Friday, January 27, 2012

Reading Public Museum

I literally stumbled into a fabulous show a couple weeks back. I was driving back from visiting the Edward Hopper House Art Center in Nyack, NY where I'll be having a show and giving an artists' talk at the end of March. Stopped in the Reading Public Museum (I love that name) in Pennsylvania and saw their big  American Impressionism: The Lure of the Artists' Colony exhibition. Unfortunately between organizing the show at the Hopper House Art Center and writing an article on my traveling museum exhibition Unbroken Thread for Fine Art Connoisseur magazine (which I finally finished today!), I haven't had time until now to post about this amazing show at the Reading Museum. It is drop dead gorgeous. Drawn entirely from the Museum's Permanent Collection, it is simply one of the strongest painting shows I've ever seen. That's the good news. The bad news is it ends January 29th. Maybe if you drop everything...

Above is a knockout painting by the Boston Impressionist William Paxton (1869-1941), Girl with a Hand Mirror from 1915. This painting has a remarkable textural feel to it. The way the hair falls over the woman's torso is just perfect. I love the counter motion Paxton set up between the direction of the falling hair and the bold diagonal pattern on her dress. The sense of solid volumes bathed in varying light and set into motion is simply amazing. If the Museum suddenly loses its mind and de-accessions this painting, please everyone remember I have a birthday coming up.

Below is a Charles W. Hawthorne (American, 1872-1930) oil, A Study in White, circa 1900. Look at how Hawthorne plants the woman squarely between two "bookends" of the dark leafy stalk at the left and the sharp dark shadow peeking out from behind her dress as it slides off the right hand side. It's not a small painting, and when you see him convince us about those spots of sunlight on her dress (which would have moved every 10 minutes), you realize this is a very good painting.

Hawthorne's oil also was conveniently vertical so they could make it into a handsome banner and hang it outside the Museum entrance. 

It just keeps getting better. Here's their oil by John Singer Sargent (American, well partly at least, 1856-1925), Man Reading (Nicola d'Inverno) from around 1904-1905. The range of whites and greys playing off the ochres and oranges in his forearm seems so beautifully chosen. And have you ever seen a book painted with more personality than this one? I love the slightly warmer whites Sargent sneaks into the books pages contrasting against the stark colder whites of the sheets. 

As I said earlier I've just been writing an article for Fine Art Connoisseur on how artists from the past have influenced my own work as a contemporary painter. I began my journey into painting under the spell of Rothko and Frank Stella in the 1960's. And I learned a lot about color and proportion. But after a year or so I began to miss the sense of light and shadow one could find in the older painters. Like this masterful Sargent. I realized that the 19th century painters routinely celebrated something my flat acrylic abstractions couldn't touch. So began my long march to teach myself how to draw in the traditional sense and to figure out what realist painting was going to mean to me. Among the paintings I remember looking at in art books way back then was this particular Sargent. Then I forgot it was nearby in Reading, PA. Coming across it in the Museum was greeting an old friend indeed. 

Below is an oil in the show, February's Sun, by Frederick John Mulhaupt (American 1871- 1938). Like the Sargent of the man reading, Mulhaupt uses a dramatic light flowing into the painting, though this time from the right. It casts long "roller coasters"of shadow across the little hillocks of snow. You just know he was enjoying himself when he painted that passage of the picture.

Two other things work beautifully in this snow scene. See how carefully Mulhaupt sculpts his snow covered shoreline to press the dark water into an hourglass shape. I'd be willing to bet good money he exaggerated how far the fingers of the land extended out into the water to make a more stated visual surprise. The abstract beauty in a work like this can't be overstated. It's easy to miss as the artist makes it look so natural. But underneath, it's there, creating the visual energy that draws the viewer into the artist's vision. 

Also notice the subtle shadowing Muhaupt sneaks in over the foreground land mass at the left. That too probably wasn't like that in nature. The painter knows he is trying to convince you this is a painting with a real, measurable depth to it. He has to make the front space feel different than what's on the other side of the stream.

Here's a view of one of the several galleries Reading Public Museum devoted to the show. I feel bad that I couldn't do my part in publicizing their American Impressionism show sooner as I know many of you who read this blog would love it. They did a really fine job.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Hairdressing and Other Lessons at the Delaware Art Museum

Last week my wife took a day off from work at the mental hospital (literally) and we drove up to Wilmington, DE to visit an old friend, the Delaware Art Museum. We had lunch with Saralyn Rosenfield who's the Museum's Studio and Family Programs Manager and who was a former student at my art school, MICA down in Baltmore. She was delightful to talk with and persuaded me to bequeath  my untold millions to the DAM just as soon as my ship comes in.

DAM's got an amazing collection that has held my interest for years. Above is a Charles Burchfield watercolor Wildflowers and Coke Oven Smoke painted in 1917 and then reworked some years later.
Look at the foreground where Burchfield goes a little wild with repeating the arcing rhythms in the jumble of plants. It could have looked repetitious in a lesser artist's hands, but Burchfield saves the day by contrasting warm gold highlights in his flowers against cool subtle green highlights in the tall plants at the right. So often is comes down to this, that what you paint is important, but even more it's how you paint it that makes all the difference. 

My guess is that Burchfield was never happy with whatever it was that used to be in the middle distance at the right hand side of his painting. Probably if he was like me he mused and fussed about it for years and then finally went back into the piece. The coke oven smoke he employs to hide whatever it was that bothered him seems to intrude on the scene a little. While it's not seamless, my bet is the new element probably raised the level of the piece up a whole lot. We'll never know, but whatever the truth, I love the way his enchanted foreground now dominates his painting. You can stay Charles.

Here's a very unusual oil by Paul Cadmus (American, 1904 - and I had no idea he died so recently, 1999),  Fidelma painted in 1937.

So often I find work painted in the 1930's and '40's had a special feel for light and elegantly sculpted volumes. This is a painting of the artist's sister and has to have one of the most inventive arrangements of arms and hands I've ever seen. Try an experiment- cover over the arm and hand that drapes over the dark  hair and see how quickly the painting falls apart. My eye was first attracted to the network of  dark walnut colored curls at the bottom of the canvas. But what's so good about Cadmus is that he invented an arrangement that plays the splash of hair off against her outstretched light arm. The two forms contrast each other so perfectly. That's the painter's task, to find the combinations that reveal to us viewers something we wouldn't normally see. 

Of course I had to stop and pay my respects to DAM's famous Edward Hopper painting (longtime readers of this blog are saying to themselves about now "I knew this was coming..."). I've written about this painting, Summertime, before and focused on the remarkable abstract qualities of the cast shadows from the woman and the pillar at the right side of the building. 

This time my eye went to the bottom of the painting where Hopper experiments with creating radically different kinds of surfaces. Naturally I looked through the fabric of the woman's dress at the hints of pink of her left thigh. Look at the wonderful choice Hopper makes for the color of the shadowed right calf played off against the dark cool grey of the shadow on the steps. The legs themselves are studied long and hard to extract just the most expressive subtly curving silhouette possible to contrast the straight hard lines of the stone staircase.

It's not so much that Hopper put in lots of detail- he doesn't. But he does concentrate on telling us something about areas of the painting we wouldn't at first think important. He goes that extra mile. It separates good painters from ordinary artists.

DAM also has some amazing 19th century work including a huge collection of Pre-Raphaelite paintings, tons of John Sloan's work, and one of the best collections of American illustration anywhere. And they have a very pretty restaurant where you can rest your feet. If you're imprisoned on the ever-so-dreadful Interstate Route 95 know that the Museum is a quick 5 minute hop off the highway.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

"Three Things You Didn't Know About Edward Hopper"

I'm having a small show that's different than what I usually exhibit. The Edward Hopper House Art Center in Nyack, NY invited me to hang a selection of oil paintings I've done during my thirteen residencies over the years at "the other Edward Hopper House," the studio he designed and had built in S. Truro, MA on Cape Cod.

If you know me as a painter you realize this is an invitation to me to start fiddling around with some older paintings. It's funny to some people that I'd start painting again on an oil that's been around for a few years. But my batting average doing this is good, so I can't help myself.

Above is just such a painting, Morning, Truro Studio, oil on panel, 14 x 21", 1995, except that it's now 1995-2012. Looking closely at the piece as I was deciding what to include in the upcoming exhibit it just felt like it needed to have its tonal contrasted pushed a little harder. So I gave it a little push it got stronger. 

The painting itself was done standing in Hopper's painting room looking through the door at the right to Cape Cod Bay and through the left door into the bedroom he shard with his wife Jo. This is the corner of his studio that inspired his famous oil, Rooms by the Sea, now in Yale's art museum.

I'm going to be giving an artist's talk at the Hopper House Art Center on March 31 titled Three Things You Didn't Know About Edward Hopper. I'm been studying Hopper so long my real challenge is going to be limiting myself to just three things, but perhaps talking about how Hopper came to make this painting should be on my short list.

Below is another view of the inside of Hopper's studio, this one a 24 x 12" oil on panel, Edward Hopper's Bedroom, Truro Studio, 2012,  that I painted back in my Baltimore studio working from an on location pastel drawing. It's the view looking into his bedroom again, but this time from his kitchen. What grabbed my attention originally and got me thinking about making a pastel and an oil of this was the rhythm of the closet doors. They have the original stamped tin doorknobs that even in life strike one as just a touch over sized. 

The Hopper studio is built up high on a sand dune, and in Hopper's day there were no trees or bushes offering to shade the house from the bright Cape Cod sun (think of all that white sand). Hopper put in just as many windows as he could possibly fit. As a result the house is unusually light filled from before dawn until after sunset.

On the painting above the other big attraction to my eye was the intense light shining across the floor from the painting room at the right. I think for any painter to make art they have to be seized by something they see. It has to be something that feels beyond the ordinary sensation. Years ago I studied painting at the Art Students League of New York with a wonderful teacher, the abstract painter Rudolf Barank. He used to urge me to find a great idea and then to say it in a radical way. That was one  of his favorite words. Well, Hopper in designing his studio building was radically interested in how light would sweep across it and through it. It's a stunning place.

Here's Hopper himself in a photo taken late in his life (Hopper died in 1967) up in Truro. Hopper's sitting on a wooden love seat that's still there in the studio. This is the view looking due south and showing the 10' tall north window that illuminated the painting room. Hopper himself doesn't look exactly all warm and fuzzy in this photo. By almost all accounts, he wasn't. Yet this is perhaps the most respected American realist painter of the 20th century. To me this is a real mystery. What was it in his paintings that keeps so many eyes returning to see his work again and again?

I have my own explanation of the "Hopper phenomenon" or at least a theory-in-progress. Probably that's something I'll touch on in that upcoming artist's talk.

Here's the exhibit details:
Inside Edward Hopper's Truro Studio: Paintings by Philip Koch
Edward Hopper House Art Center
March 31 - May 13, 2012
opening reception, Saturday, March 31, 5 - 7 p.m., artist's talk 7 p.m.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Memorial Art Gallery Purchases Two Koch Drawings

The art museum in Rochester, NY, the Memorial Art Gallery (MAG), just purchased two of my vine charcoal drawings for its Permanent Collection. This brings full circle my years as an artist. In the fourth grade I was taken on a school trip to MAG. It was the first museum I had visited. And though I didn't know it at the time, it had a profound impact on me.

Above is my drawing Monhegan Dawn, 7 x 14", 2006, one of the new acquisitions. It was drawn from life on Monhegan Island in Maine early, as the title suggests, one morning. The view is of Manana Island, essentially one huge dome shaped rock that shelters the tiny Monhegan harbor from the open sea. 

I grew up just outside Rochester on the shore of Lake Ontario. One of my favorite things to do was studying the Lake. While it was often very rough, I loved the times were when the lake calmed and the breezes blew out from the shore over the water. It's surface would take on the look of a shifting abstract painting. My parent's told me these ever moving areas of ruffled up water were called cat's paws. I remember thinking that an odd name at the time. Years later though, after dedicated study of the feline species, I can see the connection with the unpredictable and capricious way cats can move. In drawing Monhegan Dawn I was seeing part of my childhood in those cold Maine waters.

Below is the other piece, Shore II, 8 x 12", drawn on a bridge over Otter Cove on Mount Desert Island in Maine. It's a piece that looks strikingly the way that beach where I grew up did back in the 1950's. 

It was September, late enough in the year for the sun to cast long shadows over some of the rocky fingers of land. I happened upon the place just when the entire foreground was dimmed by shadow. But within minutes the light shifted to spotlight the stand of two pines. Their irregular silhouette added some needed syncopation to the landscape  Within an hour's time the sun had moved again so much that every tree was equally lighted, making for a jumble of visual overload.

I don't use a camera to make my paintings, ironic as both sides of my family were Eastman Kodak people. But I find it's the slowness of drawing or painting from life that brings with it a special advantage- you stand there working at your easel longer. It you work long enough, you're more likely to discover some critical aspect of the idea that otherwise might have been overlooked.

The great Hudson River School painter Frederic Church did a famous oil from the same spot back in the mid 19th century, Otter Creek. He of course had turned his back on the view I'd chosen and instead 

concentrated on the mountains behind me. I get a kick out of following those old painters around.

Remember that fourth grade school trip to the MAG? I do only partially. One thing was that the docent who took us through the old master galleries had been given marching orders to stop and talk about only paintings where everyone had kept their clothes on. My friends and I quickly discerned this pattern as we gingerly were led past any painting with exposed body parts. And as you can imagine we giggled through the tour with all the sophistication typical of 9 year old boys. Looking back, I bet some parent had called to complain to the Museum after their child on a similar school tour had been encouraged to look at a nude. What's a beleaguered Museum educator to do?

But one other thing stands out in my memory- actually the only painting I remember from the tour. It's Winslow Homer's My Studio in an Afternoon Fog and is one of Homer's real jewels. What attracted me
as a kid was that unlike the figures in the Renaissance paintings with their odd costumes, this painting looked like it came directly from my own experience. Why it conveyed such a powerful mood I couldn't put in to words back then. I was unconsciously sensing how a master like Homer could marshal color and light to expressive heights.

Look at the color of his sky- warmed up with raw umber and hints of yellow, and then cast your eye down to the cold colors he's chosen for the water. If anything, he seems to be putting a spotlight more on whitecapped waves than on the obscured sun. It's his way of surprising us viewers.

Another touch that's just marvelous is the warm almost black wall of rock that he runs diagonally across the front of the painting. It's made way more emphatic than the diminutive buildings. Yet it feels just right. It's as if Homer is placing a barrier between us and his studio, keeping it more of a dream than something we can reach out and touch. It's one powerful painting, and though I didn't know it at the time, it was prodding my imagination to start moving in a whole new direction. Thanks Winslow.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Edward Hopper House in the Moonlight

Saturday evening I was up in Nyack, NY at the Edward Hopper House Art Center attending a talk by the set designer James Youmans. He was a great presenter. His talk got me thinking that both set designers and landscape painters have the same job- to lend a sense of personality to an empty space. I think in the back of the mind of any realist painter is a sort of imagined theater stage waiting to be populated with buildings, forests, mountain ranges, you name it. I know I think that way.

Leaving the Art Center, which was the birthplace and boyhood home of Hopper, I walked to my car parked on the side street and slid behind the wheel. This is the view that confronted me through my windshield. The nearly full moon had just risen and was brightly reflecting in the second floor window of Hopper's house. Hopper must have seen just this scene dozens of times growing up. Certainly he drank it in deeply, as the feeling of it kept coming back in so many of the oils he was to paint in subsequent years.

I've spent lots of time up on Cape Cod, sometimes staying and working in Hopper's Cape Cod studio in South Truro, other times in nearby Wellfleet or Provincetown. Looking at the Hopper place in Nyack Saturday night I couldn't help but be reminded of Hopper's painting of an inn in Provincetown, Rooms for Tourists. The house is still there on Bradford Street, looking every bit as it did in Hopper's oil.

It's a painting that celebrates the color of light, cooler highlights on the outside of the building and warmer light inside. Look at how Hopper sneaks into the composition the play between the orderly windows on the illuminated front of the house and the irregular geometry of the lights in its shadowed left side. Hopper is saying to us "look at how surprising even the most ordinary of scenes really is." That is art doing its job of waking us up and showing us that living is extraordinary, despite our tendency to allow our senses to cloud over and our feelings to dull.

Of course the other Hopper that comes to mind is his oil Summer Evening. Surely he based it in large part on his Nyack porch. There's a feeling of awkwardness to the scene- the young woman's rigidly straightened out pose compared to the man's more relaxed and asymmetrical positioning. I always imagined them to be a romantic couple where things might not be working out so well (please tell me I'm not the only one writing that script for these two).

Hopper has far fewer forms to work with in this composition than in the preceding oil. So instead he maximizes the expressiveness of the clapboard siding on the front wall of the house, taking great pains to gradate the color and tone of the light as it falls from the overhead porch lamp. There's a real glare to the lighting that adds a certain unease to the mood of the figures.

Just for a contrasting view of relationships, look at this wood engraving by Hopper's classmate at the New York School of Art, Rockwell Kent. Like Hopper's couple, the two figures are bathed in a sharp light from the above left. And they pose against an inky blackness. But there the similarity ends, as Kent prefers to strike a more gentle, sensuous, and far more optimistic note.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Let It Snow!

I sometimes wonder if I'd have become a landscape painter had it not been for winter. When I was a kid growing up along the shore of Lake Ontario just outside of Rochester, NY, we used to get tons of snow. I know as one of my jobs was shoveling our long driveway. Maybe we always dream about our childhoods. I sure do, and often the dreams revolve around my old home in deep winter. 

There's often the complaint that winter isn't as colorful as summertime. For the life of me I don't know what people are talking about when they say that, as I've always felt just the opposite. Snow blanketing the landscape turns all these amazing shades of blue, violet, cream yellow, absolute stark white, and a zillion shades of grey. And there is ALWAYS super high contrast of darks and lights.

Above is a Rockwell Kent that's new to me, with what strikes me as an odd combination of a more naturalistic foreground and a sky much more invented and surreal. In fact I almost wonder if it's a painting Kent went back into at a much later time in his career and never quite resolved. But I still love it.

Look at the way he uses the snow- sometimes covering large swatches of the landscape with solid white Other times like in the trees at the left peppering the dark pines with a pattern of snow "dots." Or leaving the snow out altogether like in the row of pines at the right. With snow you have incredible flexibility like that- it allows a playfulness with the form that's unmatched in other sorts of realist painting. It makes me feel more like an abstract painter.

Color-wise, check out the difference between the color of his highlights in the immediate foreground compared to those on the distant headland. Kent knew that as he changed the space, he had to change the color too to build up that feeling of depth.

One of the spiritual ancestors of Rockwell Kent has to be the spookily wonderful 19th century German painter Caspar David Friedrich. Below is the first image I ever saw of a Friedrich painting on my first day in Art History 101 at Oberlin College in Ohio. I flipped out over it.

These days I do most of my work in oil back in the studio based either on plein air vine charcoal drawings, or as below, working from drawings I make directly from my imagination. Here's a 7 x 14" vine charcoal drawing I did as a guide for an oil I'm working up in the studio right now.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Winslow Homer's Painting Class

Here's a watercolor by Winslow Homer (Homosassa River, 1904 from the Brooklyn Museum) that caught my eye the other day. Realize it's done with an extremely restricted palette (except for a tiny red jacket on one of the fishermen, it's got hardly any intense color in it). Homer's bringing this one home with his remarkable ability to improvise and to "lie" about what he was looking at. How did he learn how to do this so well?

It got me to wondering what sort of painting class Winslow Homer would run if he were to come back to life and hire a model. 

Here is part of my figure painting workshop Dec. 10 at the Saginaw Art Museum. Kara Harris Brown, the Museum's Curator of Education did a great job of organizing the event (including bringing lots of donuts). I think everyone enjoyed themselves. I know I did.

Watching my students work, it struck me the more accomplished painters had learned not just about color and composition. but also how to have a good time. Beginning painters seemed hell bent on concentrating on the model. Of course one wants to master the figure, but it's possible to overdo anything. The more experienced of course had better drawing skills and a certain confidence that allowed them to relax more. Most important, they were quicker to notice things others might miss and see if they might make something surprising but convincingly expressive out of them. For example, the unexpected shape of the space between the model's legs and finding a way to make that one of the key features of the painting.

Looking at a detail of the Winslow Homer watercolor, you see how he "plays" with the background, making it dark at the far left, but leaving it only a light middle tone on the right hand half of the painting.
He did this I believe to allow those early wild looking strokes for the straight and curved tree trunks to keep from being lost in the darks. Probably in real life, the far distance was much darker, but Homer is willing to make big changes if he senses it will leave him a more intriguing composition.

Here's my favorite part of the picture, the fan-shaped holes in the palm fronds. Don't they look like eyes!
Their empty centers are left as the key accents in the top half of the painting. Look at how in comparison he tones down the branches and lightens up much of the main trunks to lighter greys. To me it seems Homer is saying to himself "let's see what I can do with this row of trees." He's not imprisoned with the mindset that he has to report to us every fact faithfully. Look back up to the entire painting at the top of the post- see how much Homer left out. This is the nuts and bolts of him being creative for us viewers.

Charles Burchfield, the American 20th century painter, and one of our supreme watercolorists, must have looked at Homer a lot. In the Burchfield below notice the same decorative repeated patterns in the foliage. Both of these artists are playfully seeing what they can do with the material presented them by their subject. Both of them know painting is at least as much about how they paint something as what  it is they choose to paint.

In Winslow Homer's imaginary painting class I'm sure he'd be a serious stickler for making his students become superbly good at drawing what they see. Imagine all sorts of stern 19th century style pedagogical excess. But he wouldn't stop there. He'd also insist his students be playful, that they imagine how things in their source might be moved around, have their color changed, or perhaps be eliminated altogether. He'd demand of his students that they go beyond mere reporting of facts to exaggerate their favorite ideas, pushing their ideas beyond what one would normally expect. He'd insist on his students finding delight in what their eyes could show them.

Would we want anything less from his students? I wonder where I can sign up for his class.