Thursday, December 24, 2015

At the Smithsonian American Art Museum on Christmas Eve

The holidays are a time to get together with good old friends. My wife Alice and I decided to drive down to Washington, DC to our favorite museum. The Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) has an enormous and unrivaled permanent collection. We've visited it ever so many times that many of my "old friends" are to be found hanging on its walls. 

They have the best angel painting ever, Abott Henderson Thayer's Stevenson Memorial. Can't help myself, just love that painting for how  it sounds its contemplative and slightly melancholy mood. That's me soaking it up.

Here's an old friend, Edward Hopper, who people never think of as a celebratory artist. Here's his Ryder House, to me it's a stirring hymn to the brilliance of sunlight on a white wall. Its light seems to pulse with its own clear energy.

Look at how the artist pushes the highlights on the sunlit grasses down way darker than the whites on the house. He knows you can only give a few of your highlights star billing.

SAAM owns one of Hopper's most famous paintings, Cape Cod Morning. Here's my wife Alice checking out the painting.

I've always admired the pattern of the white siding on the house. It's crisp rhythm plays off so nicely against the soft foliage and grasses at the right hand side of the painting. Hopper was sensitive to the danger that these patterned lines could become too stiff or rigid.

Looking closely at the painting's upper left corner one can see how Hopper approached painting these rows of lines gradually, painting them in first softly with thin oil washes with very low contrast. 

Another old friend to me is Winslow Homer's oil High Cliffs, Coast of Maine. I find it a beautifully decisive painting. Homer is a master of giving us lots of detail without it getting in the way of the main story he wants to tell. Here he wanted us to zero in on the long fingers of white surf that jut up into the dark masses of rocks.

Even though the rocks fill up the majority of the painting, Homer relaxes the contrasts within them, keeping their highlights only a dark middle tone. His white water just sings out in high contrast against all this hard darkness.

Finally I want to finish with one of my favorite paintings by Thomas Cole, who more than anyone else helped landscape painting gain a vigorous footing in this country. Homer and Hopper to me come out of a tradition Cole helped start.

Never one to shirk from drama, Cole's piece is titled The Subsiding of the Waters of the Deluge from 1829. It's the earth washed clean after the great Biblical flood. With our year 2015 coming to an end it's a wonderful symbol for us to hold in mind. It's a painting that tells any of us fresh starts are possible.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Is Making Copies Too Old School?: Charles Burchfield

Philip Koch oil copy of the left 1/3 of Charles 
Burchfield's Early Spring Sunlight from 1950.

I was documenting paintings in my studio this morning. Two pieces needed labeling that I made during my first two stays in Buffalo this year as the Artist in Residence at the Burchfield Penney Art Center (BPAC). They were copies of my favorite sections of two of Charles Burchfield's watercolors from BPAC's Permanent Collection.

My claim to fame is I am the only human ever to directly make copies of Burchfield watercolors in oils (I tell this tongue in cheek). It's a dreadfully old school thing to do.  Burchfield Penney Art Center indulged my whim. They were trusting enough to set up first Burchfield's Early Spring Sunlight (1950) and then his Early Spring (1966-67) on an easel for several days each for me to examine them and copy from them.

Charles Burchfield's Early Spring Sunlight on BPAC's easel at left.
At right Koch's French easel with the beginning of his oil copy.

Art students not that long ago were expected as part of their training to copy the work of acknowledged masters as a core preparation to become artists in their own right. When the modernist revolution swept through the arts in the early 20th century daring innovation came to valued in painting. The worst fear was to be seen as just repeating someone else's formula.

Philip Koch copy of the  central section of Charles Burchfield's
watercolor Early Spring from 1966-67 

Visual art after all is a language, we learn it by absorbing the grammar that's been hammered out by the best of the artists who've gone down the road before us. Budding novelists pick up the tools to tell their own unique stories by reading the master writers of the past. Whether you want to discover what's expressive in shape and color or in artfully turned sentences you have to revel in the best of what's been done before.

In the make shift studio in BPAC's Classroom, Burchfield's Early 
Spring on the easel with Koch speaking to BPAC's docents in July.

Is there a danger of letting the art of the past influence us too much? Sure. There are all sorts of contemporary paintngs of young women lounging on the beach in what look like ball gowns stolen from the costume department of the film Gone With the Wind. I think of Coubet's quote "I swam in the river of tradition. The others drowned in it." Excessively boastful of course, but he makes a point we need to hold in mind. 

Art of the past is a lens for us to see our daily experience more clearly. Burchfield articulated his inner sensations to us on a very hight level. He'd be delighted if newer artists learn from his example and come closer to their own authentic voices.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Painting a House Edward Hopper Loved

Philip Koch, Turret House, Nyack, oil on panel, 9 x 12, 2015

I have been traveling to Buffalo, NY frequently this year as the Artist In Residence at the Burchfield Penney Art Center. While there I go painting in the some of the locations where Charles Burchfield found subjects for his landscapes. Burchfield loved nothing better than studying his immediate surroundings. An unassuming neighbor's house or an empty field could inspire him to paint poetic and universal images. 

Burchfield's example reminds me of his contemporary and friend Edward Hopper.  Like Burchfield, Hopper went looking for magic right in the old neighborhood. 

Over Thanksgiving I returned to Nyack, NY the town where Hopper was born and lived until he was nearly 30. The area around the Hopper family home (now the Edward Hopper House Art Center) is nestled along the banks of the Hudson River. Below is a house that particularly caught young Hopper's eye.

It is on Loveta Place, four blocks from Hopper's home on North Broadway. With an elaborate domed turret, it sits right on top of the river's edge. You could easily toss a coin out one of its windows and hear a splash as it hit the water.

Hopper as a boy loved to play down by the river and no doubt knew the house well. Years later he would return to borrow from this memory when in 1941 he painted his oil The Lee Shore.

Edward Hopper, The Lee Shore

The setting of The Lee Shore appears to be Cape Cod. Yet the precarious placement of the house right down at the waterline and the house's prominent turret clearly suggest Hopper was dreaming back to his boyhood days in Nyack.

Here below is my preliminary vine charcoal drawing with the house in the background.

A better view of my drawing. 

Philip Koch, Turret House, Nyack, vine charcoal, 9 x 12", 2015

Sometimes one's neighborhood can serve as the best Muse of all.