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

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!