Tuesday, March 25, 2014

A Winter Visit to Rochester's Memorial Art Gallery

Last week my wife and I were touring art museums in Western New York State.  After a wonderful visit to the Burchfield Penny Art Center in Buffalo,  we got the idea that Niagara Falls would be beautiful in winter.  It was, but within 15 seconds of our reaching the railing at the top of the Falls, the wind shifted and blew the ever present cloud of spray all over us. This might feel great in the heat of August. On a day with gale force winds and temps in the teens, it was painful. 

We regrouped and instead set out to visit my old hometown art museum, the Memorial Art Gallery (MAG) in Rochester. For a museum in a medium sized city it has an amazingly strong Permanent Collection (and I am completely unbiased about this, despite MAG having purchased two of my drawings in 2012).

Here's Alice standing next to one of her favorites.

Thomas Hart Benton (Am. 1889 - 1975) Boomtown, oil, 1928

It's a large painting so I had to step back some to get her into the photo. That's not all bad as I think some of the best things about Benton's paintings are easier to see standing at a distance. Benton was a master at putting in lots of people, cars, animals, and strange buildings all together in his oils. His strength is in knowing how to coordinate all this activity to give an energetic whole instead of a disorganized jumble. Look at how almost all the individual objects are strung together into long chains of forms, sort of like a string over sized beads on a necklace. 

One of my favorites from the French Impressionist painter Lhermitte below shows the same cohesive skills. His three figures huddle together tightly in the center of the wide open composition. Combined they make for a larger shape with intriguing geometry that's big enough to hold its own against the larger spaces of the landscape behind them.

Leon-Augustin Lhermitte (French 1844 -1925) The Washerwomen, oilca. 1886

Last June when I visited MAG Marie Via, one of its Curators, was kind enough to give me a tour and to snap a photo of me with the painting I loved the most in the Collection when I was a kid.

Winslow Homer (Am. 1836 - 1910), The Artist's Studio in an Afternoon Fog, oil, 1894

It still looks so good to me that I couldn't resist another photo, this time featuring me in my stylish winter ensemble. Winslow Homer uses the enveloping fog to pull his deceptively simple composition together in a way Benton and Lhermitte would approve of.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Charles Burchfield and Me (Part II)

This is Part II of the short essay I wrote inspired by my visit to the Burchfield Penney Art Center in Buffalo, NY last Friday...

Burchfield came of age as a painter in a time when artists had the winds of modernism at their backs. They delighted in re-emphasizing the beauty of mark making on the surface of the canvas in elegant patterns. Burchfield to me took the best from the modernist toolbag and reinterpreted the tradition of American nature painting through 20th century eyes. And he was frighteningly good at it. 

   Charles Burchfield, Early Spring, watercolor, 37 1/8 x 42 1/4"

His Early Spring strikes me as both felicitous and at the same time a solemn reflection on the difficult passage from winter to spring. At first the golds in the fields and in the budding trees strike the viewer. But looking longer one sees all this warmth sits atop a deeper layer of silvery cold grays and blue blacks. I think the sharply pointed dark shape in the center of the stand of trees personifies winter and retains considerable force. Spring is coming, Burchfield's painting tells us, but winter isn't quite ready to leave the stage and can still pack a punch if it wishes.

Burchfield's paintings feel so familiar to me, probably because we shared similar experiences in nature growing up. Even as a child Burchfield was an amost fanatical amateur naturalist. For me, growing up on the deep forest of what was then a very rural Webster, NY, nature was one of the few playmates to be had. I spent a lot of my childhood playing by myself in the woods. A lot of what was influencing the young Burchfield echoed around me as well. It preconditioned me to feel at home in Burchfield's paintings.

Weather is a big deal in Western New York and Northeast Ohio, one of the snowiest regions of country. I lived for 18 years on the shore of Lake Ontario just east of Rochester and then spent four years just west of Cleveland in Oberlin, Ohio (the two blue dots below). Burchfield was born in Ashtabula, OH on Lake Erie and moved with his widowed mother to Salem a few miles to the south (the two red dots at the left). He later spent four years at the Cleveland School of Art (now Cleveland Institute of Art) where I studied drawing the figure in 1970). And in the second half of his life Burchfield worked in Buffalo and lived in a suburb sourtheast of the city. 

In 1995 I had a solo exhibition in Burchfield's Ohio hometown at the Butler Institute of American Art's Salem Museum, a few blocks from Burchfield's simple home, now the Burchfield Homestead Museum. One can visit there as I did when I was in Salem and see where he made many of his early masterpieces. 

I love Burchfield's paintings. Studying them over the last several decades has made me a far better artist myself. But I have no desire to imitate his style of painting in any direct way. His is too personal and too idiosyncratic a way of painting to provide a ready recipe. But I savor the energy and the familiar mysteries I find in his works.

And there is a final reason he is such a source for me. So much of the artworld in my lifetime has been centered around New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles. For an artist like me who spent his first 24 years living in Western New York, Ohio, and Indiana, one can have a nagging suspicion that those who say real artists "go to New York" might have a point. I lived in New York City and while I learned a lot ( I was studying at the Art Students League of New York), I never felt at home there. It was too noisy, and one never saw the stars. I missed those things. Over time I've found any art I make has to have something of my immediate surroundings in it for it to be any good. For a landscape painter like myself, so much more so.

By example Burchfield has been a powerful unapologetic reminder that an artist who is open to both his surroundings and to his inner life can do great things wherever they find themselves. The sun shines as brightly on the forests of Salem and near Buffalo as it does on the trees in Central Park in Manhattan. Burchfield was proud of his attachments and knew within them were the seeds of his greatness as a painter. For an artist like myself who seems destined to live most of his life outside one the the great metropolises, this is a crucial reassurance. Among Burchfield's gifts to me is an extra measure of confidence I can be "the real thing."

Returning to that beautiful Burchfield watercolor Early Spring that I began with, I wanted to share two of my favorites of my own paintings. Like Burchfield they show a real measure of expressionist exuberance and a love of patterned mark making. But their color and overall mood aren't likely to be mistaken for Burchfield. 

Philip Koch, The Birches of Maine, oil on canvas
55 x 44", 2008, private collection Phladelphia

Philip Koch, The Red Whisper, oil on canvas, 30 x 40", 2006

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Charles Burchfield and Me

This is the Burchfield Penney Art Center (BPAC) in Buffalo, New York. I visited it last Friday for the second time this year. It's a special place for me for two reasons. It has the largest collection of works by Charles Burchfield (Am. 1893 - 1967) one of the artists who has most influenced me. Secondly it sits literally a few hundred yards from the spot where 48 years ago I decided to become an artist.

Back in high school I had my life all planned out, or so I thought. Following the family pattern I would become an historian or a sociologist. But half way through my first semester at Oberlin College in Ohio I was miserable with my courses in my intended major and felt gloomily confused. I was the proverbial apple waiting to fall.

At my first Thanksgiving break from Oberlin I traveled home on the Greyhound Bus to Rochester, stopping half way to spend the night with my old high school friend Steve at Buffalo State College. Steve and his new girlfriend invited me and the girlfriend's roommate to go drink beer with them at a pub at the edge of campus.

The roommate turned out to be a studio art major. I had never met an art student before and to me that made her a most exotic creature. We talked for several hours about her art classes, her work, and how much she enjoyed what she was doing. Listening to her enthusiasm I felt like a great heavy door was being unlocked and slowly swung open for me. Somehow my beer-fueled intuition told me that night that I should completely change course and dive headfirst into art. On the spot I decided I'd become a painter, one of the best decisions I ever made. Who wouldn't want to go back to a place where things came together for you so incredibly well.

The other reason of course is all the work by the painter Charles Burchfield. Last Friday, Tullis Johnson, one of the museum's Curators and the Manager of its Archives very kindly gave my wife and I a two hour tour of the galleries, storerooms and archives. Here I am in the Burchfield vault at BPAC next to Burchfield's watercolor Early Spring. Why am I grinning ear-to-ear?

There are just some artists which whom one feels a special kinship. I first came to love the painter Edward Hopper for his drama of light and the poetry he found in the commonplace. Later in grad school  the American 19th century landscape painters of the Hudson River School's nature romanticism and glowing deep spaces won in my heart. 

Charles Burchfield by contrast, with his deeply personal visual style was someone who slowly took me by surprise. Gradually I came to see beneath the surface of his style and sense how he had an authentic romance with nature of a sort all his own. In Burchfield, all his forms possesses a living, moving personality. While I wanted to paint in my own style, I set my sights on achieving some of that same underlying spirit. 

 Charles Burchfield, Early Spring, watercolor, 37 1/8 x 42 1/4",

To be continued tomorrow...

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Memories of John Constable, George Inness, and my Early Days as a Painter

Philip Koch, Deep Forest Pool, oil on panel, 30 x 40", 2011

A lot of my paintings are based on memory, sometimes of a place, other times of just the feeling that a place installed in me. 

A painting is never just what is seems. It comes with baggage, but often of the very best sort. After a few years as an abstract painter when I first started out I became intrigued with the 19th century painters who loved the landscape. John Constable and George Inness were two of the biggest stars to me then and I would consciously look for places in nature that reminded me of the sorts of things they liked to paint. But my own direct experiences played their role too.

I was thinking about my love of painting ponds and tiny lakes that are surrounded by deep forests, something I have been drawn to for years. Years ago one afternoon I felt grabbed my nature's mysterious power. It wasn't a dramatic thunderstorm or anything like that, actually the opposite, something that was the very picture of quiet and self assured grace. 

I was in grad school in southern Indiana went hiking in the woods with a friend. We probably weren't paying enough attention and went maybe a little too far. We got a little lost. Circling our way back we unexpectedly came across a hidden forest pond we had had no idea existed. Totally calm waters completely hidden from view on all sides, it seemed the perfect symbol of a mysterious serenity. We touched its waters gently with our fingers so as not to break its tranquil spell and just gazed at it for a few silenct minutes. Restored somehow and happier than before, we set off to find our way home.

Philip Koch, Inland, oil on canvas, 45 x 60" at George Billis Gallery, New York

Philip Koch, Mirror, oil on linen, 36 x 36", 2013

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Final Words: 10 Lessons from Edward Hopper's Last Painting

My friend Anne McGurk got my attention when she posted Edward Hopper's last painting on her Facebook page yesterday. Titled Two Comedians, from 1966 it has always had a special resonance with me. Enough so that I found myself called back to look at it several times during the day. 

Hopper was a legendarily private and remote person so it is ironic that his last picture presents two performers bowing (and saying goodbye) to their audience. Undoubtedly he saw himself and his wife Jo in these two costumed actors. His choice says to me he saw his life making paintings as a long performance, not unlike what happens on the stage. A play, or a painting, done right can reach down deep and stir the soul of the viewer. Yet the painter is not the same as his paintings anymore than the actors remain the characters 
they portrayed after the curtain falls. To me Hopper's painting says "I've given my best performance. I hope you've like it."

Every really good painting always teaches us. Here are ten lessons I belive Hopper has given us in this one:

1. There is nothing like the  energy of contrasting dark against light. 
Hopper's figures and stage front are brilliant under the theater's spotlights. Like a theatrical director, Hopper always spotlighted his key ideas against dramatic darks.

2. The only color that can stand up against a bright yellow in a painting is bright white, hence his choice of costume color. Without the white outfits, the yellow stage falls right out of the painting.

3. Painters always think about rendering pictorial depth. In the back of their minds they envision the space of the world they are painting like theater scenery- as being made up of overlapping stage flats. Hopper tips his hat to that tradition by including the three closely stacked foliage green flats at the right of the stage.

4. Empty spaces aren't empty. Look at the dark blue void surrounding Hopper's two comedians. It's a warmer dark pigment underneath with a second layer of lighter and more blue paint applied over the first. He purposely lets hints of the underpainting show through. Paintings, like any experience in life are layered. 

5. Shapes that offer a bit of surprise are everything. I'm willing to bet Hopper first envisioned the front edge of the stage as a straight line but changed his mind and added the subtle curve at the left. It softens the stage and gives it a touch of the organic curves of his human actors.

6. I imagine Hopper saying to himself "Mix your colors like mad. Play with the hues and milk the various intensities." Look at the subtle differences in the yellows on the vertical front of the stage- what at first looked like a single flat yellow shifts to a warmer more gold orange yellow as you come to the painting's very bottom.

7. Massing the forms together into teams. Hopper's two figures are small and yet have to have an emotional impact. He places them together and clothes them in the same color so they work together as one. Had they stood apart from each other they wouldn't have filled the empty stage with such a presence.

8. Hopper's creates unexpected poses for his forms (both human and architectural). Neither figure stands rigidly vertical. The woman gestures to the right with both her arm and a tilt of her head. The man bends slightly forward and to the right while gesturing with his free arm to the left.

9. Squeeze the intervals of empty space. Look at the elegantly elaborate empty dark space contained between the figures. You can tell Hopper loved this little invented space, heightening the contrasts and the crispness of his edges as he rises up and nears the figures' clasped hands.

10. Leave out the inessential so you can concentrate on the real action. While this has to be one of Hopper's most stripped down paintings, it still has a haunting emotional presence. Had its colors, lighting, and composition not been so well conceived it would have felt flat and stale. Hopper was good enough to know when he didn't need bells and whistles.

On a completely other note-

Win this Painting- final chance!

Hagerstown, Maryland's Washington County Museum of Fine Arts Annual Raffle will be held March 6. Philip Koch's Stone City Barns, oil on panel, 10 1/2 x 21" is one of the featured prizes. Raffle tickets are $10. and are available on the Museum's website. You do not have to be present to win.