Thursday, May 23, 2013

Philip Koch Quoted in Whitney Museum's Hopper Drawing Exhibition Catalogue

 The Whitney Museum of American Art's  Hopper Drawing show opens today in New York (through October 6, 2013).

Carter Foster, the Museum's Steven and Ann Ames Curator of Drawing, writing in the opening paragraph of his exhibition catalogue essay includes a footnote concerning Hopper's oil Rooms by the Sea that quotes at length something I had written to him recently.

Foster writes: "Artist Philip Koch, who has spent time in the Hopper's former house making his own work, shared these illuminating thoughts about the difference between the painting and the views from and inside the house. 'A comparison of Hopper's inventive vision and the actual "facts" of the studio's architecture is revealing. Hopper's famous oil contrasts the open waves of Cape Cod Bay directly agains the doorway. To heighten the contrast, he places a big blast of sunlight on the empty wall and darkens down the water. It works beautifully.

But to get to this, he had to move the wooden dutch (sic) 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 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 stems from something he saw. He just had the sense to take advantage of it.'"

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The Conversation between Monet and Edward Hopper

Here's a painting I've always loved, Monet's oil Bathing at Grenoulliere from 1869. In it Monet seems transfixed by the ambient light that fills the partly shadowed foreground. It is so rhythmic I almost feel a little dizzy looking at it.

I first ran across it in 1971 when I was in my MFA program in painting at Indiana University. It was reproduced in one of the textbooks I read for an art history class on 19th century painting I took  

Monet was alive when Hopper lived in Paris and the two could have met (they didn't, at least not literally). But if you look at the some of the work the young Hopper was doing during his stays in Paris, you realize Hopper had indeed had long "conversations" with Monet's paintings. He intently studied the older painter's ideas. In particular, Hopper drank up the French Impressionist's sense of lightened overall tonalities and how he played them off against just a few dark accents. 

Here's Hopper's early oil Le Point Royal from 1909.

To me it always seemed Hopper is a profoundly color sensitive artist, an aspect that often gets lost in the usual comments about his work delving into themes of loneliness and isolation. Whether or not Hopper was painting solitude or bustling activity, he could find more different versions of a color to tell his story than you can shake a stick at. In his river painting above look at the range of color intensities he finds for his oranges. They range from almost neutral grays in the water to a dazzling ochre tinged warmth in the facade of the orange building. 

Hopper knew color as well as he did partly because he looked long and hard at the previous masters of color, people like Monet. 

In the fashion of Monet, Hopper's early work borrowed the broad handling and working his paint wet-into-wet. He did it very well in my opinion. In the States Hopper had studied with William Merit Chase and with Robert Henri, both of whom extolled using a big brush and moving quickly over the surface with a minimum of spelled out details. 

Funny thing about Hopper, and one of the things I personally find so fascinating about him, is how much he changed over the course of his long career. Here below is a watercolor from 1926, Adam's House.  There is still a heightened sense of brilliant light pulling the scene together, but what's new is the crispness of his forms, with lots of straight lines and sharper edges throughout the painting. In many ways it has moved away from his earlier dialogue with painters like Monet, but not entirely.

Beneath the surface, Hopper's still that French-inspired colorist. Look at how many different shades of white and off white he inserts into his light drenched foreground. I believe almost no one paints bright sunlight as well as Hopper. He achieves a richness of the bright light rather than something glaring or harsh. It's the range of color temperatures he manages to paint that both ramps up the power of the light and simultaneously softens its feeling. It's totally yummy.

A quick story about the above Hopper watercolor. While it's of a house in Glouscester, MA, the piece itself is in the Permanent Collection of the Wichita Art Museum in Kansas. I was at the end of my graduate school program in 1972 and was applying for college teaching jobs. I flew to Wichita to interview for a position at the state univerisity there. This was my first job interview ever and to say I was nervous is to put it mildly. One of the things the search committee was charged to do in addition to interviewing me was to sell me on living in Wichita, so they drove me around all the pretty parts of town and took me to the art museum. 

I was feeling stiff and completely self conscious as we all walked around the Museum together, so much so I don't remember their Collection other than that it was pretty good. Hopper's Adam's House, was the complete exception. I marched right up to it and just fell into it. As great art will, looking into its elegant pattern of sunlight and shadows sent a wave of calm and energy over me. Finally able to relax and invigorated,  I turned to my interviewers and announced I could see myself living happily in Wichita.

As it turned out they did offer me the job, though I ended up taking another offer at a college on the West Coast instead. But I never forgot that moment with Hopper's watercolor. Years later I would see it again in a big Hopper show back on the East Coast and made a point of reintroducing myself to it. It smiled back at me and said yes, it remembered our earlier meeting out in Kansas. Maybe great paintings are like elephants, they look you in the eye and seem to never forget you.

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Carving out the space, Or Painting with a Mellonballer

When I was a kid I had chores. One that I liked was using one of those funny looking scoops to scrape out little balls of watermelon when we were making fruit salad. Watermelon was soft, and compared to say cantaloupe, the going was easy. Into the flat surface of a half watermelon you'd go and in a few minutes you'd have carved out a whole cave. To a kid with a good imagination, this was heaven.

I though of this years later when I read that George Seurat had described painting as "the carving out of space." It's more than just that of course, but it's intriguing that a painter who's so associated with elegantly composing his flat shapes and covering his canvas with intricate pointillist dots would choose to talk about carving out space. Depth for a painter has expressive purpose.

Here's a real celebration of deep space by the 19th century German artist Caspar David Friedrich.

Friedrich wants you to feel you can go somewhere and invites you to pick you way back into his far distance, stepping from mountain ridge to mountain ridge. As you go you see the land under your feet gradually changing, getting lighter and turning from a dark warm brown to a whispering faint light blue. 

Friedrich understood that space in a painting can have a deeply resonant emotional quality. 

Think for a moment of dream you've had where someone or something unsettling is pursuing you. As they or it comes closer you feel more anxious, as the distance between you widens, you feel relieved. Or the opposite. Imagine you're dreaming of someone you have missed terribly who unexpectedly reappears. They come closer and you're overjoyed. If they begin to drift away from you again the pain of loss is palpable. Evoking the feel of deep space unlocks a reservoir of feeling in the viewer. This is something landscape painters revel in.

Below is my painting North Passage, oil on canvas, 45 x 60", 2011. It's a composite of memories I pulled together from New England mountains, the coast of Maine, and Lake Champlain between New York and Vermont (why settle for one favorite place when you can borrow from them all). It's got more variety of forms in it than the Friedrich, but the same thinking is evident to make different spaces within it feel differently. 

Primarily it's done with color. The foreground water and islands are mid-toned and cool, a string of forest on the far shore is  injected with extremely light yellows and oranges. Then dramatically darker red mountains fill the next zone. Finally the sky divides into three basic levels- more subtle oranges in the closer clouds, a veil of overcast gray violets behind that, and most distant of all a streak of bright cool blue in a narrow gap in the clouds running all across from left to right. 

The color is fanciful, but the orderly progression of space jumps from one overlapping plane to the next. In many ways I consider it a highly truthful painting- go out and study a mountainous vista anywhere. The first thing that hits you is the enormity of the deep space. We are small, it is big and often highly dramatic. When landscape panorama is well painted it can sweep you away. 

Here's another new painting of mine, Rooms by the Sea, oil on panel, 14 x 21", 2013. It's more modest in its scale and feeling, but the key idea remains the same. It was painted in the studio Edward Hopper lived in from 1934 until the mid 1960's. In this room he created some of his most widely admired canvases. One is Hopper's oil Rooms by the Sea now in the Yale University Art Gallery that was directly inspired by this corner of his painting room and its doorway leading out to Cape Cod Bay.

I began this oil in the afternoon when the sunlight shone into the far bedroom and cast a yellowish glow throughout that farther space. In reality, the close doorway didn't get direct sunlight on it (that wall faces due north) and the entire front space was a cool blue grey. I decided to borrow the light direction Hopper used in his version of this doorway because I liked the idea of casting a diagonal shadow across the foreground. I knew in real life this invented sunlight would have changed the color of the entire front room, but I chose to ignore that in favor of its actual cool blue gray tones. 

Like in my North Passage oil above, I think it's again a truthful painting in the way it makes each of the two rooms feel different from each other. In real life Hopper's bedroom is tiny and cozy. His painting room where my easel was set up was just the opposite with its high ceiling and vastly larger size. To exaggerate the color difference between the rooms was a way to speak to how differently each space felt as you walked from one to the other. Inventing color contrasts was a way to give the viewer a sense of that.