Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Unlockng Clues to Edward Hopper

On Sunday afternoon May 4 I've been invited by the Edward Hopper House Art Center in Nyack, NY to give a short talk on the legacy of Hopper's vision. The talk will take place in Hopper's boyhood home, upstairs in the bedroom where he was born and lived until he was nearly 30. Years before Hopper, previous generations of the American Hudson River School artists painted often literally in Hopper's neighborhood. The profoundly divergent ways Hopper and his predecessors chose to compose pictorial space is fascinating.

Above is Hopper's oil Gloucester Harbor, teaming with activity. It's a view that highlights some of the key ingredients of Hopper's artistic vision- an elevated viewpoint, dramatic and even jarring juxtapositions, and generally a preference for forms that are close in to the viewer.

By contrast, here's an oil by the 19th century American painter Sanford Gifford of the Palisades, the dramatic stretch of towering cliffs lining the west bank of the Hudson River beginning less than a mile from Hopper's home. 

I've no doubt Hopper was moved by the grand scale of the Hudson's topography. Some of his early attempts at landscape mimicked Gifford's panoramic views of deep spaces. But early on Hopper found he was more successful when he focused on a more intimate and closed in kind of space. Much of what makes a Hopper feel like a Hopper comes from this choice to crowd things in closer to the viewer. It was a tendency that endured his entire career.

Hopper's great inventiveness as a painter stemmed in part from his ability to insert the charged feelings of his childhood memories into his adult paintings. Here's the view looking out of one of the three windows in Hopper's bedroom towards the Hudson River, one block away. It's tellingly like the view Hopper would paint of Gloucester Harbor. 

If you visit Hopper's boyhood home you sense the artist's uncanny ability to create a poetry out of the seemingly ordinary. Walking through its rooms you catch a patch of sunlight here or a detail of mantle there that sharply echo the paintings Hopper would make even decades later after leaving Nyack and moving to his Manhattan and his Cape Cod studio. His boyhood home is a clue, a big one,  to how his artist's mind worked. 

Here are two views of Hopper's bedroom taken in the summer of 2012.  The first when a show of my paintings was installed in the bedroom and the second my French easel set up as I worked on one of the series of paintings I created of the room. 

The May 4 event, from 3 - 5:30 p.m., is At Home with Edward and Jo Hopper, a ticketed gala event that is the annual spring fund raising party for the Hopper House Art Center. A rare exhibition of the little seen work by Hopper's wife Jo will be displayed in the Center's galleries. Plus tours, lite fare, a silent auction. For information click here.

Upcoming Exhibition:

Philip Koch's paintings in a 3 artist exhibition
Art Essex Gallery, Essex, CT
May 14 - June 7, 2014
Opening reception Saturday, May 17, 4 - 7 p.m.

Philip Koch, The Reach III, oil on panel, 24 x 36". One of the paintings to be included in the exhibition. A view of the shore just below Edward Hopper's S. Truro. MA studio as it would have appeared in Hopper's day. It is based on a vine charcoal drawing Koch made on the beach during one of his 15 residencies in Hopper's Cape Cod studio.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Telling the Truth with Little Lies : Two Paintings by Edward Hopper

On Sunday, May 4 I'm going to be giving a short talk on the legacy of Edward Hopper as part of the Edward Hopper House Art Center's Spring Gala, At Home with Edward and Jo Hopper. On display in the Center's galleries will be some rarely seen works by the painter Jo Hopper, Edward's wife. Along with short presentations on Hopper, music, lite fare, and a silent auction. The event is a fundraiser to support what is probably one of the most remarkable homes in the country open to the public. If you want to feel American art history, this is the place. For more information on this ticketed event click here.

Above is an oil painting Edward Hopper made of his boyhood home in Nyack, NY (now the Edward Hopper House Art Center). He lived there with only a few interruptions until he was nearly 30. The memory of the Nyack home remained deeply rooted in him. Of all his paintings this is the one that most closely resembles the way the place actually looks. It's a view from the stairs that lead to his second floor bedroom. He painted it in 1949. My guess is it is done entirely from memory. But it is a memory that for Hopper was charged with feeling.

Typical of Hopper, he's changed things around a bit from the actual view through his front door. In reality if one stands on these steps  one can gaze across the busy street of Broadway, look down 2nd Avenue, and see one block away the majestic Hudson River. Hopper loved the architecture of his home, and he loved the sweep of the great river. His oil edits out everything else. What results is a tribute to two of the key inspirations that would carry him through his remarkable lifetime of painting.

I'm reminded of the great Hopper oil Rooms by the Sea from 1951. It too distorts the actual appearance of a place to express a greater emotional truth. The scene is in his Cape Cod studio in S. Truro, MA. In real life if one stands in the studio one sees out the doorway a significant stretch of sand and beach grasses before one reaches the expansive ocean. But expressively it better served his purpose to bring the waters right up to the studio door. 

These two paintings have an expressive authenticity because Hopper pared down his experience to focus just on the most telling aspects of his idea. In a sense, he lied. But by eliminating distractions to what mattered most he cleared the way for us to join him and feel the impact these scenes had on his imagination. The French Impressionist Degas once said "You have to have the cunning of a criminal to paint a painting." I'm glad Hopper was listening.

I recommend this short video on Hopper put together by the Hopper House Art Center with some background on Hopper's home and life in Nyack- Edward Hopper and the Making of an Artist.

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Visiting the Johnson Museum of Art in Ithaca, NY

Last June I visited the Johnson Museum of Art in Ithaca, NY. Their new Director, Stephanie Wiles very kindly had given me a private tour. It was so impressive that two weeks ago I took my wife Alice to see it. Their I.M. Pei designed facility is unusual for an art museum, taking the form of a commanding tower overlooking the low mountains of the southern Finger Lakes of New York State. Great sweeping spaces where I spent much of my youth.

One Dutch Baroque painting in particular caught my eye, Diana and Actaeon, labeled simply Utrecht School, Circle of Jan van Bijlert, circa 1660. In it Actaeon, a young and very mortal hunter stumbles across the Goddess Diana, who is bathing in a forest stream accompanied by her retinue of nymphs. Famously chaste and easily offended by the young man's intrusion, she splashes him with water, turning him into a deer. Frightened, Actaeon runs off only to be tracked  down by his own hounds and killed by his fellow hunters who don't realize his true identity. 

I doubt one person in a hundred knows the Actaeon story. Despite that you can your find your eye drawn to it anyway. As I came into the gallery where this oil was hanging, it whispered "Hey, come look at me." 

What this painter achieved was weaving together eight figures and two dogs who at first had wanted nothing to do with each other. These old painters could be choreographers of the first order. In their hands unrelated fragments took up the rhythm of the painting and became part of a seamless whole. 

As Diana raises her arm to spray water onto unsuspecting Actaeon, her gesture creates a dramatic diagonal that is repeated in Actaeon's upraised forearm, in the bottom edge of his billowing red cape and even in the distant hillside behind him. Similar diagonal thrusts connect all manner of seemingly unrelated forms throughout.

Living in the 21st century, reality seems a bit different to me than it did to 17th century Dutch painters. My story is of necessity very different as is my style of painting. Yet much of the visual grammar of my work comes from studying the accomplishments of artists like the unknown one who painted Diana and Actaeon for us. 

Here's my latest. Grounded in the present, but with an affectionate glance back over my shoulder.

Philip Koch, The Sea, oil on panel, 6 1/2 x 13", 2014