Thursday, September 27, 2012

Orchestrating an Exhibition or a Painting

If you are really small you might be able to tour the Delaware Art Museum's Centennial Juried Exhibition before it opens. You could crawl around this scale model of the show with all the works to be displayed reproduced in tiny versions on the walls of the Museum's gallery. The scale model of the show was arranged by Margaret Winslow, the Assistant Curator of Contemporary Art. Her crew had the model out to show them where to place the pieces as they arrived in the Museum earlier this week. I think it looks really cool. Here's my painting hanging on its trusty FoamCore wall below. (You can see a better image of it here),

After I delivered my painting to the Museum on Tuesday, I checked out painting studio where I've been invited to teach a landscape painting and drawing workshop on Oct. 21 with Saralyn Rosenfield. In addition to overseeing the Museum's studio classes, Saralyn helps by writing some of the educational material that accompany the Museum's shows. Over lunch Saralyn told me the Delaware Art Museum's Edward Hopper oil Sumertime was just accompanied across the Atlantic by one of the Museum's Curator of American Art, Heather Campbell Coyle, to join the big Hopper show in Paris at the Grand Palais from Oct. 10- Jan. 28, 2013. (here's a link to a post where I wrote about the DAM Hopper painting) Let's face it, sad as it is to see this star of DAM's collection leave Wilmington, we need to share it with the less fortunate in that cultural backwater of Paris.

I'm kidding, but the DAM's Hopper is a real show stopper and will be a fabulous addition to the huge Hopper retrospective there. The show actually started in Madrid over the summer. I blogged a couple of months ago about a wonderful video giving an overview of the Madrid version of the exhibition. In addition to showing the work in the Madrid museum, the video's producers sent a camera crew to the US and traveled up to Nyack, NY to visit Hopper's boyhood home. There's a great section where the Director of Edward Hopper House Art Center, Carole Perry, brings the crew upstairs to see Hopper's bedroom where a show of my own work was hanging. My paintings depicted Hopper's Truro studio on Cape Cod. (this is at minute 3:30 in the video). Here's the link to the video (in Spanish, but even us non-speaker Hopper lovers will enjoy it)

Hopper Video

Often I write about Hopper's art as it's been so valuable to me- teaching me so much about painting. Probably the key ingredient making Hopper remarkable is his brilliance at evoking the intensity and the specific moods of sunlight. Later this fall I'm headed up to Cape Cod for my 14th residency in Hopper's S. Truro studio. It's fun to compare the light in the city streets of DAM's Summertime above with Hopper's oil of his Truro driveway, The Camel's Hump, below (in the collection of the Munson Williams Proctor Arts Institute in Utica, NY). When I'm up there I'll be parking my car just at the right side of this painting.

Hopper positioned himself just off to the side of his sandy driveway and is looking south back toward the high dunes that form the ridge upon which his studio is perched. His garage and the long steps up to the studio are just off to the right, out of the picture. The driveway is the thin band of cooler beige color that goes all the way from the left to the right side of the painting at about one third of the way up from the bottom. The artist waited until late in the afternoon to get this particular pattern of sunlight and shadow. It neatly divides the space into a light-drenched foreground and a heavily shadowed background.

Notice how Hopper changes the quality of the highlights from foreground to background. Upfront he leans on the intensely bright yellows and yellow ochre greens, keeping them just as tonally light as he can. Compare that to the deliberately darker highlights he reserves for the background dunes. He wants the two spaces to feel different to the viewer, so he devises a different quality of light for each space.

Probably the foreground was the harder of the two spaces to paint as is lacks the high contrast shadows that model the clear volumes of the big dunes. But it's in just such passages that Hopper shows himself a master of color. There's a greener, less yellow little pathway of grasses that march from the driveway and down off the center bottom of the canvas. It provides a much needed note of cooler and less intense color to play off the sizzling yellows of all the other surrounding grasses. Hopper knew in his bones that to evoke a brilliant sense of light a painter has to paint with a range of intensities to his colors. He does that so well here, as well as giving us a range of color temperatures to the foreground. 

We've all seen paintings that just don't hold together well. But we've seen the opposite too in Hopper's Summertime and Camel's Hump. I imagine Margaret Winslow spent many hours repositioning her images of works for her upcoming Centennial Juried Exhibition on different walls in her scale model. Making a show pull together is a whole lot like what Hopper did in the two oils pictured here.  A curator has to try this and then try that, seeing how neighboring pieces resonate with each other or fight against what they're stuck next too. It's not a science, it's an art. Curators, like artists, must master patience.

Delaware Art Museum's Centennial Juried Exhibition opens with a ticketed reception Friday, Oct. 19 and runs through Jan. 13, 2013. The work was selected by John B. Ravenal, the Lewis Family Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

What I'll Teach at my Delaware Art Museum Painting Workshop Oct. 21

Philip Koch, The Song of All Days,  oil on panel, 36 x72", 2008

The Delaware Art Museum in Wilmington, DE will include my painting above in their Centennial Juried Exhibition Oct. 20 - Jan. 13, 2013. To accompany the show, the Museum has invited three of the included artists to teach studio workshops as part of their Regional Concepts series of classes. They've asked me to teach a landscape drawing and painting workshop on the afternoon of Sunday, Oct. 21.

Sometimes I'm asked if I think art can be taught. I feel that question turns the whole art experience on its head.

All of us living have deep emotional responses to what goes on around us and within us- and that right there is the raw material of art. Everyone has something to say. 

Studying painting or drawing puts some extra tools in your bag to help you tell others what you've seen and how you've felt. Not everyone is a Rembrandt. But give anyone the materials and even just a little guidance, and then wait awhile. By the time they've done ten paintings youre going to find one or two of their canvases have something special trying to come out. Maybe it's an "accidental" shape or a wild unanticipated chord of colors. Given time, we all become expressive whether we want to or not.

So in answer to the "can art be taught ?" question I say I can show people some new ways to see their own personal experience. Artists have ways of thinking and methods of proceeding that let them get a better hold of their inner world and put it into a form that can be shared. I was taught by mature artists when I was young. Now its my turn.

One thing we will work on is seeing patterns in nature. My painting The Song of All Days that's in the Centennial Juried show is a good example. At first glance you see islands silhouetted against a bright sunset. Artists have the extra responsibility to dig down beyond that first impression and find how the shapes and color can be orchestrated to heighten the effect the artist is after. 

In my workshop we will practice seeing beneath the surface several ways. Our goal is seeing how the forms are arranged instead of only what the forms describe. I'll present a brief slide show show and among other things, demonstrate how much easier this is when you turn a realist painting upside down, as I've done here.

With the image inverted, a couple of key relationships you might not have consciously noticed jump out at you. One is the way my many horizontal rows in the water, rocks and clouds are contrasted against a long red cloud that breaks this symmetry.

Another big pattern that's easier to see with the upside down version is how systematically the surface of the water has been gradated from front to back as well as from right to left. I'll explain how gradations impel the viewer's eye to move across the painting's surface (lke an ocean wave pushes you on a surfboard).

After the slide talk we'll head outside (or should the weather fight us, work looking through the Museum's windows) and I'll help my students make a painting or a drawing.

Here I am earlier this year up in Maine near the summit of Cadillac Mountain doing some of my own searching for the patterns hidden in nature.

Will my landscape workshop turn my students into Rembrandts. No. But it will give them some tools to  better tell people, including themselves, about who they are.

P.S. Tomorrow evening (Friday, Sept. 21) Thomas Deans Fine Art in Atlanta opens their new group exhibition A Web of Artists: Friends of a Social Network. The show runs through Oct. 13, 2012 and it includes some of my oils. Here's one of them, The Birches of Maine,  oil on panel, 15 x 12"

Monday, September 17, 2012

Two Big Questions Painters Must Answer

Here are two paintings, an early Edward Hopper oil Queensboro Bridge, and below a very beautiful early pastel landscape (at least it looks like a pastel to me, honestly I'm not sure) by Piet Mondrian who worked on the other side of Atlantic roughly at the same time as Hopper. As different in subject as they are both exhibit some telling thinking that makes these pieces so powerful. I remember when I first saw the Hopper bridge painting in person in a big Hopper exhibit at the Whitney Museum in New York I almost fell over I liked it so much.

Just like our experience of reality, painting can seem overwhelming. Every artist has to come up with a way of simplifying their compositions without draining away their energy and ability to intrigue the viewer. A way I like to think about it is how they handle two key questions. I call them: silhouette and breakup.

Let's start with silhouette. Hopper's bridge is what I would call a "good" silhouette. Its outer contours are different on the top than on the bottom. This adds a note of surprise as there's almost a disjointed quality as the upper and lower sections of the structure come together. He paints all of it, both steel and concrete, in the same soft brown to grey hues to hold it all together visually. Restrained as it is in color, it's remarkably powerful.

So too with the Mondrian below:

Mondrian's drawing focuses on the camel's hump like arc of the tops of the trees as they bend up and almost touch the top the page. This arc idea is then flipped around in the foreground to make a hammock like curve reaching down to touch the bottom of the page. You see in the tops of the the far trees on the horizon the same hammock like curve again pointing down. Like Hopper, Mondrian starts out looking for expressive action in his largest silhouettes.

But, and it's a big but, neither artist stops there. Mondrian goes back into his shapes and breaks them up differently at the bottom and the top halves of his drawing. The foreground marsh grasses (I think he's showing us a grassy field) are rendered purposely smooth. His top half contrasts that dramatically, looking something like we are peering through the teeth of a comb, but one where the "teeth" have withered into the pencil thin lines he draws for the tree trunks.

Going back to Hopper, you see he too starts by searching for his big, solid set of silhouetted bridge forms. Then he goes back into the bridge's steel girders and breaks them up just at the very far left by adding a half dozen tiny holes where you can see through to the sky.

Try an experiment on the Hopper bridge. Take one of your fingers and cover over just that little section of the upper left bridge with those "sky holes." See how suddenly the massiveness of the bridge turns from something moody and impressive to something heavy and dull. The bridge without those little holes breaking it up feels oppressively monotonous.

When I am painting I try to concentrate of these two questions- powerful silhouettes and then the break up of some, but not all, of their interiors. With practice a painter gets better and better at answers to meet both of these imperatives. It's our way of dancing around the whole issue of too much complexity v.s. too much simplicity.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

What Edward Hopper Gave Me

I wrote a letter to a friend today about the trip I'll be taking later this Fall to stay and work once again in Edward Hopper's old painting studio on Cape Cod (this will be my 14th residency there). As often happens when I get going about Hopper the letter went on a bit longer than I'd intended. Hopper is unique for an American realist painter as he seems to speak to so many different kinds of people, including very much to me. I've studied his work, his studio and his birthplace at some length and have learned much about how he worked and what he looked for when he painted. Some of these I've written about frequently on this blog, other ideas less so. So I decided to post most of the letter as I think many would find it of interest.

Here it is.

It was seeing Hopper's work that inspired me to change from painting abstractions to setting out in a realist direction back in the late '60's. As I was an inexperienced art student in a small avant garde art department at Oberlin College this seemed like a lonely path indeed. Some of my art professors at the time were horrified. But in Hopper's example I was given the courage to break from the pack (at the college in those days it was just expected that if you were going to paint you were going to imitate Frank Stella or Mark Rothko. I did at first, and I learned much). But then Hopper came along and tapped me on the shoulder.

One striking evolution in Hopper's work is how much his early paintings (think of the lovely oils he did during his stays in Paris) reflected the influence of his charismatic teacher Robert Henri. Hopper himself complained it took him ten years to "get over" his Henri influence. That story had a real impact on me. One of the chief lessons I learned from Hopper is to use what you learn from the masters of the past to help you go out and tell your own unique story. In my landscape paintings of the last twenty years  I think I've been very successful at this.

Yes, the George Billis Gallery show is still set for Dec. 11- Jan. 19, 2013.  I have been painting interior views of the Hopper studio on and off over the 30 years I've been visiting place in South Truro. They have been a wonderful complement to my usual landscape painting. And they are my way of remembering the lessons Hopper taught me through his work.

Here's a photo of me working in Hopper's painting room (that's Hopper's easel at the right). I'm standing in between the two doorways that inspired his wonderful Rooms by the Sea oil (2nd photo) now in Yale's Collection.

And here below is a new version I started last week of one of my older oils.
It shows how the studio is actually laid out.

A comparison of Hopper's inventive vision with the actual "facts" of the studio's architecture is revealing. Hopper's famous oil contrasts the open waves of Cape Cod Bay directly against the doorway. To heighten the contrast, he places a big blast of sunlight on the empty wall and darkens down the water. It works 

But to get to this, he had to move the wooden dutch door to hinges on the
opposite side of the doorframe. Then he widened the white wall. And best of all,
he has the sunlight shining on a wall it never hits in reality. The view is looking south, and the empty wall faces due north. 

In his most daring move, he eliminates the land between the studio and the water,
lending the painting a delicious slightly surreal quality. I used to wonder about this lovely but odd placement before I ever had visited the studio. But I found that when one sits in a chair at the far end of the studio away from the water (which is where Hopper usually placed his easel when he worked) that his viewpoint was low enough to the ground he would have seen the doorway seeming to lead directly out into the water. So the oddness of the painting's composition actually stemmed from Hopper responding to something he actually saw. He just had the sense to take advantage of it.

Here's a photo I took of the studio in Oct. of '10 showing another crucial aspect of the building. Hopper designed the studio down to the last nail, even constructing a detailed cardboard scale model to show the builder.

Hopper was really designing an observatory from which he could study the 
legendary light of Cape Cod. You can see he's put in the maximum number of windows so direct sunlight flows into the studio literally from the first ray of sunrise to the last gleam of sunset. The effect it has inside 
the studio is remarkable. I believe the profound mastery of light for which
Hopper is known comes in large part from his living half of each year 
for three decades in this sun-dazzled space. Modest in scale as it is, I've never 
seen anything quite like it. 

Writing this to you just now I'm getting all excited to be heading back up 
there to do some more paintings of that light filled interior.

Hopper's studio is revealing of his priorities. He was nearly six and a half feet tall, 
a big man. But desiring to make his painting room as big as possible in an overall
small house, he shrunk the remaining rooms down to a Lilliputian scale. When you
stand in the tiny kitchen, bedroom, or especially the bathroom you wonder "How 
did Hopper even fit in this room?"

Here's a vine charcoal of Hopper's bureau sandwiched in between two windows 
looking out onto Cape Cod Bay. To get this view I had to wedge myself in between
the bureau and the end of Hopper's bed (I felt I was eating my knees as I drew). 

The final thing I'd say about the clues the Hopper studio leave for us about
the artist's creative methods comes from the magnificent 10' tall north facing
window in Hopper's painting room. The views out through it are jaw dropping-

You look over the sweeping undulations of three enormous sand dunes down to Cape Cod Bay. In the distance an emerald blue/green sliver of distant Provincetown shoots out into the sea. It's a view that is stunningly beautiful, but Hopper attempted only one watercolor of it that he never finished. While it was a view that was convenient and lovely, it simply wasn't good enough for Hopper. He wanted something more off the beaten track. 

Hopper was famous for his meandering drives around the Cape's backroads and for taking long solitary walks through its landscape. He was out "hunting" for new ideas he could make use of to create his surprising and sometimes even unorthodox compositions. 

More than anything, Hopper's great lesson to me is no to settle for the ordinary way of presenting things. To him being alive was a remarkable thing and he was determined express its "beyond the ordinary" feeling. His ruthless commitment to find unexpectedways to look at the world deeply impressed me. 

He didn't have time to paint the delightful view out his north window- a view that dozens of other less remarkable landscape painters would have been happy to work from. 

He was after something more unexpected. I think of his amazing painting Gas that he cobbled together from the two gas stations nearest to his studio on Route 6, the main
road. What resulted was one of the most unusual as well as most one of the most evocative landscape paintings in American art history.

OK, I've gone on longer than I intended. Hopper's studio is a topic that gets me going...

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Haunted Art

Caspar David Friedrich (1744-1840), The Crow Tree, oil

Philip Koch, Land's End Inn, vine charcoal, 9 x 12"

An artist's spirit needs to feed on the inspiration of those who've gone down the art path before us. I sure do. Above is a great 19th century oil by one of my early painting heroes, Caspar David Friedrich . Right below it is a plein air charcoal drawing I did in the backyard garden of the quirky Land's End Inn in Provincetown. The inn had these wonderfully gnarled trees setting off its distinctive roofline. When I stayed there I knew it was a perfect place for channeling Friedrich (and some Alfred Hitchcock perhaps as well).

I was joking in my blog post earlier this week that Friedrich was actually the same person as the early 20th century American painter Charles Burchfield. My theory added that Friedrich's usually gloomy saturnine style might have been transformed by his taking Prozac into the more ebullient moods usually found in Burchfield. 

Maybe I should have let it go right there, but this afternoon one of my Facebook friends, Picos Vazquez, put up an image of the wonderful Friedrich painting above and I fell again under its spell. Its amazing rhythms in the lace-like branches seemed so much to herald what Burchfield would do 100 years later. So while I don't literally believe Burchfield and Friedrich are the same person, poetically, well of course they are. 

Let's look for a minute at the Friedrich for some compositional tips.

It's a painting where dancing linear pattern predominates. But look in back of that to see how carefully Friedrich sets the stage for his magnificent tree. The sky is a sea of carefully gradated peach orange. That color could easily overwhelm the delicacy of the foreground, but Friedrich spends enormous efforts to give us a whole range of differing intensities of the hue. The misty clouds down near the horizon turn to a pearly grey for example.

For anyone who has ever attempted to paint a naked tree against a lighter colored sky, you know how easy it is for the branches to look too heavy and take over the painting. Friedrich very carefully adjusts his tones as he moves to thinner and thinner branches. Compare the most tiny branch's color with that of the most massive sections of the trunk and you see what I mean.

Aren't crows cool! You can just feel Friedrich felt that way too. One would have thought he'd have peppered the upper branches with dozens of the noisy cawing little guys. But instead he opts for restraint, give us maybe only three or four crows still in the tree and readying themselves to take off to join the rest of their family. (I've read that often crows will live together in families, with several sisters and their offspring hanging together as a group. It's kind of a touching notion, especially for such a maligned species).

That theme of restraint continues as we leave the tree and head to the ground. The grasses and sticks there seem to be almost dissolving into what looks like soft sand. I've seen many contemporary painters attempt a nature scene like this and end up with so many busy passages that it looks more like you're staring into a box of sewing needles than a landscape. That's the measure of how good Friedrich's eye was, knowing when he'd said enough with the busy contagion tiny branches and balancing them off against soft and more empty passages in the sky and on the hillside. He knows when to excite your eye and when to let us stop to just breath for a moment.

I said in my earlier Friedrich/Burchfield post that I'm confident Burchfield knew and loved Friedrich's work. Here are three of the later painter's watercolors. Of course there are big differences, but even more there's an unbroken thread running through time to connect both artists. 


-Next week Thomas Deans Fine Art in Atlanta, GA opens its new group exhibit The Social Network
September 21- October 13, 2012 that will include two of my forest interior oils.

-Here's a link to the full page ad in the September American Art Collector magazine for my upcoming solo show at George Billis Gallery in New York Dec. 11, 2012 - Jan. 19, 2013

-My painting The Song of All Days, 36 x 72" (below) will be included in the Delaware Art Museum's Centennial Juried Exhibition, in Wilmington, DE. The show opens to the public Sat. Oct. 20 and runs    through January 13, 2013.

The Delaware Art Museum asked three of the artists who will be included in the Centennial exhibition to come and teach studio workshops during the show. I will be teaching a half day landscape painting and drawing workshop Sunday, Oct. 21 from 1-5. There is more information on the Museum's Education Dept. page.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Thomas Cole & the Birth of American Landscape

Above is just the background from one of my favorite early 19th century painters, Thomas Cole (1801- 1848). With very little professional training, Cole's paintings blazed a trail with his wholehearted embrace of what was to the European settlers (Cole himself was born in England) a wildly unknown continent. Cole made something new.

Through September 23, 2012, the Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme Connecticut has an exchange exhibition from the Albany Institute of History and Art. It explores the work and ideas of the first original movement in American art history, the Hudson River School. A few days ago I ran across an interview with Amy Kurtz Lansing, the Curator at the Florence Griswold Museum. I've always felt this almost 200 year old group of artists was pivotal in forming how Americans think and feel about themselves. Kurtz Lansing deftly puts her finger on a key role their work played in our imaginations:

"Before the Hudson River School, everybody had the idea that history was something that only Europe had. They looked at America and at nature and thought, it's kind of this raw stuff that's menacing and dangerous," Kurtz Lansing says. "They didn't realize there is great history - this kind of natural history - that is represented by our landscape. The Hudson River School painters gave Americans a way to recognize that, to appreciate what was grand and beautiful about nature here."

Cole would write about the landscape he found along New York's Hudson River as being like a "new Eden." And he meant his paintings to celebrate a chance for a new beginning (perhaps free from Europe's wars, poverty, and discrimination). 

In our time of looming ecological degradation, paintings like Cole's take on a new significance- reminding us the earth and ourselves are both parts of the same living system. Those who think landscape imagery is a thing of the past are missing an importatn point. Good art has a way of focusing people's attention for them. Our future is bound up with our earth's future. We'd better start paying attention. Our need for incisive and inventive artists today to tackle the landscape as a theme is undiminished. Good landscape painting tells us in no uncertain terms "Earth Matters!"

There is a wonderful 16 minute video on Thomas Cole and the development of the Hudson River School on the website of Cedar Grove, the Thomas Cole National Historic Site. Here is the link.

Cole's old home and studio in the Catskill Mountains of New York State were fortunately saved from ruin, restored as a National Historic Site, and opened to the public in 2001 on Cole's birthday. It looks just like my studio (just kidding). After watching the video  linked to above, I moved a pilgrimage to visit Cedar Grove to near the top of my "to do" list.

With my own painting, I owe a lot to Cole and those who followed him. One of the things that has always struck me about our earth and the heavens is that if you really look, you realize they are a lot more weird than how we usually conceive of them. There's always a tendency to try to shove things into convenient boxes, label them, and put them on the shelf. And it's possible to see a landscape anywhere you go that, maybe because the light is wrong or because you're viewing it from the wrong vantage point, that genuinely offers you nothing unexpected. And into the mental box it goes without a protest.

Cole wasn't like that. He kept his eyes wide open to the surprising and even fantastical sides of nature.
At his best, he can be counted on to show you something you'd never expect. To me that's at the heart of being a real artist.

Here is Mountain Sunrise from 1826, early in his career.,

Once you move into the middle spaces and the far distance, Cole's genius really starts to take over. He creates massive volumes, sets up a compelling sense of movement, and bathes the whole thing in a delicious dancing atmosphere. The far distance in a Cole painting is almost always remarkable. He can be both dramatic and amazingly sensitive.

What caught my eye when I first discovered Cole and the other Hudson River School painters was their unabashed delight in the drama of nature. They gave me permission to take far more seriously the excitement I felt on a personal level with the natural world. It could be the basis of a life in painting.

Below is my oil Equinox,  30 x 45", 2008, probably one of my more openly Hudson River influenced pieces.

And another is my The Voyage of Memory, oil , 38 x 38", 2008 (my choice of title was a tip of the hat to Cole's wonderful four panel series The Voyage of Life, now in the National Gallery of Art in Washington).