Thursday, December 29, 2011

The Hand of the Past on the Art of Today

Sometimes I'm asked if I only like art from the past. Far from it. But there is a reason I so often write about work done some time ago. It's often one of the best places to pan for gold.If you go to art museums or art galleries a lot, you are guaranteed to run into some work that leaves you cold. For professional artists, the problem gets worse, and you're likely to feel driven up the wall by some things you see. Being committed to making paintings and staying at one's easel for years brings with it a deeply emotional investment. It's an occupational hazard for artists. I was at a major American art museum yesterday and saw work that made my heart leap, and things that offered me very little. Generally I think it's more productive to spend my energies talking about work I find exciting rather than running down art I think is unsuccessful, especially when those artists aren't around to defend themselves.

One of the artists I love to talk about is George Inness (American 1825 - 1894). Above is Saginaw Art Museum's George Inness oil Golden Glow, 1880 that the Museum hung alongside my own work in their Unbroken Thread: The Art of Philip Koch show (through Feb.19, 2012). Inness is a fascinating guy, someone who provides a sort of bridge between the earlier American Hudson River School painters and the more impressionist inspired works that came into favor towards the end of the 1800's. 

In this painting we see the darks of the foreground foliage being pushed together to form what looks like a strong abstract painting (think of a good Robert Motherwell). Inness is working to form the most intriguing silhouette possible for his darks.There's even one place where he carves out what looks like a key hole in his foliage to let the sky shine through.

Looking at painters like Inness taught me to search out ways to make my shapes expressive . Here's a photo from the Saginaw Art Museum's show of my oil From Day to Night, 36 x 72". You can see how my two dark islands have been consciously maneuvered to squeeze the narrow channel of light water between them. It's pushed into a abstracted "S"shape. To make the viewer care about the world you are painting for them you have to install intriguing form into even the empty areas. In fact, it is how you handle the empty areas to my mind that makes or breaks a painting.

Here's another of the works from the Museum's Permanent Collection in the show, Landscape at Sunset by Felix Russman (American, 1888- 1962). Russman shows that same imperative to insert extra form into his painting with how he places his handful of trees. See how he pushes them together into essentially two "teams". The trees enclose an area of sky on the horizon that looks an awful lot like the silhouette of the triangular roof of the solitary building. Russman is saying, through how he arranges his shapes, that the human presence (building a roof) is just part of the overall scheme of nature. It's an optimistic view of us living in harmony with the natural world. It's a real beauty of a painting too.

In the same gallery space with the Russman oil is my painting Under the Moon. Like Russman, I'm choosing shapes to express the feeling I intend for the painting. If you look closely you'll see how I've reversed the actual direction of the edges of the yellow house so it gets wider as you look up towards the roof. What I wanted was the feeling of the house as an almost living thing, straining to rise up closer to the unseen bright moon. Playing with the usual rules of perspective like this can give an inanimate object like a house the sense that it is subtly gesturing. 

William P.Ritschell (American, 1844-1949, one long-lived artist!) painted the oil below, also from Saginaw's Permanent Collection and now hanging in their Unbroken Thread show. Ritschell is using one of the time honored "tricks of the trade" for painters with color. He makes a surprisingly green sky look believable by carefully gradating its tones from lighter to darker. Imagine a black and white photograph of this painting. Sure, we'd miss the delicate color, but the sky would still feel spacious and convincing. Then, compared to the cool greens of the sky, look at how warm the overall hue of the land and trees appears. He organizes his colors.

Here below is my oil Ascension in the show. As in the Ritschell, ignore the colors and notice how the sky is heavily gradated from light to darker greys. Even more so for the ground plane that's intersected by all those waterways. Gradation is a huge key to evoking feelings of movement, light, space, and atmosphere. It only makes sense for us contemporary painters to study how the old time painters like Ritschell, Russman and Inness used gradation. We don't have to use it just the same way. In fact we shouldn't in my opinion. But it's foolish to assume these old painters have nothing to teach those of us painting now. 

In the beginning of this blog post I said I usually try not to publicly criticize other painters whose work I feel falls short. Very often what I'm missing in their work is the remarkable visual richness I find in the best of the art from the past. It's not that the art of the19th century was better. It wasn't. There are tons of awful landscape paintings done 150 years ago mouldering away in basements and attics all over the land.
Over time, work that should be forgotten usually is. But if people are still paying attention to a painting done generations ago, it is probably because the forms and colors in it are doing something remarkable.

 One thing that helps me enormously in my own pursuit that necessary visual richness is to do lots of paintings on a small scale. The best of them become guides for me in making larger and more ambitious oils. Here's a little "room" of small oils grouped together in the Saginaw Museum show. That's a final lesson I've gleaned from looking at the art of the past. The best of those painters, like Inness, did tons of very modest sized paintings. They were believers in keeping their numbers up as a tool to lead them to seeing on a higher level. The best of their small paintings and drawings were used as studies for their major works. It's one heck of a good idea for us painting today.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Is Art Original? Saginaw Art Museum Part Three

Here's another view of the current Saginaw Art Museum exhibit, Unbroken Thread: The Art of Philip Koch (through Feb. 19, 2012). At the right is my oil Equinox, a work that I felt looked especially good in this venue for the show. In this photo you can see how all the tones in Equinox were held down into middle tones and darks except for the flying white bird at the left and one snow covered island in the distance. I think that's where the bird is headed. It's critical to figure out which of  your ideas in a painting are going to be the ones that command the viewer's attention. Spotlighting just two key forms as I did here is one time-tested way to accomplish this.

In the distance at the left is Otter Cove that I discussed in the previous blog post. In that painting I've put the emphasis on the big dark hillside at the left side and brightly backlit it with a glowing light on the left horizon.

Ryan Kaltenbach, SAM's Curator and Deputy Director hung a dozen works from 19th and 20th century landscape painters alongside my own paintings in Unbroken Thread to provide some historical background.  Here's one by an old friend, the 19th century American painter Jasper Cropsey, A Summer Afternoon from 1853. 

I say old friend because a similar Cropsey oil was one of my first serious introductions to landscape painting when I entered Indiana University's MFA program in 1972. The IU Art Museum had a Cropsey that I used to study over and over again. It fascinated me how the artist had divided up his painting's space into overlapping planes.I knew I had to learn how he did it so well. They marched from the foreground all the way back to the sky, each one having its own distinctive color and tone, yet all hanging together wrapped up in a warm summer atmosphere. 

When I was in undergraduate school at Oberlin, nobody had ever mentioned pictorial space. To me figuring out how to build a convincing space was a huge discovery. I learned from Cropsey some of the moves I use to this day in my paintings.     

Also included in the exhibition are these two Charles Demuth (American, 1883- 1935) watercolors. Totally different than the Cropsey, these two are much more about moving the viewer's eye across the surface of the painting. Cropsey did that too but his main focus was to plunge the viewer into the picture's distance. In Cropsey I feel myself thinking about close and far, in Demuth it's much more about up, down, left, right.                                                                                              

Yet each has some of the other, flat design and depth. One of the all but impossible tricks a painter has to  master is to see reality as a flat design of shapes and colors, AND as a world of volumes and depth of space, at the same time. How do we do it? Honestly I don't know other than to say it's accomplished only with great effort. Certainly I would say to any aspiring artist, or to any art lover, that they should practice trying to see in both ways. The more one concentrates and practices using one's eyes, the easier it becomes.

Here are the two Demuth's in the show with my oil Ascension  in the distance.

Here are two more of the accompanying paintings Ryan Kaltenbach added to the show. They're by Charles Warren Eaton (American 1857 - 1937) and were both painted in 1905. They show a real influence of George Inness I feel. Both show that dual aspect of two dimensional design on the surface and a desire to pull the viewer's eye way back into the shimmering far distance. I think they're really nice paintings and I'm honored to show my work with them.

Following up from those two dark Eaton oils, here's a view from the central part of SAM's big gallery showing from left to right my North Passage, 45 x 60", Ascension, 40 x 32" and Down to the Bay, 36 x 72". Especially with the two on the left you can see me borrowing the dark foreground idea that Eaton used so effectively in the paintings I talked about above.

I've always been lucky as a painter because so many of the artists of the past seemed to offer me help in telling my own story. When I first started painting everyone around me seemed obsessed with being "original"and was struggling to come up with a "new idea" that they could paint. I too fell into that  way of thinking. 

But early on my feelings started to change, especially under the influence of seeing Edward Hopper's work. It struck me as misguided to think that we living now were somehow especially privileged, that we had been blessed with a superior understanding compared to those who have gone before us. People a hundred years ago thought and felt as deeply as we do today. I'm convinced of this by the amazing expressiveness of the art they left behind for us.

But it is not up to us to repeat the past. We can't. And if we try we always fail. Reality is always bigger than we are. We comprehend it only partially. I believe the world looks and feels a little different to us than it did to our predecessors. If you look at paintings from the 1930's there is an unmistakable feeling for volumes and movement that is just different than how anyone paints today. My take on it is that unconsciously we all today process things a little differently than before. Because of this the job of contemporary artists is to come up with new combinations of light, forms, and colors to give expression to how we feel today. 

Cropsey and Eaton and Demuth painted how the world felt to them in their time. To us their work feels both engaging and just a touch foreign. My paintings feel they are made in this time, our time. A hundred years from now, landscape painters will have changed again. It all makes for a long and fascinating road.
Yes, I wish I could look forward and see what's coming around the bend. But I can look back down that long remarkable chain of landscape paintings- Demuth and Hopper, Inness, Thomas Cole, Constable, Ruisdael and Rembrandt, and so on. It's wonderful to be part of something bigger than yourself. All us painters can only hope we fill our place on that road as honorably, and as artfully as we can.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Saginaw Art Museum Part Two, Kensett and Snow

Here's the entrance to Saginaw Art Museum's current exhibit of my paintings. Unbroken Thread: The Art of Philip Koch (through Feb. 19, 2012). The photo is taken from the beautiful glass enclosed walkway that leads from the Museum's original 19th century Mansion house to one of its new wings.

Below I've turned around and photographed the doorway to the walkway currently full of handsome metal sculptures by David Holtslander.

At the right is my oil The Voyage of Memory, a piece inspired by the 19th century American painter Thomas Cole's series of four paintings, The Voyage of Life (I had the pleasure of seeing them again just last weekend down at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.). At the left is my oil Otter Cove, which I'll return to later.

Below is me posing with an oil by another of my early favorite artists, the American John F. Kensett. It's Study for the Lakes of Killarny,  that Kensett painted in 1856 while on a trip to Ireland. The Museum hung about a dozen landscapes by 19th and 20th century painters alongside my own work to provide some historical context. The show, after all, is called the Unbroken Thread.

Here's a better view of their Kensett. He was a huge influence on me when I was taking my first tentative steps into landscape painting in the Fall of 1970. Indiana University Art Museum had a wonderful Kensett. It was a coastal scene that reminded me of the rocky beach where I grew up on the shore of Lake Ontario, just outside Rochester, NY. In particular I loved the silvery greys he used on his prominent rocks. I did a copy of it from life right in the Museum, the first time I'd ever done that. Saginaw Art Museum's Kensett has a lot of that same feeling to the light.

Below on the left a photo my wife Alice took of me in the Fall of last year during our 13th residency at Edward Hopper's former painting studio on Cape Cod. At the right is my large oil Otter Cove.

Below is another view of the 50 painting exhibition with the same oil,Otter Cove, at the far right.
Saginaw's gallery space is huge.

Here's Otter Cove. It's 44 x 55" and was inspired by my many trips to Mt. Desert Island in Maine. Frederick Church, the 19th century American painter did one of his famous oils at the same spot on the Island, but his view turns to look at the mountains. I worked on this oil by looking at a vine charcoal drawing I did on the spot looking the other direction, out to sea. As the painting progressed I played around with the forms considerably until I was happy with the result. One of the changes I made was to cover the foreground with heavy snow.

Partly that's because I grew up up North, and snow was (and is)  such a big ingredient in my imagination. But also in the back of my mind are some other painters who celebrated snow and winter. As the Winter Solstice is just past, I should show one of them. Here's Rockwell Kent's painting Afternoon at Sea, Monhegan, from 1907. I have several of the drawings I made of Monhegan Island in Maine in the exhibition.

Rockwell Kent of course wasn't the sissy I am. He moved to Monhegan Island in northern Maine and built three houses there (one of which was later purchased by Jamie Wyeth), worked as a lobster man, and painted some of the finest plein air winter paintings in American Art history.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Unbroken Thread Exhibition At Saginaw Art Museum

This week I was grading portfolios at MICA after returning from the opening reception for Saginaw Art Museum's  Unbroken Thread: The Art of Philip Koch exhibition in Michigan (through Feb. 19, 2012). These are intense face to face reviews with individual students. Maybe it was the fatigue from the long weekend of travel, but it struck me that I wished I could summarize all the things I've said to my students this year in just a few words. Of course the concepts behind good painting (and superior drawing) are anything but simple and need to be approached all kinds of ways. Lots of my lectures get long and pretty word heavy. I don't know how else to do it.

Sometimes you want to bend the stick the other way and boil it all down to its essence. So here it is as an early holiday present, the words I wished I'd told my classes this year-

Enjoy Your Eyes. 

My eyes have brought me a huge share of the enjoyment I've felt in living my life, and a good portion of my understanding of the world as well. This show Michigan is big- fifty pieces- and it's a celebration of the pleasures I've taken. We had a great turn out for the opening reception and based on the comments I received and the inquiries about how to go about collecting my paintings, I'd say others were sharing in the visual pleasures too.

Above is what greets you as you enter the Museum's largest gallery. At the front is my painting The Song of All Days. The painting is a tribute to the thousands of eloquently beautiful days I've seen in my 40 years as a painter. It is a particularly dark painting, partly because I frequently find a resonance with the shadowed side of world.

I remember back to 1967 when I was taking my first studio art class at Oberlin College. The instructor said something about how it was good to "notice the shapes of shadows." Hearing those words set off a reaction like a light bulb in my head- I had never really considered that every shadow has a shape. To me they had been just areas where the light had dimmed. But the instructor had prodded my thinking to start opening a door wider. He opened a door I was ready to walk through.

Below is me (at the very far left giving a short Artist's Talk at the opening reception Dec. 9. In it I urged the visitors to look at the whole exhibition of course, but to decide which painting they thought was the best before they left. That's good advice for anyone visiting any exhibit. Maybe my paintings or my remarks might open another door someone else is ready to walk through.

Here is exterior of the Saginaw Art Museum. Fifteen years ago I had been invited to have a solo show of my landscapes when the Museum was just the mansion house at the left. In the intervening years two large additional wings have been built. My show filled up the modern wing on the right.

Ryan Kaltenbach, the Curator and Deputy Director of the Museum decided to add about a dozen landscapes by earlier painters from the Museum's Permanent Collection to the exhibit. Once I had moved beyond my earliest work of colorful painted abstractions, I always felt deeply indebted to the work of the realist painters who went before me. It seemed they offered so many tools that I could use to tell my own story. One of the 19th century paintings hung alongside my own work was this one by the French Barbizon School painter Harpignies (1819-1916). These were among the first painters to take their oils outside and work in paint directly from observation of nature. They always seem to have something of a pantheist spirit to them, with their tress expressing a remarkable living personality. In this case demonstrating a wonderful fluttering and ascending movement, exactly the kind of sensation you can have out in front of nature.

That sort of fascination with the natural world runs all through artists from the past that inspire me today. Here below is a wall of three of my birch tree pieces Saginaw Art Museum hung together as a group. They show me picking up on the same idea of the movements suggested by rising tree trunks. In the foreground at the left is my charcoal The Birches of Maine, center is the oil Deep Forest Pool, and at right the oil The Birches of Maine. These artists back from the Barbizon School helped me paint these pictures today.

Here are two more of my oils out of the exhibition hanging in the same section of the show with the old masters' landscapes. At left is Red Whisper, oil, 30 x40" and at right Under the Moon, oil, 24 x 36".
Both of these paintings have a frankly romantic feeling to them. To me nature often seems to express a slightly unexpected and mysterious side. I want my paintings to capture some of that.

That kind of romanticism from America's 19th century paintings have no better exponent than George Inness. Here's me posing (somewhat gleefully) with Saginaws' Inness painting Golden Glow from 1880.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Edward Hopper House Art Center, Grand Finale

For those of you who've decided I'm off the charts nuts when it comes to Edward Hopper it probably wouldn't be a good idea to give you any additional evidence. But, despite years of therapy I've just have to share with you the last batch of photos I took of Hopper's boyhood home.
Please be understanding...

Above is my wife Alice standing outside the Edward Hopper House Art Center, one block from the historic Hudson River in downtown Nyack, New York. Check out the wild architecture of the blue turreted house next door. I imagine it excited young Edward's imagination as a boy, with him perhaps picturing it in his mind as a castle with knights and princesses. It sure would have pushed my fantasies that way.

Here's Alice and our daughter Louisa standing on Hopper's front porch right outside his front doorway.

The Art Center has lovingly preserved the feeling of the place, keeping just as much of the rooms and furnishings as they could as they were in Hopper's 18 years in the house. Below is my niece Jenny walking down the central hall with the open front door in back of her.

Here's Hopper's bedroom again, this time seen from the second floor hallway. Two of the three windows    in his room are shown. The window at the left faces due East towards the Hudson River. I believe Hopper's life long love of strong early morning sunlight had its beginnings right here. The morning sun would have absolutely blasted into the room from these windows and awakened him daily. Perched up on the high second floor of the home, it was a safe lookout from which the reclusive future artist observed the world, starting a pattern he followed his entire life.

Turing the camera a bit to the right, here's me in front of the fireplace in Hopper's bedroom as seen from the second floor hallway.

Here's the wide, clunky floorboards in the room.

Here's one of the smaller rooms back downstairs. I'm standing next to one of the early easels Hopper painted on as he was just starting out.

One of his paintboxes  full of his brushes and paints.

And here's the one bathroom Hopper had in the house with the original claw footed bathtub at the right. The toilet and sink look to me to have been put in probably after Hopper moved out. His sister Marion continued to live for the rest of her life in the house and died only a few years before Hopper.

The is the back of the house.

And this is the backyard, taken from the top of the steps in the above photo. That's Jenny and her husband John standing among the just fallen leaves. I wonder if young Hopper was given the job of raking the leaves up every fall in what is a very large yard.

Back in the house again, here's the largest room which must have been the Hopper's living room. The Art Center has turned it into a regular exhibition space for changing exhibits of local and national artists.

Another view of the main gallery with the front hall in back and the Art Center's bookstore and front desk in the far room.

This next view is taken in the main gallery looking to the adjoining smaller gallery.

Here's Jenny and Alice together in that back gallery.

I've always seen in Hopper a deep attachment to nature. To me there's a demonstrable romantic side to him that always comes out when he paints forests or hillsides. Less than a mile up the street is the state park containing the Palisades of the Hudson. These are really tall cliffs, I'm guessing off the top of my head they might be approaching 1000 in height. And they are steep. We went for a long hike along their base, with the cliffs looming over us on one side and the Hudson River lapping gently on the other. It was a fantastic setting.

Certainly young Hopper knew the cliffs well and must have been struck by them. I would have had imagined he would have wanted to paint them a lot ( I certainly would like to do a whole series of paintings from them), but that's putting my own direction in painting onto Hopper. He always insisted on choosing his own subjects and they tended toward far more modest and contained spaces. What he chose reveals much of his unique eye. Therein lies much of his greatness as a painter. If anyone ever followed his own drummer, it was this guy Hopper.

I'd strongly urge all Hopper lovers to visit Nyack and tour the Edward Hopper House Art Center and check out the area. You will love it. And you'll have a much deeper sense of what Hopper was all about.

Thanks for bearing with me, and I will now give Hopper a little rest on this blog, at least for a little while. Saginaw Art Museum out in Michigan just opened their feature exhibit Unbroken Thread: The Art of Philip Koch last weekend. I'll be showing pictures of the exhibit and talk about my time out at the 
Museum. Here's a preview of the next blog post, a photo of the entrance to the show.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Edward Hopper House Art Center, Volume II

To readers in the Mid-Atlantic area I want to announce my Sabbatical Exhibition at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore opens this morning (through Dec. 18, 2011 in MICA's Decker Gallery in the Fox Building, 1303 W. Mt Royal Ave., Baltimore, MD 21217). There are six oils on display, two of them of Edward Hopper's "other" home, his studio on Cape Cod, and the other four are recent medium to large panoramic landscapes. There will be a public reception Thursday, Dec. 8 from 5 - 7 p.m.

Above is Hopper's boyhood home. I write a lot about Hopper because he played such a pivotal role in my early art education. His long shadows and bright sunlight just pushed me off the cliff where I'd been standing and painting my acrylic color abstractions. It wasn't a soft landing that I made as I began to teach myself how to paint as a realist, but I knew the prod from Hopper had started me on my path home.

In the last post I was talking about my sense that much of what Hopper painted throughout his life was powerfully tinged with the memories he carried of his boyhood home in Nyack, New York. This white building is the Edward Hopper House Art Center as it looked late last Saturday afternoon. This is a view that Hopper knew well- very well. He was born in the bedroom that's behind the two second floor windows at the far left. That room served as his bedroom for the next 18 years.

Below is one of his watercolors of a house in Gloucester, MA, that looks an awful lot like the home he'd left behind. He painted many more like it.

There are many painters whose work I love, but probably none I've studied in as much depth as Hopper's. His paintings were for me like beloved lessons from an old teacher. I always tell me students that one of their jobs is to find "additional parents" from among the artists of the past. People who will teach them what it is they need to grow into the artists they're meant to become. I focus on Hopper so frequently because my past is so bound up with his paintings. The more I learn about Hopper the better I understand myself as a painter. So bear with me...

Here's a detail of the front of the Hopper house.

Not surprisingly big shuttered windows on white clapboard houses figured prominently in his work throughout his life, as in his oil Cape Cod Morning below.

Let's go back up to his bedroom on the second floor. I took this photo in the late afternoon when a touch of sunlight diagonally grazed the wall. 

Looking at the photo I was reminded of his Sun in an Empty Room.

Here's another view looking out his bedroom window.

My wife Alice and niece Jenny doing something Hopper did thousands of times.

Another view of one of those bedroom windows.

There must be at least a dozen oils by Hopper of a woman staring out a similar window.

Summer Evening, another Hopper oil feels heavily indebted to Hopper's front porch.

 Here's Alice and my daughter Lou talking on the porch last Saturday.

I myself used to paint lots of architecture. Usually my houses were similar to Hopper's oils of white houses. The funny thing is, unlike Hopper, I grew up in a sort of California modern style house with of all things a giant round living room (my dad wanted something out of the ordinary). After my dad died when I was 13 that home became a much less happy place, enough so to propel me to look to 19th century styles of houses when I began painting outdoors years later.

About 15 years ago that began to change. My eye was drawn away from painting buildings towards reveling in the all natural world. Traces of human presence began to feel like an intrusion on the more romantic imagery of an untouched land. The one exception to this has been the series of paintings I've been doing of the interior of Hopper's Cape Cod paintings studio in S. Truro, MA. I've been working on them on and off during my 13 residencies staying and painting there. This coming spring I'll be showing a small group of them at the Hopper House Art Center.