Sunday, March 18, 2018

Warmth of a Frozen Memory

Philip Koch with his painting Chestnut Ridge 
Panorama, oil on canvas, 36 x 48 inches, 2018

In June of 2015 I began traveling to Buffalo, NY as the Burchfield Penney Art Center’s Artist in Residence. One of the first places I went to paint was Chestnut Ridge Park, miles south of Buffalo, an area where the artist Charles Burchfield did some of his landscape work.

I loved the view from the Park’s overlook facing north- miles of forest and fields leading towards Lake Erie. The Lake at this distance was just the thinnest band of silver-white but it exerted a surprising pull on me. Sometimes you will see something that catapults you back in time.

I grew up on the shore of Lake Ontario in the then rural town of Webster, NY. A school bus would take me on a half hour long tour of the rolling countryside every morning and afternoon. Usually I rode lost in my daydreams. But there was one spot on the route where I’d rouse myself so as not to miss the view. As the bus crested the top of a particular hill it offered a me stunning glimpse of Lake Ontarios’s wide expanse framed by a field and dense woods. It never failed to excite me and leave me feeling that the world was something to celebrate.

That the Chestnut Ridge panorama evoked a powerful response in me suggested a major painting was in the offing. I did a whole series of drawings from the overlook. On canvas I tried out a number of compositions. Over many months of painting though I kept cutting away the middleground spaces-it became clear what I was really interested in was the far lakeshore itself.

Similarly I worked through a progression of seasons- what started as drawings of summer changed on my canvas first to autumn color and then honed in on full blown winter. In the begining I’d been working closely from my drawings but gradually relied more and more on memory and imagination. Not surprisingly my strongest visual memory of the lakeshore was playing with my friends in the huge and strange sculptural shapes formed by the lake water as it froze. We used to call these the “ice mountains.” It was perhaps a dangerous place to play, I’m surprised we never slipped and fell into the icy water. But always I felt transported as if to another world. To this day the memory remains a springboard for my imagination.

Monday, February 26, 2018

Freer Gallery of Art- Teaching Drawing in a Museum's Galleries

The inner courtyard of the Freer Gallery of the Smithsonian in 
Washington, DC

Last weekend I traveled to Washington, DC to teach a drawing workshop in the Freer Gallery of Art of the Smithsonian Institution. Just reopened after a two year renovation, the museum is incredibly elegant. 

Grace Murray, the museum's Head of Public Programs, and her interns did a wonderful job organizing the workshop so we could get a lot done in just three hours. Grace began the afternoon with a slide show introduction to the museum and its collection- a highly unusual mix of Asian art and a small select group late 19th century American painters. Afterwards we worked in vine charcoal to make a quick study of Edward Hopper's composition. Then we headed out to draw the interior spaces in the museum galleries. The dozen students seemed like they had a great time.

Winslow Homer, Early Eveningoil on canvas, 1881-1907

While I didn't have a lot of time to explore the collection I did spend a half hour in Freer's galleries of Western oil paintings.
One just mesmerized me- Winslow Homer's Early Evening. A seemingly  restrained painting, it manages to evoke a powerfully monumental feeling with its two young women silhouetted against the evening sky. The sky is a deliciously creamy gradation of soft atmospheric hues.

But it's not all about softness. Homer wanted to surprise his viewer's eye and used his mastery of two-dimensional design to do it.  The above detail shows him squeezing the empty sky between artfully placed folds in the the skirts and carefully drawn rock outcroppings. 

 John Singer Sargent. Breakfast in the Loggia, oil on canvas, 1910

John Singer Sargent's oil paintings seem so spontaneously composed- almost like a snapshot, but better. I love how he makes the wild shape of the shadows on the far wall more dramatic than the poses of his women enjoying breakfast. It makes me think maybe they're trading salacious gossip...

The Freer has an impressive collection of work by the darkly romantic painter Abbot Handerson Thayer. On display when I was there was Monadnock in Winter from 1904. He deftly shifts from the softly out-of-focus evergreens to the delicate but crip touches in the mountain peaks. I figured out by looking at the direction of the light on the mountain's summit it is a painting of the morning, surprising me as it feels it's a tender elegy at dusk to winter's light. 

Monday, February 19, 2018

Searching for Color (or Coping with Vanishing Subjects)

Philip Koch, Recollection, oil on canvas, 36 x 72 inches, 2000.
This painting is based on the pastel drawing below.

Funny story about this large painting. It's based on a pastel that in turn was made from an an on-site vine charcoal drawing. At certain times in my career I found working in stages like this allowed me to be playfully creative with color.

My wife Alice and I were on one of our painting excursions, flying from Baltimore to Northern California. Once there I was taken by the sweeping panorama of San Francisco Bay from the summit of Mount Tamalpais just north of the city. We had crystal clear weather. With such a good viewpoint I grabbed my vine charcoals and set to work on a view of the Bay. Then the legendary fog of San Francisco rolled in like a freight train. In five minutes my subject was completely erased from view. 

 Philip Koch, Recollection, pastel, 10 x 20 inches, 2000. 

"I flew 3000 miles for this?" went through my mind. 

Landscape painters are battle-hardened to changes in the weather and I resolved to take it in stride. Plunging ahead I invented a completely new far distance for my drawing. Ironically, I came up with more intriguing shapes than my original view of the Bay had offered. 

I titled the pastel and the large oil that flowed from it both Recollection, though in truth these compositions are more about forgetting than remembering an original idea. 

Monday, February 12, 2018

Henri Matisse On How to Use Color

Philip Koch, Red River, vine charcoal, 7 x 10 1/2, 2001

In 2001, just as soon as airplanes were allowed to fly again after the 9/11 attacks, I hopped on a flight to North Dakota. Entering the terminal in Fargo one was greeted by soldiers in camouflage uniforms holding automatic weapons (it looked like a paranoid scene out of The Handmaid's Tale).

Philip Koch, Red River Trilogy #1, pastel, 4 1/2 x 6 3/4 inches, 2001

That Fall the North Dakota Museum of Art in Grand Forks was featuring a large painting of mine in their annual gala exhibition. My dad spent the first 4 years of his life in Grand Forks. He was by far my more nurturing and supportive parent. I only knew him for my first 12 years. I'd always wanted to visit his hometown, feeling it would be a way to connect with his memory. Going to this Museum exhibition was my chance to make the trip.

 Philip Koch, Red River Trilogy #2, pastel, 4 1/2 x 6 3/4 inches, 2001

Fortunately the days I was there were surprisingly warm and still for November in a Northern Plains state. I took full advantage and did a series of drawings on the bank of the Red River where it flows through Grand Forks. I remember the gently flowing water and the warm sun cast me into a peaceful reverie. In a quietly satisfying way I felt a genuine connection to the place.

Philip Koch, Red River Trilogy #3, pastel, 4 1/2 x 6 3/4 inches, 2001

Over the years I'm done thousands of charcoal drawings. I find the practice sustains me. For many years my paintings has been involved with vivid color. Drawing in black and white has reliably anchored my experiments. As I worked at the riverside on my drawings I remembered a story I'd been told in graduate school about the French painter Henri Matisse: 

A young art student approached the famous artist and said "Mr. Matisse, please tell me how I can learn to use color as wonderfully as you do." Matisse replies "You must go to the Louvre Museum and spend two years making copies of the Great Masters in charcoal as I did." The confused art student persists "But Mr. Matisse, I want to learn about color!". To which Matisse simply replies "You will."

 Philip Koch, Red River. November, vine charcoal, 8 1/2 x 8 1/2 inches, 2001

Apocryphal or not, I've always loved that story. Matisse knew that color, as wonderful as it is, can be so slippery- that it can be maddeningly hard handle. To do something dramatic and energetic with color you need the vessel of clear shapes and definite dark and light changes to hold your colors in place. That's what his early studies in the Louvre had shown him.

Had Matisse been able to accompany me to that river bank in North Dakota I think he would have been happy to sit with me and draw. And as well I'm sure he would have been glad to tip his hat to the memory where my father's life began.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

My "Time Travel " with Charles Burchfield

Philip Koch working in his Baltimore studio on his painting
Evergreen, 40 x 60 inches, that will be included in Burchfield
Penney Art Center's exhibition of his work April 13 - July 29, 2018

I wrote the following about the remarkable experience I had in the two years I served as the Artist in Residence at the Burchfield Penney Art Center in 2015-17. Right now I am bus preparing for that museum's exhibition of my paintings and drawings from the Residency- it's set to open April 13 and run through July 29, 2018. 

Time Travel in the Burchfield Archives

We all think we know who we are. Sometimes an unexpected event shows us how wide of the mark our thinking has been. So it was with my experience the last two years being the Artist in Residence at the Burchfield Penney Art Center. It provided a close encounter with the work of another painter, Charles Burchfield. Burchfield, a fellow landscape painter, was an artist with a powerful imagination that had taken him into a distinctively personal style.

My first though when the Center invited me to serve as an Artist in Residence was pretty modest. It would be a chance to do a lot of painting near where I’d grown up in Rochester, something I’d always wanted to do. And I figured I’d pick up a few new ideas about color from looking at his paintings. That was pretty much it.

Burchfield’s style of painting was sufficiently different from than mine that I wasn’t worried that I’d be seduced into just working in his footsteps. I was right about that. What I didn’t anticipate were more indirect influences. How looking at his working methods and arc of his career would send me back in time to reorient how I see myself as an artist.

Let me explain.

In addition to having the largest collection of Charles Burchfield's paintings, the Burchfield Penney has the Burchfield Archives, an exhaustive collection of the artist's writings, notes, serious drawings, quick sketches, doodles and memorabilia. When I first began vising BPAC as the Artist in Residence I was invited to come to the Archives and study some drawings Burchfield produced. I had no idea what I would find there. More than for most artists, making drawings has always been a central part of my own painting. I was amazed to discover just how pivotal a role drawing played in Burchfield’s creativity. The Archives contained an overwhelming number - over 20,000 drawings alone.

Living, having emotions and being able to respond to the world around us are remarkable, and all too temporary, things. We would be fools not to open our eyes and drink in the look and feel of being alive on this planet. Going through Burchfield’s drawings one begins to realize that Burchfield had a deep and profound sense of this.

There’s an almost astonishing level of wonder and celebration found in the archival boxes containing his drawings- sometimes he would make the most elegantly detailed studies of the twists and turns of an individual leaf. Some were so delicately detailed that I thought they could have been drawn by Leonardo DaVinci. Other times he would be searching for the best way to convey a new idea and churned out drawing after drawing trying out subtle changes in his composition. The level of energy on display revealed a no-holds-barred, passion for his subjects. I couldn’t help but leave these visits to the Archives inspired.

The other surprise was how seriously Burchfield took his efforts. He seemed to save everything. They had been lovingly cared for in a far more organized way than I’d ever considered for my own artwork.

I resolved to start my own long-delayed project to catalogue my own work, scanning a huge pile of old 35mm slides of my earlier paintings and recording information about them. Undertaking my new archiving project forced me to go back through hundreds of images of paintings and drawings I had done three and even four decades before. While I hadn’t totally forgotten any of these earlier works I had unconsciously edged them to a far back burner on my mental stove.

Early in my career I primarily worked outdoors painting with oil paint. But in the last 15 years I’d largely abandoned that in favor of painting in my studio from black and white drawings. When I first came to Buffalo for my Residency I was convinced this was to be my studio method permanently.

Yet starting my new archiving project I was surprised how much I enjoyed looking at my early work that I done directly outdoors. They were far more exciting than I had remembered them. This set me to thinking.

I knew Burchfield himself had undergone major shifts in his paintings. His early years in Ohio saw vividly colored and slightly fantastical imagery. Moving to Buffalo his paintings became more somber and straightforward. Yet later in his life he made a serious re-evaluation, dipping his brush again into the deeper well of his highly charged imagination. The brighter colors and bold fantasy returned. Burchfield seemed to have reached back in time and recaptured much of the mystery and magic of his early paintings.

It struck me that if Burchfield in full maturity could re-evaluate his methods and make serious changes, so could I. Maybe I could do some travel back in time too.

My experience in the Burchfield Archives was like a fresh gust of wind filling my sails, encouraging me and challenging me to change my own course. I’m now working outdoors in oils again. The fields I am finding there, having lain fallow for years, seem newly refreshed and fertile.

Philip Koch, January, 2018