Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Afternoons in Hopper's Bedroom

Sun in an Empty Room, Afternoon, oil on panel, 12 x 15", 2013

Here's one of my new paintings. It was done up in Edward Hopper's bedroom in Nyack, New York. Hopper's former boyhood home is now the Edward Hopper House Art Center. Last spring and summer I made two separate trips to Nyack to draw and paint in the house where Hopper was born and came of age.

 Here's the view out the third window in the room, just to the left of my easel above. You can see the traffic and passers-by on the sidewalk below, a line of rooftops marching down a hill, and finally the Hudson River. Most of the elements Hopper would ever paint can be found if you just stare out this window. It's something shy and socially awkward Edward did hour upon hour as he grew up. In the final photo below is me painting in the bedroom last summer.

My oil above Sun in an Empty Room, Afternoon will be included in  the show at Isalos Fine Art in Stonington, Maine August 13 - September 2, 2013, Inside Edward Hopper's World: Paintings by Philip Koch. It will include additional paintings from the Nyack Hopper House and interiors painted in Hopper's studio on Cape Cod.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Why Do I Show Artists From the Past?

This is a painting by one of the artists I used to look at a lot when I first began painting (Jules Olitski, 1922-2007). I didn't have to look far because this is what my art professors were showing us students. And to this day I think it was a good beginning. The Olitski painting above washes over you with boldness and energy like a warm ocean wave.

It is not that older art is better.  Actually there was lots of 2nd rate art in the old days, but most of that has fallen away, either thrown out, painted over, or forgotten and covered with cobwebs in some body's attic.Big and bold hasn't lost its appeal. At my gym in a group fitness class I love it when the instructor cranks the music way up and we all blow it out together. But I've found alongside of that there is often a depth of feeling in the little things. Quiet and reflective has power too.Take the drawing below by William Waterhouse (British, 1849- 1917). The artist points out to us things we're likely to overlook in which he found little unexpected pleasures. When we meet someone in real life we're most likely to focus on the expression in their eyes and their mouth to gauge where they're coming from. 

Waterhouse I'm sure did the same. But here he's taking a side trip to show us other things he felt we should be sure to notice. For example the way he deftly draws the outline of the woman's chin, neck and shoulder hard and dark and then fills the resulting empty space with a darker tone than in the rest of the background. It's his way of calling you to attention and saying "look at how great these shapes are." 

At their best, old painters like Waterhouse show us a world where they didn't settle for just any accident or drip of the brush as being good enough. 
There's an insistence and a rigorousness to the way they'd go after just a certain look for a shape or a color. They'd even practice their moves to get it right, as in this preparatory oil study below Waterhouse did for his painting The Naiad from 1893.


One of the things I get a kick out of is how particular the artist is in his rendering of the face- letting the one eye dominate and in turn softening the contrasts around the Naiad's nose. Waterhouse knew well that he could overload his viewers with information and took pains to tone down passages he felt less important. Doesn't the woman above seem to be staring at something?

Here's the entire canvas:

Naiads by the way were Greek mythological female water spirits who dowelled in streams and brooks. One gets the feeling life is about to get a bit more complicated for our innocent sleeping figure of Hylas on the stream's bank.

I know realist painters of our time who dismiss modernism in art and everything it has brought about. Some feel everything since Picasso has gone south. I don't feel that way. 

God knows there is a lot of work done today that ends up more pretentious and downright silly than not. But given time, most of it is going to be forgotten up in that cobweb-filled attic of time. Some pieces from our time will survive and still be valued. Exactly which is any one's guess. 

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The Dragon Made Me Do It- Allen Memorial Art Museum

A thousand years ago in the Fall of 1966 I was bitten by this dragon. 

Sort of. I was in my first semester of my Freshman year at Oberlin College and was enrolled in Art History 101. It was a perplexing time- I had come to college knowing I was meant to be a sociologist or an historian. Something had gone badly awry. To my surprise and consternation, the art history survey class was the only class I was enjoying. This wasn't supposed to happen.

To get to the art history class I had walk through the Allen Memorial Art Museum's courtyard. In the middle of it was this dragon fountain happily bubbling away surrounded by decorative plantings. It was an oasis of calm in the tumultuous first few weeks of school, but beyond that I gave the serpentine critter little thought.

Here's Allen Memorial Art Museum (pretty classy place).

As we entered the waning weeks of that first semester the Art History class gave us a special assignment.  Each of us was to make an ink wash drawing to give us deeper insight into the Chinese scroll paintings we were being shown.  

Casting around for something to draw I remembered how restfully quiet that courtyard fountain and garden were and headed over there with my brush and ink. The plantings that circled the fountain seemed inviting and I ended up doing way more studies of their leaves than were required. The dragon watched me as I worked, not saying anything but seeming to like my company. It was way more fun than plowing through the mountains of assigned readings from my other classes. 

In class next week I hung my most successful drawing up on the wall among all the other students' offerings and was shocked to see how much more I enjoyed my drawing than the results the other students brought in. Huh! 

After this I found myself taking unnecessary detours to walk through the galleries of Allen Art Museum. It was funny, I didn't really know much about how to look at a painting in those days, but somehow all the work hanging together on the Museum's walls exerted a collective pull on me. The more I went, the more I wanted to stray over that way again. There was a sense that something was bubbling up from underneath and getting ready to reveal itself. Did the dragon and his gurgling fountain suggest this all to me? Perhaps in his way he did.

That aside, I used to stand and marvel at the glistening silks in this Rubens painting. It was probably for me one of the first times I consciously noticed the expressive power that results from contrasting warm against cool color. Looking at the painting now I marvel at the tension and the harmony between the golden fabric and the ghostly cool flesh on the woman's arms. 

 Oberlin also has this Meindert Hobbema oil A Pond in the Forest from 1668. What a pacing and rhythm he had in how he grouped his forms. I think I was drawn to this painting largely because it reminded me so much of the forest of my boyhood home on the shore of Lake Ontario outside of Rochester. We all need to find ourselves in the works of art we admire. Hobbema seemed to have been painting in my backyard.


The Allen Museum also had the first Thomas Cole painting I was to see, Lake with Dead Trees (Catskill) from 1825.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Inside Edward Hopper's World this August in Stonington, Maine

Philip Koch, Rooms by the Sea, oil on panel
14 x 21", 2013

My first couple of years studying art were pretty confusing. Mostly I stumbled through a long series of colorful abstractions but felt  they weren't leading me anywhere I wanted to go.

I was lost. Then Edward Hopper tapped me on the shoulder and said "Come this way."

As regular readers of this blog know, it was Hopper who was the major influence on my career as an artist. I never met the man but seeing the brilliance in the sunlight his paintings evoked was enough for me. I dropped my abstractions and set off working in a realist direction over four decades ago. Never looked back.

Isalos Fine Art in Stonington, Maine has just set the dates for their summer show of my work for August 13 through September 2, 2013. It will include paintings I've done of the interior spaces where the famous American realist Edward Hopper spent much of his life.

They will be exhibiting a series of painting of Edward Hopper's S. Truro, MA studio I've made during my 14 residencies there as well as some interiors painted in Hopper's boyhood home in Nyack, NY (now the Edward Hopper House Art Center). Ironically it was Victoria Hertz, who is the President of the Board of Trustees at the Hopper House Art Center, who  suggested to us we hold a Hopper- themed show in conjunction with the Hopper inspired video and dance performances by the well respected Bridgman/Packer Dance at the Stonington Opera House Aug. 13 - 18.

Edward Hopper House Art Center was kind enough last year to invite me to come to the House two separate times to paint both in Hopper's bedroom and in his big parlor.  

Here's the front of the Hopper House.

I have been incredibly fortunate to have been granted unprecedented access to the studio Hopper built and lived in on Cape Cod in S. Truro, MA. It has become a fixture in my artist's imagination. Here's me walking back up from the beach to the famous studio last October.

The Isalos Fine Art exhibit will feature several paintings of a corner of his Truro studio's painting room Hopper made famous in his Rooms by the Sea oil. Here I am last month in the Yale Art Gallery in New Haven with that painting. It's become one of my oldest and best friends.

Here is my oil from 2004, Edward Hopper's Rooms by the Sea, 18 x 24" that will be in the Stonington show. It is a painting I did that shows more truthfully the actual architecture that inspired Hopper's more fanciful invention above. 

A new oil painted in October on location,  Hopper Studio Bedroom and Bench,  9 x 12" featuring some of Hopper's simple studio furniture and furnishings.

There will be an opening reception for the Isalos Fine Art exhibit Friday, August 16, 5-7 p.m. All welcome. Bridgman/Packer Dance will be performing their Hopper themed video and dance piece Voyeur at the Stonington Opera House Aug. 13-18.

Thursday, April 4, 2013

Painted Panels / Painted Palettes in the Griswold Museum

Two weeks ago I was asked by David Rau of the Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme, CT to be part of a holiday tradition at the museum. As a tip of the hat to the painters who made the Griswold famous as the original home of American Impressionism, for the last ten years they've invited artists to make small paintings on wooden artist's palettes that they hang on a holiday tree in the Museum. My wife Alice and I had visited the Griswold in March to see their current Arthur Heming exhibition. We loved the show and felt we were time traveling when we went through the older part of the Museum, the mansion house that housed the painters who made up the Old Lyme Art Colony. I wrote about that visit in an earlier blog post.

Back when the artists colony was in full swing at Florence Griswold's boarding house, many of the visiting painters would paint directly on the wood panels of the walls in the house's dining room and other places on the first floor. It has an informality and warmth to the presentation unlike anything you see in another  American art museum. It reminds us that even famous old artists got hungry and liked to sit around a table talking and drinking coffee. 

Griswold Museum sent me a palette two weeks ago and I got right to it. To get a better grasp of the composition I wanted I first tried out my ideas in vine charcoal on paper at the same scale and shape as the oil I would do. As I often do, I did a design  based on memory and imagination 

There are always some key images we carry with us from childhood all through our lives. One of the most vivid for me is my forested neighborhood in upstate New York. We lived way out in the country on the shore of Lake Ontario where there were few houses and even fewer lights at night. Every December a neighbor would place a string of blue lights on an isolated tall pine and keep them on all night. Lying in my bed I had an unobstructed view. These were the only lights to be seen out my window. Everything else was darkness and deep snow. In short it was magical to a kid's imagination. I smile now just remembering the feeling.

Here I am last week working on the oil painting at the left.

Next week my painted palette will be shipped up to join Griswold Museum's growing collection of painted palettes. The Museum will hold their annual holiday celebration December 6, 2013 - January 5, 2014 and my new oil painting will join the growing number of painted palettes on "Miss Florence's Artist Tree." If you're in the area I hope you'll go and see if you can find it among the boughs.


Tuesday, April 2, 2013

America's First Public Art Museum

Late last month we visited galleries and art museums in Connecticut, seeing the Art Essex Gallery in Essex, (which carries quite a bit of my own paintings), the Florence Griswold Museum in Old Lyme, Yale University Art Gallery in New Haven, and finishing up with the first public art museum in the US, the Wadsworth Atheneum in Harford. By the way, I love that charmingly antiquated name "Atheneum." If you're going to be the first, you might as well stand out with an exotic name too.

Often when paintings are misfiring, the problem is the artist has been seized by one big idea and has just dropped it like a bomb in the middle of the canvas where it sits isolated from everything else. Painters like Kensett knew the best way to evoke a "big idea" like a waterfall was to put it into a relationship with something completely different. Here Kensett actually makes his red foreground rocks in some ways more dramatic than the falling stream of water. As he painted the rocks against the background falls he pushed first one stronger and then the other, working his way bit by bit towards a resonating balance. 

Life is like that- things come at us in unexpected combinations with other unrelated things. You win the lottery on the same afternoon that your dog gets lost. It's often confusing and disjointing to try to make sense of the what happened by the end of the day. It can lead one to despair that living can ever make sense. 

Painters at their best provide something of a remedy. They show us that things that at first seem unrelated can actually be made to meaningfully interact with each other. The massive rock formation Kensett gives us can accompany the falling mists of a waterfall. Each making the experience of the other more vivid and authentic. 

We see the same phenomenon in the Atheneum's oil painting Etretat by George Inness (1825-1894). The unusual "flying butress" rock formation reaching out and into the sea is like the waterfall in the Kensett above. It's so unique a form it tends to look if anything too different than anything else in the scene. Like the waterfall it could easily have been overly dominating, preventing us from seeing it as part of a bigger story with other powerful actors.

So Inness decides to give the stone archway a co-star by introducing an intricately involved array of clouds. Look closely at the most bluish clouds and you see he's provided what looks like a gigantic tunnel that leads to a distant space he only hints at. These are huge forms, important enough to say something completely different than the famous stone archway. What's so good about Inness is he knows how to stitch these two opposing worlds together into a seamless whole.

We are drawn to look at art because unconsciously we sense it shows us hints of how the parts of our lives exist in a crazy but very real dance with other events, people, memories, you name it. Paintings like these two Atheneum masterpieces are encouraging reminders that our confusions are with us only part time. Moments come to all of us when our mental clouds part and things, at least for a little while, make perfect sense. 

Here's a photo of the oldest part of the Atheneum building. Pretty fantastic looking isn't it. Maybe the set designers for the Game of Thrones series have spent time in this quirky but elegant museum.