Showing posts from February, 2011

Cutting Edge Art v.s. Stodgy Landscapes

Philip Koch, North Passage, 18 x 24" oil on panel, 2011

(Above is a photo of eight shipping crates I made to send my paintings down to my exhibition this summer at the art museum in Newport News, Virginia. My wife commented how much this reminds her
of a sculpture from the early 1970's by Don Judd, who at that time was considered very cutting edge).

I often wonder whether there are more badly painted landscapes out there or more woefully unsuccessful attempts at "cutting edge" contemporary art.
To see a truly excellent landscape painting is rare. So is seeing a really well done piece of avant garde art. Perhaps I'm less rattled by unsuccessful landscapes because they're usually pretty small. Most work in alternative media like installations, perormance art, or video takes up either a lot of physical space or consumes more of your time. In return for that, one's likely to expect a bigger reward for looking at the work.
I teach in a big art school and am su…

Baltimore Museum of Art Newsletter- My Article on Rockwell Kent

As a long time admirer of the 20th century American artist Rockwell Kent, I wrote an appreciation of his wood engravings. The article appears in the just published Spring 2011 issue of the Baltimore Museum of Art'sNewsletter, published by the BMA's support group,       the Prints, Drawings, and Photographs Society.

An Artist Looks at Rockwell Kent

Rockwell Kent (American 1882-1971)
    The Bowsprit
    (c. 1926)    Woodcut    139 x 178 mm.    Gift of  Blanche Adler    1928.30.219

The End (n.d.) Woodcut Sheet: 125 x 180 mm. (4 15/16 x 7 1/16 in.) Gift of Blanche Adler 1928.30.3

Why do any of us look at the work of artists, especially ones no longer living? Well for most of us we do it because we find little hints of ourselves there, memories, feelings or maybe even a clue about where we ought to head next.
As a painter of many years myself I had a personal epiphany some fifteen years ago standing in the BMA's Museum Shop one afternoon.  Picking up a copy of a book written and illustrated b…


Philip Koch, From Day to Night, oil on panel, 18 x 36", 2011

Can you do a painting about hope? I think so, but perhaps coming straight out and saying it plainly might raise some eyebrows.

Some years ago everyone in my extended family was invited to a wedding on the other side of the country. Except me. By design or neglect, I never got an invitation. Feeling a little sorry for myself I decided to fly up to Maine to go painting for a week. I went to the mid coast town of Camden, one of the few places where the mountains come right down to the Atlantic. Arriving in something of a dark mood, I was distressed to find it raining steadily. As it turned out, I fought the rain and grey, and a touch more loneliness than usual the whole time I was there.

From a purely painting standpoint though it wasn't that bad and some excellent pieces got painted.  It's amazing how much work you can do crammed into the front seat of your car listening to the rhythmic slap of the wiper blades.

Discovering Secrets

Philip Koch, Lieutenant Island Bridge, oil on panel, 15 x 20" mid '80's
When you first meet someone you can feel all sorts of emotions about them that are triggered by their outer appearance. Half the time your initial impressions later prove accurate, other times not at all. 
One of the big reasons we have art and music is their usefulness as tools to dig below the surface. One thing all artists do is spend the time it takes to have a relationship with their subject, whatever it is. They use the time to dig down to the bedrock. 
Let me show you a concrete example of what I'm talking about. The above oil painting was painted on Cape Cod in the town of Wellfleet. There's a place there that intrigues many people, a small land mass named Lieutenant Island that juts out into Cape Cod Bay. At high tide the approach road is mostly surrounded and in some places covered by water. Landscape painters wander around a lot waiting for something to strike them as extra-ordinary. T…

Edward Hopper & The Passage of Time

Philip Koch, Edward Hopper Studio, South Truro, oil on board, 15 x 20", 1983
This doesn't exist anymore. You can no longer see Hopper's old studio and Cape Cod Bay in the distance from the vantage point of this hillside. 
Just got some more of my old slides digitally scanned again. As I looked through the newest batch this painting caught my eye. It was painted some 28 years ago during my first stay in the Hopper studio on Cape Cod. It was a little overwhelming for me that first time. The studio and the surroundings were just dripping with meaning and art history. 
Back then Cape Cod looked a lot more like it did in Hopper's day. In the 19th and early 20th century Cape Cod was picked to the bone for firewood. With its sandy soil it hadn't been able to support all that much in the way of forests to begin with. So for Hopper its sand dunes had an open, sweeping appearance. The oil below from the early 1930's by Hopper, Hill, South Truro,  is one of the best examples…

True Grit

From time to time we all need to recharge our internal batteries. One of my power sources is this artist- Kathe Kollwitz ("KAY-tuh KOLE-vitz"), the twentieth century German printmaker. Nobody ever drew women as well. Her vision of the feminine encompasses great physical strength, remarkable delicacy, and sometimes terrible vulnerability. In my book she's head and shoulders above the much better known (in this country) Mary Cassatt.

Above is a self portrait she did as a young woman done in a soft medium (likely conte crayons) on rough paper. Beautifully evoking the light as it plays over the planes of her forehead and cheeks, it swells up with her youthful energy and promise. It seems to be saying "here I am and I delight in looking at the world."

Above is a very different vision, an old woman using a stone to sharpen her scythe. Again Kollwitz builds the image around the play of light and shadow. Illuminated by a lamp from below, the figure looms over us in a sli…

Bold Power Hiding in Subtle Colors

There's a slippery quality to color. It's like trying to pick up a buttery noodle off the floor- sometimes you get it, other times it just won't give you any traction at all. Fortunately some very gifted people have wrestled with just such problems and by their example, we can grab and hold on.

Above is an oil by Sanford Gifford, The Wilderness, now in the Toledo, Ohio Museum of Art. It was painted right before the U.S. Civil War. Gifford's basic idea is to conceive of the world as suffused in a soft orange-yellow light. He undoubtedly painted this oil over a warm sienna-colored ground. Most of the painting's surface glows with that warmth as he purposefully allowed it to show through the subsequent pigment layers. In a few places he puts in some relatively cooler colors- mostly a neutral grey. Swimming in the field of warm colors, the greys are the exception. They know their place is to play a supporting role to the dramatic leading role assigned to the warm colo…