Wednesday, December 13, 2017

23 Years Later: Allen Memorial Art Museum

The front of Allen Memorial Art Museum. The inscription reads:
"The Cause of Art is the Cause of the People." I always loved that.

Sometimes an art museum changes the course of one's life.

For the first time in 23 years I flew back to my alma mater, Oberlin College in Ohio to visit my first home as an artist, the Allen Memorial Art Museum. I arrived on campus as an awkward 18 year old freshman  intending to major in Sociology. Yet I found myself returning to the Art Museum with increasing frequency as the semester progressed. The lure of the Museum's exhibits became too strong to resist. By November of my first semester I switched to majoring in Studio Art.

Philip Koch with the Dutch painter Hendrick ter Brugghen's 
oil St. Sebastian Tended by Irene, 1625

Andria Derstine, Allen's Director, generously gave me a good part of her day, touring the Museum with me and filling me in on changes since my time on campus. I asked her to take my picture with what has to me my favorite piece in the collection Hendrick ter Bruggen's Saint Sebastian. That painting had always perplexed me in the way it combined a gristly subject with such a gentle feeling for light and tenderly painted surfaces. It was the painting that first made me grasp that how artists handle their medium is just as important as what they are depicting. Here's a detail of what has to be the most loving removal of an arrow.

Detail of her Brugghen's St. Sebastian Tended by Irene

I reflected that afternoon on how ter Brugghen's painting had so moved me. I realized that many of the paintings in Allen that had been my favorites had also been teachers to me. They provided  critical initial lessons to my young self about what mattered in painting. The things I learned from them have stayed with me over nearly 50 years of me painting in my studio. 

For example, Allen's big Frank Stella painting impressed on me how expressive bold silhouetted shapes can be.  Even today when I start a new painting this is my paramount concern.

Allen's Contemporary Gallery. Left: Frank Stella, Agbatana III,acrylic, 
1968, Right: Larry Poons, Away Out on the Mountain, acrylic, 1965,
Front: Eva Hesse, Laocoon, sculpture, 1966

Andrea Gyorody, the Allen's Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art gave me a guided tour of the current exhibit she put together. Entering the Contemporary Gallery one is greeted by Alice Neel's portrait of Ellen Johnson, a long time art historian on Oberlins' faculty who was responsible for much of the Museum's acquiring contemporary art. I took a class on Modernism with Johnson.

Alice Neel, Portrait of Ellen Johnson, oil, 1976

An early favorite of mine was Larry Poons' big acrylic (below). It showed me the intrinsic power of contrasting complementary colors. All mixing of pigments I do today is based on playing off  complements against each other.    

Larry Poons, Away Out on the Mountain, acrylic,

Another painting hanging in the contemporary wing was by Richard Diebenkorn's. It graphically revealed to me how a painting can straddle the worlds of abstraction and representation. 

Richard Diebenkorn, Woman by a Large Window, oil

The swirling gold dress in Rubens' wonderful Baroque painting dazzled my eye with its agitated brushwork. This painting taught me that looser brushwork can energize forms and still convey firmness and solidity. Rubens inspired me to let my hand's gestures freely pulse through all the forms when I paint.

Rubens, The Finding of Erichthonius, oil, 1632-33

The detail below of one of my oils of a house that Edward Hopper once painted shows that characteristic loose paint handling,

Detail of Philip Koch's Morning at the Route 6, Eastham House
oil, 2016, Swope Art Museum, Terre Haute, IN.

Joseph Wright of Darby, Dovetail by Moonlight, oil, 1784-85

Joseph Wright of Darby's exploration of light effects, like the shimmering moonlight here, got me thinking about what can happen when an artist plays around with light conditions. I had always admired that image and had it in mind when I painted this nocturne below.

Philip Koch, The Reach IV, oil, 40 x 60 inches, 2011

I also got to see another old favorite by the Dutch painter de Witte with its enticing play of warm and cool highlights on the walls of this church.

Emanuel de Witte, Interior of the Old Church at Delft,
oil, 1653-55

I remember that painting spurred my own interest in painting interior spaces, including the long series of oils I've made during my residencies in Edward Hopper's studio on Cape Cod. 

Philip Koch, Rooms by the Sea: September II, oil,
28 x 42 inches, 2017

Wolfgang Stechow, the Oberlin art historian who was an expert on northern baroque landscape painting, helped the Allen acquire some world class landscape paintings. Those canvases gave me a powerful nudge towards working from the landscape. Here are some favorites I saw again last week.

Above: John Frederick Kennett, Mt. Mansfield from Malletts Bay,
Lake Champlain, oil 1860, Below: Thomas Cole, Lake with Dead
Trees (Catskill), oil, 1825

Meindert Hobbema, A Pond in the Forest, oil, 1668

Jan van Goyen, Landscape with Dunes, oil, 1647

In each of those paintings the artists found visual means to knit together the land and the sky. My painting Inland shows some of the debt I owe the Allen landscapes.

Philip Koch, Inland, oil, 45 x 60 inches, 2008

Allen Art Museum's interior court. Note the natural light filtering down from the clearstory windows.

P.S. Allen is going to open a major exhibition of Rembrandt's etching Feb. 6 - May 13, 2018, borrowing works from many major museums. Sure to be terrific.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Visiting Edward Hopper House Art Center

I took the picture above in Nyack, NY last Friday of the last rays of the sun hitting the home the painter Edward Hopper (1882-1967) grew up in. I've been fortunate to visit many many times over the years and even to set up my easel and paint its interior.

As luck would have it I was there on a cloudless and brilliantly sunny late afternoon- what I often call "Hopper light." So often it is the theme of loneliness or alienation people find in his paintings.  Yet to me Hopper's greatest achievement is his celebrating intense and vividly alive sunlight. To me nobody did it better.

 Hopper's bedroom- the room where he was born.
Two of its windows overlook the Hudson River,
one block away.

The home where Hopper lived on and off until he was 30 is now the Edward Hopper House Art Center. If you're a Hopper lover, you need to go. So much of what Hopper was to become stems from his years in the house and its immediate neighborhood. 

Hopper said and wrote very little about his art. This is
one of the few quotes we have from him. It's painted
on the stairwell to the second floor.

The Hopper House stages regular exhibitions of work by prominent contemporary artists (currently it has a Carrie Mae Weems photography show up). It also has a rotating exhibit of art and memorabilia from the Sanborn Collection. 


One of the many caricatures Hopper made poking fun at 
his relationship with his wife Jo. Hopper is such a serious
painter that it's a little surprising to see his sense of humor
coming out.

An installation of photos of Hopper's early life.

One of my favorites of the photos- Hopper as an art student
at the New York School of Art.

Hopper's paintbox. It's funny how dull and ordinary his tools
and materials look to us now. In comparison the paintings 
he produced using the contents of this box shine like new.

Some model boats Hopper made as a boy.

When Hopper was really  young he sat in this
old wooden high chair.

Hopper Family Tree

Another of Hopper's caricatures. This one making
fun of his wife Jo, an artist herself, and her excuses not to paint.

Early drawings Hopper made (I believe as a teenager) just down 
the street on the banks of the Hudson River.

This last drawing below is my favorite of the Hoppers that are on display, a caricature of his wife Jo standing triumphant atop an emaciated Edward. Even though it's just a quick sketch you can see in it Hopper's exquisite awareness of the expressiveness of gesture and line.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Charles Burchfield Exhibition at Montclair Art Museum

An artist's job is to notice the important things that others have overlooked. To call them back to see what they've missed. 

Busy with the tasks of daily living, we forget all about the drama unfolding in the skies. The painter Charles Burchfield insisted that in the changing weather and the passing of the seasons we find clues to our essential selves.

The current exhibition at the Montclair Art Museum (MAM) in New Jersey is Charles E. Burchfield: Weather Event (through January 7, 2018). The show originates from the Burchfield Penney Art Center in Buffalo, NY. but takes on special meaning in MAM's galleries. The Museum has one of the best collections of George Inness, the visionary late 19th century American landscape artist (Inness lived in Montclair the last 9 years of his life). 

George Inness, Winter Moonlight (Christmas Eve), oil
Montclair Art Museum

Inness was renown for his uniquely moody and introspective landscapes. In some ways Burchfield was cut from the same sort of cloth. He created works that grew out of that romantic, visionary tradition. Happily, MAM has hung Weather Event in galleries adjoining their Inness Collection.

MAM also included a Burchfield watercolor from their own collection Day in Midwinter from 1945. Here's my wife Alice admiring it. I think it's a quietly terrific painting.

The scene is one of the ordinary fields in the backyard of Burchfield's Gardenville, NY home, yet in his hands the branches of its tree seem to quiver against a shimmering sky. 

Another Burchfield in the exhibition depicts the artist's same backyard on a more sunny winter day. This painting is an old friend to me. For the last two and a half years I've been the Artist in Residence at the Burchfield Penney Art Center (BPAC) in Buffalo, NY. On one of my first stays there I made a detailed copy of it in oil to study the intricate patterns of Burchfield's brushwork. 

Charles Burchfield, Early Spring Sunlight, watercolor,

A large photo in the exhibition of Burchfield working
in his Gardenville, NY studio. Note how Burchfield
had the unusual practice of placing his watercolor 

A timeline of the artist's life.

Charles Burchfield, Yellow Afterglow, July 31, 1916,
Burchfield Penney Art Center, a view from the 
backyard of Burchfield's childhood home in 
Salem, OH.

Here is one of Burchfield's paintings in the show that shows the artist's wildly free imagination, Fireflies and Lightning. I doubt there's any other painter who would even try to combine tiny insects with the enormous scale of a lightning-filled sky.

Charles Burchfield, Fireflies and Lightning
1964-65, a very late watercolor, Burchfield
Penney Art Center.

People accustomed to the huge scale and unorthodox materials common in contemporary art sometimes think of landscape as a tame static art from the past. A close look at Burchfield's November Storm from 1950 (below) reveals just the opposite- a world where grasses, tree trunks and clouds swirl and writhe around each other in an almost violent dance. What a metaphor for the agitated inner state of mind we all experience at times.

Another of my favorites is Clearing Sky, July 1, 1917 (below) with its riotously undulating fields. Burchfield reminds us that the world is an animated place. If we let it it can stir our imagination.

Here I am at the entrance to the Museum just before seeing the show.

Upcoming Museum Talk:
On Sunday, Dec. 3, 2017 I'm giving a gallery talk on the paintings of one of Burchfield's contemporaries, John Sloan, at the Delaware Art Museum in Wilmington as part of their program for their major exhibition An American Journey: The Art of John Sloan. The talk is at 2:30. Admission to the Museum is free on Sundays. All welcome!

Saturday, November 4, 2017

A Candid Shot In My Studio Even Before My Morning Coffee

My wife Alice took this photo early this morning. I had stepped into my painting studio while waiting for the kettle to heat for my morning coffee. 

My studio is a place where I spend a lot of time. A kind of sanctuary from distractions and interruptions. A place to concentrate on the dreaming and imagining that go into making one's painting happen. This Saturday morning after an unusually stimulating couple of days the quiet of the studio felt especially inviting. 

I had just had a lively conversation with Heather Gring, the Archivist at the Burchfield Penney Art Center in Buffalo, NY. Heather is helping curate the museum's upcoming show next Spring of the work I've done over the last two and a half years as their Artist in Residence. We started making choices about which of my paintings will form the core of that museum's exhibition. Heather and I will be selecting drawings by one of my favorite artists, Charles Burchfield, from the museum's Archives to include in the show that echo ideas I've developed in my paintings. To me that's an especially exciting prospect. Beginning to finalize which works will be in the show is like an extra gust of wind in my sails.

And I spent the last two days up in Wilmington at the Delaware Art Museum. I attended the Symposium on the Museum's current exhibition, An American Journey: The Art of John Sloan, organized by Heather Campbell Coyle, their Curator of American Art. Sloan was a big influence on me in my early days as an artist. Years ago I took my first figure painting class at the Art Students League of New York in the very room where Sloan himself used to teach. I remember discovering a dusty framed photograph hanging on the classroom wall of Sloan with his students. Sloan stared out at the photographer with his usual thoughtful gaze. It felt like he was looking straight out and into me. 

At Delaware Art Museum's Symposium I heard over a dozen scholars tell of their research on the myriad influences of culture and politics that shaped Sloan's painting. (I don't think I've ever been in a room with so many Ph.D.'s). It stirred up a host of stimulating and contradictory ideas, almost too much to think about. I'll be reflecting on them for some time. 

Art historians and museum curators have a particular job. They juggle multitudes of influences and create a framework to understand where an artist fits into an over all historical pattern (they are historians after all). Their minds have much ground to cover.

For a painter, it's just the opposite. While we're aware of art history and outside influences, our job requires a stepping away from the outside world to narrow our thinking down to the canvas at hand. It means turning to introspection and a meditative state of mind.

Placing just one painting at a time on my easel I let myself slowly sink into its world. At first it's the most tentative and delicate suggestion, an image that is just starting to emerge. Inch by inch I have to imagine that new territory into being. It's a time for slow exploration, sometimes frustrating trial and error, and ultimately the satisfaction of realizing an inner vision. A safe, quite place to let this all happen makes it all possible.

P.S. On Sunday, December 3 at 2:30 p.m. I'll be giving a gallery talk at the Delaware Art Museum, John Sloan from a Painter's Perspective. All welcome.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Charles Burchfield at the Portland Museum of Art

Charles Burchfield, The Big Tree, watercolor, circa 1920,
Portland Museum of Art (Maine). 

A few days ago I was looking at the Portland Museum of Art's website and came across this painting from early in Charles Burchfield's career. Erin Damon, the Museum's Assistant Registrar, told me the Museum purchased the piece in 1998. Well, they got a really nice one!

The giant tree seems not only alive, it commands the surrounding  field.  It adeptly solves the challenges that come when an artist paints the colors of summer foliage. As commonplace as greens and yellow-greens are in that season, I know from my long experience as a landscape painter they're devilishly hard to make work in a painting. The way Burchfield tackles this teaches us a lot about the language of painting.

Burchfield doesn't worry about color in the beginning. Color probably is the most delightful aspect in painting, but by itself it tends to be formless. It needs a structure of shapes to hold it like a vessel. So usually he began his works with practiced drawing in black and white- concentrating on making believable shapes that surprise our eye. He was really good at that.

He imagines his giant tree as if it was a huge egg shape- at least the top 2/3 of one.  Critically Burchfield interrupts that shape with irregularly placed holes in the foliage where we can see through the tree to the background. These interruptions are a surprising counter-rhythm to what could have been a too simple massive egg form. 

The sunlight casts a gradation over the tree that the artist radically simplifies into 4 or 5 greens ranging from very warm yellow green to a cooler green in the shadows. He adds further unpredictable gestures with the half dozen darkest green accents. They follow a pattern your eye can't predict ahead of time, suggesting there's more to this tree's personality than we first thought.

A final thing to mention is the way Burchfield creates a massiveness to his tree- it's nothing less than imposing. One of the reasons its volume expresses itself so forcefully is the way the outer edge of the tree is softened all the way around, as if it's out of focus. Only in the center of the tree, which is closer to us, does Burchfield place his high contrast sharp edges, pushing these limbs closer to our space. 

Saturday, October 7, 2017

New Hopper Studio Paintings to Somerville Manning Gallery

Edward Hopper's Truro, MA studio, Sept. 2016

This week I brought some new paintings done from my most recent residency in Edward Hopper's Truro, MA studio into Somerville Manning Gallery in Greenville, DE.

Two of the paintings are a actually a tribute to the very first Hopper painting I ever saw- his wonderfully strange oil of the corner of his painting room in the Truro studio (see below). It made a huge impression on me as a teenager and prodded me to begin thinking about becoming an artist myself.

Philip Koch, Truro Afternoon, oil on panel, 14 x21
inches, 2017 (this one oil will be available at the
Gallery Oct. 12).

Philip Koch, Rooms by the Sea: September II, oil on canvas, 
28 x 42 inches, 2017

Edward Hopper, Rooms by the Sea, oil on canvas, 1951,
Yale University Art Gallery

I've learned unexpected things over the years I've stayed and worked in Hopper's studio. One is that an artist has to conduct a wide-ranging search for the subjects that open the internal doors wide to their creativity.

Hopper designed his Truro studio himself and over the course of 30 years painted many of his most admired works within its walls. For most of the paintings he made there he chose subjects well outside the studio's walls.

When he did directly refer to the studio the resulting paintings  weren't straightforward depictions of its rooms. He would borrow certain features of the setting, but radically rearrange them. He used it as a springboard  to make paintings that suggested a state of mind rather than a literal place. 

 Philip Koch, Truro Kitchen oil on canvas, 
40 x 30 inches, 2017

For me the studio itself is a wonderful and poetic subject. 

Light pours through its windows and spaces in ways that have inspired me to make all sorts of paintings of its interior. My oil above, Truro Kitchen, is the view from the spot where Hopper most liked to work at his easel. It looks from the grand painting room down a short hallway and into the kitchen. The far window is just above the kitchen sink and looks out over Cape Cod Bay. Hopper no doubt gazed out at it daily as he would rinse out his coffee cup.

Philip Koch, Morning at the Route 6, Eastham House
oil on panel, 12 x 24 inches, 2016

One other new painting is the rooftop view above that I made from sketches of the same building Hopper painted back in 1941 of a house just down the road from the studio in the town of Eastham. 

Edward Hopper, Route 6, Eastham, oil on canvas, 1941
Swope Art Museum, Terre Haute, IN

Since Hopper's day the house has become all but surrounded by tall trees, but this view of the main house is still open from the road. I  painted it in brilliant morning sunlight in contrast to Hopper's choice of the last light of the day.

Here I am in September 2016 working in Hopper's big painting room on the smaller oil that would lead to my painting Rooms by the Sea: September II (above). Looking over my shoulder in the distance, hopefully approvingly, is the easel Hopper painted on.