider. The musuem's Homer  was and is a terrific painting, the only piece I remember from that early tour. Seeing as I am obsessed with painting rocky shorelines to this day, I know that early museum trip had an impact far greater than I then suspected.

The Peninsula Fine Arts Center in Newport News, VA, where my show Unbroken Thread: The Art of Philip Koch is showing through Oct. 2 brings a lot of tour groups through its facility to see its exhibitions. Many are school groups. And the tours are led by docents that the museum trains themselves. They recently held a session to help docents get up to speed with things to tell the visiting groups to engage them in the exhibitions. 

Above Janet Rash (at left) who heads up PFAC's Education Department, is enjoying talking with the docents about my show. Here are a few more pictures from that session, with participants taking turns speaking about my paintings. If I'd been there I probably would have learned something. (The photos are 
courtesy of PFAC and were taken by PFAC's intern Teddy Fatiou).

This is by far the largest exhibition I've had with fully 50 paintings, drawings, and pastels.
Below is my The Voyage of Memory.

Below at the right is the oil Eye of the Sea.

And one of my favorites in the show is the tiny Forest Stream below at the left.

Newport News is way down in the Southeast corner of Virginia, right where the huge Chesapeake Bay opens up to the Atlantic (I'm up at the opposite end of the Chesapeake in Baltimore). Heading west from Newport News you eventually hit the Appalachian Mountains. That's where my other Virginia exhibit just opened. It's right outside of Charlottesville in the tiny village of Barboursville. There are vineyards there and people come through to tour those. Many stop at the Nichols Gallery who is running three small solo shows of landscapes through Oct. 30. Here's the announcement card they just sent out:

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Light Revealing/Light Concealing

Here's Rembrandt as a young man. Think of how many self portraits you've seen where the painter's eyes stare out at you as the key feature of the painting. Not so here.  Rembrandt's having a ball playing around with the light direction, bringing out only the shapes on his skull he feels best evoke the feeling he's after. Instead of a left eye we're given a darkened bird's nest of an eye socket with a bottom left edge carved by the turning silhouette of the artist's cheekbone. Cleverly, Rembrandt interests us the thing next to the eye we wanted to see.

The portrait is of course lit from behind, pushing the whole right side of the chin, jaw, and neck and far shoulder into a flat dark silhouette. We don't see much of his lower lip, but we don't miss it as the empty space right under his jaw seems to glow with its own shimmering personality. It's as if Rembrandt is painting himself by painting a portrait of the space next to his head.

It might at first seem an odd choice for light direction as it conceals so much of the detail of the artist's features. But by holding back from us the details we'd expected to see Rembrandt has gained something else. He makes a more surprising composition that draws us in and leaves us intrigued. What's going on in this young man's head.

Below is an old friend of mine, Rembrandt painting himself several decades later (1650's rather than 1620's). It lives in the Frick Collection, the small palace that Henry Clay Frick had built for himself on the edge of Central Park's ritziest neighborhood. The building is a monument to polished marble and elegant spaces. If you want to see a collection of what were at the time some of the most expensive paintings in the world, this is the place.

My wife's family s at the same time lived down in the slums down on the lower East side of Manhattan. Her mother had to drop out of school at ten and a half and work in sweatshop literally so that her family could eat. I think about that jarring contrast whenever I marvel at the over the top opulence of the Frick.

Nonetheless, when money is no object and you can hire the services of an expert to select work for you, you can make a pretty spiffy collection. I used to go to the Frick to study when I was attending the Art Students League of New York. My favorite was this Rembrandt.

He used light in this one in a completely different way- bathing the whole front of the figure in a honey-infused illumination. Only a small shadow passes over the sitter's eyes, but this time he allows enough light in to show us the artist's ever so slightly raised eyebrows. Rembrandt here show us a sort of resigned acceptance. Since the earlier picture his wife and child had died and he'd seen his career take some serious nosedives.

I always found this painting offered a sort of fatherly comfort when I stood before it. It's at least life size and has a quiet emotional presence to it in person that has to be unrivaled. The light shines with a tenderly soft intensity on a few favorite places- his cheeks and nose, a scarf wrapped around his neck, and his hands. Notice how the highlighted hands are a touch oversized and are both pushed forward towards the viewer's space by the well placed darks that lie directly behind them.

Many of the Baroque era painters went hog wild with sensuous surfaces and elaborate folds in clothing their figures. Rembrandt pares that way down. The loosely described network of folds over his chest gives way to an almost completely unresolved robe covering his stomach and thighs. I think the artist here sensed he has said enough and wants gradually back out of the painting,  quieting his strokes down to almost nothing by the time you reach the painting's bottom edge.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Looking for a bad Giacometti Self Portrait

I'm not very nice. Just ask my cat.

The reason I'm telling you this is I was planning to write a blog post comparing self portraits- two by Rembrandt counter posed to one by the early 20th century Swiss artist Giacometti. I knew at some point I'd seen some not terribly impressive self portraits by Giacometti and went to Google Images to hunt down one I really didn't like. I knew the Rembrandts would blow the Giacometti out of the water. 

That's when the trouble started- this one came up first. 

It's an oil Giacometti painted of himself in 1921. Leaving aside the question I always ask of why anybody would paint wearing a suit, I had to confess I kinda liked this one. So, saving the Rembrandts for a later post, let's look at this pleasant surprise of a painting. In its cramped spaces, Giacometti manages to give us a pretty expressive painting. He'd absorbed most of the modernist impulses that happened with the various painting movements that followed on the heals of the French Impressionists- arbitrary color choices, flatter spaces, and super loose brushwork that keeps your eye aware you're looking at paint on a surface rather than at a painting that's trying to mirror reality. 

Within the confines he chose to work within, I have to admit he did a fine job of it. In particular, he posed himself to make a tightly organized composition that has a nervous pulsing energy to it. Look at the silhouette of the body. There's a well orchestrated dance going on where diagonal limbs contrast against the verticals and horizontals of the architecture. While mostly leaning this way and that, Giacometti's body sometimes lines up with the geometry of the verticals (the buttoned front of his jacket or the inside seam of his left lower pant leg). And in a few places he generates some purely horizontal lines (the bottom seam of his jacket that lines up cleverly with the front edge of his chair).

Way in the background we see a big metal etching press (hope it wasn't a fifth floor walk up for whoever had to move that in). One of its arms points diagonally down and back toward the artist. See how the back of Giacometti's right thigh repeats this trajectory across the painting's surface exactly.

None of these compositional ideas were new. Rather they grew out of a centuries long tradition of painting the figure within architecture. Though a thorough going modernist, Giacometti knew the old painters had mastered a language of expressing themselves through purely visual forms. How they drew their shapes controlled how the viewers felt as they looked at the their paintings. While he was one of the innovators of 20th century painting, Giacometti knew he had to speak the visual language that painters had been building up all those preceding years. 

There is an unmistakable early 20th century feel to this painting. It couldn't have been painted in 1821 instead of 1921. But it couldn't have been painted at all had the artist not grasped the visual tools that had been handed him by the legions of artists who'd gone before him. None of us artists are re-inventing the wheel. It rolls on smoothly when we find within ourselves the stories we are meant to tell. Giacometti in this painting proved a good story teller.

Friday, September 9, 2011

The Subtle Power of Gradation

My daughter Louisa was joking around with me the other night. She was planning to take a bunch of her students to the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore and she asked which of their exhibits I would recommend. Pausing a bit she said "of course ever since I was little you and my mom have been brainwashing me that all abstract art is bad." Ribbing me, she wondered aloud if my advice should be trusted. Naturally I was bowled over by this unanticipated accusation and took awhile to pick myself up off the floor and remove the sharp arrow that had pierced my heart. Could I really be that narrow? 

It is true my heart lies with the realist painters most of the time and long time readers of this blog know I talk about the Hoppers, the Rockwell Kents, the Winslow Homers, and the like way more than I do contemporary art. But my rebuttal of the charge I'm biased against abstraction (much less against current concept  driven art) would of necessity be pretty short. One thing in my favor is I used to be an abstract painter in my early days. And a concluding argument I could use before the jury happened just the evening before. As I was thumbing through the latest issue of American Art Review magazine, I was stopped in my tracks by a particularly lovely oil by Lyonel Feiniger (German-American painter, 1871 - 1956). And I showed it to my equally accused wife Alice who burst out with "Hey, that's really nice!"

Why Feiniger? He's an artist who does a lot of things right that I deeply value in painting. I like strongly stated silhouettes first of all. I figure if you can design a painting that arrests the eye even when it's only at the stage of establishing flat shapes you're likely pull off an exciting painting. In the Feiniger above and below you can see his chiseling out clear and hard straight lines on his unexpected flat forms. He's very good at finding personality in just flat shapes. 

The other big reason I like Feiniger more than many early 20th century American abstractionists is he held onto the wonderful tradition of the landscape wrapped in dense, swirling atmosphere. While Feiniger always shows his cubist roots, he had a natural affinity for gradating his tones. In the oil above it's pretty hard to find a surface that isn't gradated. And he delights in varying the edges of his shapes from sharp to softly indistinct. To me gradations in a painting always call up the passage of time, changing light, and shifting weather. There is an emotional tone that creeps into a painting when not everything is clearly layed out and spotlighted.

That is exactly the tool box that back in the mid 1600's Rembrandt  reached for in his moody and often mist laden landscape reveries. One of my favorite is his windmill painting below.

Rembrandt has turned up the volume on his atmosphere and deep space way beyond anything Feininger wanted to try, but Rembrandt spoke Feiniger's language of finding expressive flat shapes. Look at the drama of contrasting silhouettes between the spear like doused sail in the little boat in the right foreground and the massive almost rectangular cliff where Rembrandt errects his windmill tower. Here are two forms that couldn't look less alike, but the painter cajoles them into joining together in a conversation. (Oh heck, they're doing more than that, they're singing together the most beautifully melancholy song, but to say that makes me sound obscessed by the old masters. Still one could do a lot worse).

Sunday, September 4, 2011

A Friend in the Metropolitan

My old friend Bob Sheridan who was one of the first people I met when I went off to college in Oberlin, Ohio emailed me a photo of the Edward Hopper oil above yesterday. When I first met Bob I was intending to major in sociology and imagined a career for myself teaching and writing learned books. Bob's staying in New York this week and went over to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Back in the late '60's I spent two wonderful summers as a student at the Art Students League of New York.  I used to go to the Met to study the paintings when they were open in the evenings. I was determined to learn everything I could from that giant museum.

Bob's email sent me back to those years. Bob was one of the earliest collectors of my paintings ( and incidentally owns a large oil I painted in Hopper's kitchen in his Cape Cod studio that I'm really proud of). He also bought my work back in the days when it was really affordable.

Bob's photo of the Hopper lighthouse makes me smile for several reasons. One is that it's a heck of a good painting. But also because it was one of the paintings I used to look at when I was starting out as an artist, full of energy and drive but also full of questions and uncertainty about what it took to make art great. I'd stand and look at this Hopper, squinting my eyes this way and that and wondering if I was missing anything important. Years later I see it far better because my eyes work better now- they've been educated by the thousands of drawings and paintings I've done and the countless other artists whose work I've imbibed.

Paintings are made for our pleasure. They fill the rooms of our houses and our lives and make them larger. They are companions. And they are teachers, slowly nudging our eyes to wake up and take in more of what reality really is.

There's much that could be said about Hopper's lighthouse. One is that he'd come back after painting it one day and revisit it from an altogether different point of view, as he does in the watercolor of the same lighthouse below. Just by example Hopper is telling us that we never understand something fully the first time. He came back and looked again and again, each time discovering something that had been hidden from view in his previous visit. That's a good life lesson right there.

For convenience I'll show you that first painting again to save you having to scroll up and down so much. Let's check out a few of the tricks Hopper has up his sleeve to make this painting spring to life.

First, think of some of the truly dreadful paintings of lighthouses you've seen hanging in seafood restaurants. Inevitably they show the lighthouse surrounded by lots and lots of sky. Hopper instead knew he didn't have that much to say about the sky. So in both of these paintings he zeroed in on the buildings, blowing them up in scale so they run off both the top and one of sides of his painting. Immediately he's broken they sky up into two distinct shapes instead of just one long passive background void. It's his way of forcing the otherwise passive sky to play a more active role in his drama.

In the oil just above Hopper has conceived of the buildings as a long chain of connected geometric shapes, sort of like a necklace made of impossibly large abstract beads all strung together. Such a necklace would be painful to wear but it's great to look at as it breaks up the big rectangle of Hopper's composition.

Looking further into Hopper's envisioning of the building, squint your eyes a bit and notice how he's conceived of the structure in two parts- there's the sunlit part and the shadowed part intersecting each other like a giant "X". He wants your awareness to center on these expressive big silhouettes, so other than breaking the building up with his bold shadows, he tones down all the other extraneous detail. The windows seem to be melting away into the surfaces of the white walls.

Compare these barely stated windows to the dramatic punctuation provided by Hopper's highly contrasting darks of the windows in the other watercolor lighthouse. In your mind's eye try an little experiment- imagine the watercolor with all the accents of the seven dark windows removed. As they disappear the watercolor wilts away into a too-middle-toned puddle. In that painting the windows are one of the engines that drive the painting forward.

Hopper had trained his eye to such a point that he had a sixth sense as he was working about which way to go with details like his windows. Sometimes they have to be stressed, other times he had to turn their volume way down. Like all artists who've worked and looked hard at reality and at art, Hopper had carefully nurtured his best instincts. Like a well trained athlete who just lets their body take over and perform at their peak, Hopper reach the point where his hand often made the right choices for him without his having to think about what he was doing.

Did Hopper's instincts sometimes fails him? Sure, it happened plenty. Probably most of his failures ended up disappearing into his trash can or were painted over. You will see sometimes work by the guy that's not up to his usual standards. Hey everybody stumbles.

But what we can learn from Hopper is that  we can all develop our ability to see more and to sense reality more deeply. It's part of the job of being alive, to make the experience the fullest and most meaningful journey we can. Our success and our happiness depend on it.

Anyway, thanks Bob for sending the photo of lighthouse and thanks Ed for painting it.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Art Devil is Trying to Kill Artists

Philip Koch, Blue Mountain II, oil on panel, 14 x 21", 2011

I received several comments from artists who had read my response to a question Joanne Mattera had asked on her blog this week. The topic was whether artists felt like "giving up." Here's what I had said- 

I've been painting actively since the late '60's. Over that time I have watched many talented and hard working artists become discouraged and gradually withdraw from actively making and showing their work. The world is a less interesting place without the artworks many of them would have created.

Over time I've come to value survival itself as a talent that is right up there along with having a genuine vision and a sharp eye.

And I have more respect than ever for any artist who is able to keep the little fire of their enthusiasm alive and keep working at their art over decades of time. Some of then are unsung, some of them don't always produce the very best work, but still to me they are quiet heroes.

Some years ago I was informally talking with the husband of one of my art dealers. Her gallery showed mostly work on paper by well known artists. He was a professor of economics and only observed his wife's gallery from a distance. We were meeting for the first time and he expressed surprise at how young I was. At the time I was closing in on forty so I was surprised at his comment. He explained the artists they saw at the gallery were either "really old" well established artists who were having their work exhibited, or as he said "kids" just out of art school trying to get his wife to consider showing their artwork. "There are no middle aged artists" he joked.

Often I've written about the Muse, the mythological figure who guides artists with her magical insights to do their best work. While I don't literally believe in her, there are often moments in the studio when I am able to paint better than I know how. In ways that I are impossible to fully grasp, I somehow access some deeper part of myself and do my most exceptional work. Being visited by The Muse is as good an explanation as any. Artists have been dreaming of her for centuries.

But if there's a myth to explain how artists achieve insights and breakthroughs, what about all the artists I've known who became discouraged and quit making art? It seemed to me only fair that we have a cosmology to explain that too. I found myself fantasizing about the other side of the creative coin. Flip it over and on the other side you'll find The Art Devil. (He probably tip toed into my imagination as a boy when someone read me the story about the evil Troll who lived under the bridge)