Saturday, August 29, 2015

The Seven Secrets of Art

    Philip Koch, High Trees, oil on panel, 28 x 21"
    2015. To be included in the Burchfield Penney
    Art Center's Live Auction at their annual Gala
    Sept. 19, 2015

I like to make lists. Here are some bullet points I sometimes give out to my students. As you can see I failed badly at keeping the list down to just seven ideas. 

The 7 Secrets of Art, and a few more.                                        Philip Koch

Secret #1. That there are Secrets.

#2. That there are in fact rules (though they can be elusive to understand).

#3. Tones (darks and lights) are more important than color.

#4. Shapes are more important than color.

#5. Silhouettes are more important than details.

#6. Intervals of empty space are more important than forms.

#7. Craftmanship is always in style.

#8. The problem with ones work-in-progress usually isn't where one thinks it is. 

#9. Art is not an idea but a vision.

#10. Art is the marriage of the skeptic and the hopeless romantic.

# 11. Art revists the joys and terrors of childhood.

#12. An artist has to grasp some of the threads that were woven by the great masters and carry them forward into our own time.

#13. Creating art is ususally solitary, but sometimes the artist needs feedback from someone they trust who has a good eye.

#14. The art world is filled with all kinds of people. Most often they  

But inevitably you will run into things that are-
downright silly

#15. Keep your eyes open, your heart warm, and stick to your guns.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Salem, Ohio

As part of my being the Artist-In-Residence for this year at the Burchfield Penney Art Center, I traveled with my wife Alice to Salem, Ohio, the childhood home of the artist Charles Burchfield. The Burchfield Homestead Society restored the home where the career of the visionary artist began. It is very well worth a visit for anyone who admires Burchfield's work. Above is Alice cooling her heels on Burchfield's front porch swing. 

It's a modest but art historically important home. Burchfield made many of his powerful early paintings peering out through its windows at the neighborhood. Below is a vine charcoal drawing I made standing at the rear of his yard looking back at the house. At the far left of my drawing is a long one-story house that Burchfield would paint repeatedly.


Philip Koch, Salem, Burchfield House, vine charcoal
6 1/2 x 13", 2015

Here is probably his most famous painting of that building, The Night Wind, (note the vertical chimney in its center).

Charles Burchfield, The Night Wind, watercolor,
gouche and pencil, 21 1/2 x 21 7/8", 1918
Museum of Modern Art, New York

Here below is the same chimney in a pastel and charcoal drawing I made looking out a window from one of the second floor bedrooms of the house.

Philip Koch, Salem Rooftop, pastel and vine
charcoal, 14 x 10 1/2", 2015

Philip Koch working on Salem Rooftop, pastel and vine 
charcoal, 14 x 10 1/2", 2015

Here's the view of the neighboring one-story house from the same window.

I did a second drawing of the same building from the backyard. As it was hot I sought out the partial shade provided by the arbor that's part of the extensive restoration of Burchfield's beloved gardens.  Here's my drawing in progress earlier this week. 

The drawing's composition is unusual for me and shows the influence of Burchfield's love of two dimensional patterns.

Philip Koch, Salem: Burchfield Arbor, vine charcoal and white pastel
 9 x 12", 2015

My Salem trip revealed more than just peaceful bucolic yards. In many ways Burchfield's paintings and writings prefigure the urgent concerns of our present day environmental movement. He was keenly aware that humankind's interaction with the natural world wasn't always benign.

Tullis Johnson, one of Burchfield Penney's Curators is working on an upcoming exhibition Blistering Vision: Charles E. Burchfield's Sublime American Landscapes that looks at another side of Burchfield's imagination. Johnson urged me to take a side trip over to the abandoned coke ovens in neighboring Leetonia, OH, a somewhat otherworldly remnant of the 19th century heavy steel industry. 

I confess I had to consult Wikipedia to learn that coke was produced by heating coal in a controlled process.  Large beehive-shaped brick ovens were built in long rows and covered with earth to hold in the heat they produced. The ovens burned day and night and spewed forth clouds of toxic gasses. The Leetonia operation was still going in Burchfield's day. Its fiery drama made a deep impression on him. Below is one of his paintings from the site.

Charles Burchfield, Coke Ovens at Twilight, watercolor, 1920

Here I am working from some of the same mouth-like openings of the buried coke ovens. Honestly I found them a little creepy.

Philip Koch, Coke Ovens, Leetonia, vine charcoal 
and white pastel, 12 x 9", 2015.

Lastly here's a drawing I made just off the wonderfully named Egypt Road, on the outskirts of Salem, one of Burchfield's favorite sources for his paintings.

Philip Koch, Salem, vine charcoal and white pastel, 10 x 14 1/2"

To me it seemed ever so much like the rolling country roads I traveled as a boy in my hometown of Webster, NY (just outside Rochester). 

Burchfield wasn't an artist who needed to travel to the most dramatic mountain ranges or most rugged coastlines. Around Salem, Ohio he found material that inspired his inimitable and fantasy-tinged vision. His paintings show how this land felt as much as how it looked. He'd discovered a somewhat enchanted place, a place that he feared was too little noticed and too little appreciated.

I'll be giving a talk at the Burchfield Penney Art Center on Sunday, October 18, 2 -3 p.m. titled Three Watercolor Masters: What Homer, Hopper and Burchfield Want to Say to Us. Burchfield sensed there is a kind of magic hidden in our everday surroundings. His paintings gently urge us to drop our preoccupations and drink in some of that energy and mystery.  He would tell us it's right under our nose.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Sailing Lessons from Edward Hopper

Later this month I'll be traveling to see some art. My destination is Salem, Ohio to visit the home where the painter Charles Burchfield grew up and began his life as an artist. Along the way we'll stop in Pittsburgh to see the new Edward Hopper exhibition at the Carnegie Museum of Art (through Oct. 26).

Have found myself looking at one of my favorite Hopper's Sailing from 1911 that's one of the standouts in the Carnegie's Permanent Collection. It's an imagined view of a sloop on the Hudson River where Hopper grew up. It was included in the historic 1913 Amory Show and was the first painting Hopper ever sold. He would have to wait another 10 years before selling another of his paintings. 

I've always found the painting remarkable for the way Hopper's boat surges by us with energy. It seems in a moment it will have sailed out of our view altogether. Hopper had some tricks up his sleeve to emphasize that sense of movement.

Here's the painting with the small dark flag Hopper put at the top of his mainsail removed. Compare the two versions of the painting. To me the original boat at the top moves across the canvas with so much more force. That small dark spot of at the top seems to propel the the light sails to the left. The whole boat seems to heel over more from its visual impact. 

I've loved this Hopper oil since I first saw it years ago. Clearly it was in the back of my mind when I painted The Reach III below. It's an oil on panel, 24 x 36", 2015. For it I collaged together two separate ideas:  a shoreline from a vine charcoal drawing I made during one of my 15 residencies at Edward Hopper's studio on Cape Cod with my memories of sailing at night with my father years ago on Lake Ontario.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Two Drawing Masters: Edward Hopper and Charles Burchfield

Charles Burchfield, Tree in Landscape, 19 1/4 x 14", conte, undated 
Burchfield Penney Art Center, gift of the Burchfield Foundation

So often when we think of famous artists we remember them for their paintings, as well we should. But the hands that held their brushes were guided by someone with an incredibly astute eye. So often we see evidence of how well they saw in their drawings.

Two years ago I was able to see the major show of Edward Hopper's drawings that Carter Foster of the Whitney Museum in New York put together. It was a profound reminder that Hopper drew beautifully. This summer as the Artist-In-Residence at the Burchfield Penney Art Center in Buffalo, NY  I've been examining  the drawings of Hopper's contemporary, Charles Burchfield, at close hand in that museum's Archives. 

Charles Burchfield, Landscape with Distance Houses, conte, 8 x 10 1/2" 1915 
Burchfield Penney Art Center, Buffalo, NY, gift of the Burchfield Foundation

I don't think the drawings of either of these two artists are well known, so I wanted to do a little mini-exhibition of my own pairing Burchfield's and Hopper's drawings of trees together.

Charles Burchfield, Country Street in the Hills, conte, 14 3/4 x 22",
no date,  Burchfield Penney Art Center, Buffalo, NY, gift of the 
Burchfield Foundation

  Edward Hopper, untitled study of foliage, fabricated chalk, 10 1/2 x 16"
 no date, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

They share a delicious fluidity of movement. Both artists were highly selective, making drawings that would single out some key feature to highlight instead of wandering aimlessly. They knew what they were after and got their idea across in a boldly direct way.

  Edward Hopper, untitled study of foliage, fabricated chalk, 16  x 10 1/2"
no date, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

Hopper's work in drawing tended to be darker in its shadows. He also was more committed to expressing clear sculptural volumes, while Burchfield sometimes leaned more toward covering his page with decorative two-dimensional rhythms  

Edward Hopper untitled study of foliage, fabricated chalk, 16 x 10 1/2", no date
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

Above all, Hopper's allegiance was to cover all his forms in an unbroken stream of intense light. You always knw where the light is coming from in a Hopper drawing. With Burchfield that's only the case some of the time. Very often light and shadow take a back seat to his restlessly imaginative forms. The Burchfield drawing at the top of this post gives star billing to some amazingly fanciful lines that wiggle and dance across his page.

To their credit both the Whitney Museum and the Burchfield Penney Art Center have posted a lot of their drawing holdings on line. Here's a link to the Whitney Museum's Hoppers, all 3154 of them (!) and here is a link to Burchfield Penney's online gallery of 1410 Burchfield drawings. I give both sites four stars.