Sunday, February 27, 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 surrounded by all sorts of art by artists who don't all speak the same language. It's a real free for all.  But I do see good art of all styles on a regular basis. 

To get anywhere as an artist, one  has to be intensely serious about ones art making. You pour vast amounts of your heart and energy (and your time and your money) into it. With some luck, you grow as an artist. 

We live in a time when the art world has splintered off into different and seemingly competing directions. I've never met anyone who genuinely responds with equal enthusiasm to all the different directions artists are taking these days.

To be passionate about the art one makes makes you do good work, but sometimes it also means learning to bite your tongue.  Mine has lots of holes in it. A good sense of humor helps.

(p.s. As most of you figured out, that is a photo of a Don Judd minimalist sculpture from 1971 above. Wouldn't they make great shipping crates for paintings though!).

Friday, February 25, 2011

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's Newsletter, 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)
   139 x 178 mm.
   Gift of  Blanche Adler

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

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 by the American artist Rockwell Kent, N by E, I feel into it had to buy a copy. I had known of Kent since my early days as an art student but had pretty much forgotten about him. The wood engravings in his book felt as if he had made them for me. He didn't of course. But the experience highlights how profoundly personal is connection an artist can forge with the viewer when the art is strong.

Many visitors to the BMA are familiar with the artist's signature oils Artist in Greenland  and his chilling Heavy, Heavy Hangs Over Thy Head. I'd like to say a few things about two of Kent's prints we're lucky to have in our Permanent Collection, The Bowsprit and The End. Better than almost any other artist I can think of, Kent found a language to speak about the drama and romance of the natural world at night. Wood engraving, with its preponderance of black, was perfect for his vision.
The Bowsprit  shows a naked sailor gazing foreward under the most wonderfully delicate sprinkling of stars. My family when I was four, settled on the rocky shore of Lake Ontario, outside Rochester, NY. Back then it was very rural and on a clear night the sky was ablaze with thousands of stars. Once I was old enough to "camp out" with my childhood friends, one of my absolute favorite things to do was to lie on my back and gaze at the heavens, sometimes for hours before our chatter would die down and we'd eventually drift off to sleep. Occasionally we'd be treated to showers of shooting stars.
Looking at Kent's print now, images of those special nights rush back to me

I don't know how many of you have taken off all your clothes and clung to a wooden pole suspended over the waves at night, but Kent's sailor seems to take the precarious and turn it into a voyage of discovery. The artist gives us a vision of humankind exposed but at peace out in nature. What a gift from Kent's imagination to see anyone could experience such feeling in such a vulnerable situation.

The Bowsprit uses a few tricks of the trade to make its emotional impact on the viewer.
First, realize how selectively Kent imagines the light falling from what must be a full moon. It rakes across the forms but highlights just the ones the artist wants you to notice. There's an old saying that art is about what you leave out. In Kent's case he leave out a whole lot yet his print still seems ample and full.

The sailor's forms are fascinating- broad and generalized in the thighs and arm, but then intricately patterned in other places such as the hands, the lower knee and the hair. Kent's ability lay in giving us just the right visual balance between busy patterns and empty areas. A lesser artist probably would have overpopulated his sky with stars everywhere. Kent instead corrals his fewer stars to suggest a shape that moves diagonally behind our mariner from the upper left corner of the print to half way down the right hand side of image. He is able to set up a countermotion to the leaning chest of the sailor, suggesting that the movements of this man's life and that of the cosmos are not always one.

Artists often use the sense of leaning or falling to give a feeling of motion to their works. Kent's work was particularly fond of dramatic diagonals like the figure's brilliantly lighted torso. Yet Kent makes the action seem entirely plausible and even just right. Notice the  diagonal lean of the torso and then compare it to the dark waves in the print's lower right corner. They, you discover, run exactly parallel with the man's diagonal pose. To me this is Kent's way of saying the human and the seas are working, or dancing, together. It gives a feeling of dynamism and I believe optimism to the world Kent is describing here.

Far less cozy is the other Kent print, The End. While in The Bowsprit Kent focuses the light on the figure, here the real actor is the angry sea. Notice how the bright whites are reserved for the foreground wave and the sky at the horizon. Nature is bigger and stronger than we Kent is saying, and in this print he puts the spotlight on her dark beauty.
The sailor, no longer the muscular young man in the first print, now huddles in his rowboat and watches the water pouring in that will soon sink him.

I find the print chilling, but to make us feel for the sailor, Kent had to come up with visual means to first pull in our eye to his world. Notice again how the artist creates a foreground completely filled with active, curving waves. Then just behind the boat Kent places a long dark band of water that stretches all the way from the left to the right sides of the picture. The contrast between the heavily patterned waves and the smoothed down waves is critical to make your eye want to explore the water. I think it is only later that the view realizes the water is swamping the boat and the sailor is doomed.

When I first started looking at Kent's work seriously, inspired by that little book from the Museum Shop, I was struck by how dramatic he made his world appear. Kent was well known (and in the McCarthy period reviled) as a political radical. But in his prints I could see his radical creativity- to bend forms, exaggerate contrasts, and ruthlessly eliminate details that interfered with his vision. In a period where color was front and center for so many other modern artists, Kent did perhaps his best work in black and white, mastering the emotional nuances of shapes in hard, clear terms.

As a painter myself what I found in Kent was a certain boundless energy and expressive optimism. I think gave me a gust of wind in my sails as an artist to aim for a more personal way of seeing the world- higher constrast, a lot more simplicity, and a freer rein given to the fantastic and dream like parts of my imagination. Rockwell Kent is the kind of artist who gives you courage to head out onto the waters of your own uncertainty.

Philip Koch is a landscape painter and a long time professor at MICA.

Monday, February 21, 2011


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.

About 5 o'clock in the afternoon of my final day there I sensed a lightening up on the western horizon and raced up to the top of Mt. Batty. It has a commanding view of Maine's historic Penobscot Bay.
I was hoping to see the sun burst forth and give me one big payback for putting up with such a miserable week for painting. That didn't happen, but I did get to at least see some serious touches yellow and orange in a few of the clouds. Working as fast as I could, I did a vine charcoal drawing and a soft pastel drawing of the scene. These were the basis of what would become the painting above.

The final painting was one that pushed the color intensity of my longed-for sunset well past what the actual experience offered up. Desire for warmth and light had stirred up memories of other times and other sunsets. I think what I was doing was painting my hope for a more kind and nurturing weather.

Paintings are about our experience of reality, but we traverse both the landscape of the earth and the terrain of our internal emotional life. Art can report on the reality before us, but it can also transport us to other places and offer us alternative feelings. Painters,  equipped as we are with a highly trained imagination, might just be in the moving business for eyes and for hearts. Watch out FedEx!

Monday, February 14, 2011

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. This spot by the one bridge on the Lieutenant Island approach road just felt a little extra magical to me. When that happens I try looking at it from all angles and at all times of day, trying to discover how to make a painting out of the experience I'm having.

I settled on this morning view looking back inland toward the Cape. While the actual place was an extreme wide open horizontal space, this view provided a delightful countermove to that. Squint your eyes at the painting and look at the diagonal line of the darkest part of the background forest in the upper left. Then let your eye move down into the water and to the right side. There you see a prominent diagonal in the dark reddish reflections in the water. It runs across the picture's surface exactly parallel to that first diagonal up top. Visually it feels like something very close to you is in a conversation with another part of the painting way in the distance. Trees and water, just for a moment, start speaking the same language.

And here's another conversation. Notice the white highlighted railing of the bridge at the left. I wanted it extra bright as it too shared a special relationship with those first diagonals mentioned above. The railing runs exactly at 90 degrees to the first diagonals in trees and water. That right angle I believe speaks to us unconsciously and we come to just feel the bridge belongs with those trees and that water. This is a tool artists have been using for centuries to pull viewers into their paintings. 

My suspicion is that we're all secretly in love with the right angle. You probably don't remember your early attempts at walking when you were approaching one year old. It's a safe guess they involved a lot of falling and your own tears. Think of the rush of mastery and self confidence a toddler has when they finally take several steps without falling. Somehow they unconsciously visualize a vertical axis played off against the horizontal plane and try to hold that vertical with their body. When a painter hints at this right angle relationship between separate forms that are diagonal (like our bridge railing and the trees) it stimulates a feeling of well being and attachment to the painting in the viewer. 

I didn't see all these things when I started this painting. That came later. What I did do is try out about twenty different spots to place my easel and settled on the one that I just sensed felt best. It's a matter of trusting your instincts. And artists are people who have trained their visual instincts to be just a little more awake than the average person's. 

Thursday, February 10, 2011

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 of that. It's a view of the railroad that ran maybe 200 - 300 yards from Hopper's studio. 

I was dying to paint the studio the way it looked from the distance and climbed up a sandy bank along the dirt road that offered the best view. Nowadays the view is gone- completely blocked by the growth of the trees that have returned to the neighborhood in full force. Seeing my old painting now I'm glad I painted the view that was sill possible in the early '80's.

It wasn't an easy painting to do. I was nearly done when a old woman who lived two houses over from the Hoppers came out and ordered me to leave. I refused and kept painting, hoping she wasn't buddies with the Truro Police. Fortunately they didn't show and I got to finish the oil.

Here's a photo of the studio taken last Fall from the general direction of the approach road, but much closer in toward the studio. 

Hopper's Cape Cod is gradually disappearing, just like the New England farms that offered the 19th century American landscape painters unobstructed vistas of the White Mountains in New Hampshire. The next really great painter to work on Cape Cod is going to be painting a different world than the moody hillsides and spooky forests found on Hopper's canvases. That painter is going to have to invent some new moves to evoke the new place the Cape has become. And just as the landscape has changed, our internal landscape of our generation's psyche is subtly different than in Hopper's day. Exactly how it's difficult to say. That's why we need artists to show us how reality feels differently now.

Every generation brings forth new artists who re-imagine the classic old themes, The best new landscape painters discover the new forms necessary to pour living emotion back into their paintingss of earth, and sky. Hopper didn't just repeat the lessons of his famous teacher Robert Henri. Instead he took Henri's message and re-imgined it to meet the inner needs of a younger generation. 

Hopper is gone and the world he painted is receeding. On some level I believe he'd cheer on those of us trying to come up with the new painting needed to bring his old neighborhood back to life.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

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 slightly threatening way. If you look closely at the woman, you realize she is both incredibly solid and volumetric and at the same time is presented to us through the most elegant flat shapes that thread their way across the whole composition. Just one example is the remarkable silhouettes of her hands and wrists. The artist is finding her subject's personality in a part of the body so many other artists rush past in their hurry to draw the face. Kollwitz is too sharp to overlook them.

Kollwitz also did a great deal of illustration for posters for humanitarian and progressive causes. Below is an example- a family group of three heads that work together beautifully as a whole. Notice how the drawing gradates gradually getting lighter as you move from the man at the left through the child to the woman at the right. 

Above is I think my favorite drawing of all Kollwitz's works. With just a few sparse lines, the artist establishes the parent's knees to hold the action of the drawing, the child's head. The large hands that cradle the child obviously are no strangers to hard physical labor, Look at the tenderness with which the fingers of the left hand finger a few strands of the child's hair. 

Here's a final illustration Kollwitz did in 1924 to raise funds to feed the literally starving children who lived in the poor neighborhood where she lived. The victorious Allies after WWI demanded severe reparations to be paid by the defeated German government. Naturally the burden fell not on the well connected wealthy politicians who sent Germany to war but to the ordinary people. Kollwitz lived in the slums of Berlin with her husband, a physician whose practice was doctoring to the urban poor. Kollwitz saw hunger on her doorstep.

(A grateful thanks to my friend Carrie from the gym (a.k.a. Buff Carrie) who interrupted her weight lifting to figure out how to spell "scythe" for me)

Thursday, February 3, 2011

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 colors.

Below is a second Sanford Gifford oil, this one of the Hudson River (that kindly lent its name to the movement of artists Gifford was a part of).

In this second painting, Gifford reverses his thinking, imagining the world is a mostly cool, bluish place. Almost everything seems to have some blue in it, with a few pinkish clouds emerging out of the bed of coolness that is the sky. A warm-hulled boat does the same in the foreground.

What's key in both these paintings is Gifford's decisiveness, choosing to let one color dominate his picture. Had this been executed in a heavy handed way, the paintings could have had a harsh and mechanical quality. Instead Gifford is an absolute master of gradating the color's temperatures and intensity. You look a long time at a Gifford painting before you find an area that isn't carefully gradated. He knew this would give his skies and water a certain gentle pulsing energy. And he has a terrific eye for creating mist-laden atmosphere.

And here's a final Gifford, Kauterskill Falls, now in the Detroit Institute of Art. He returns to the idea of covering the whole surface with a warm gold ground as a foundation. Then as if he took a mat knife in hand, he cuts out a "keyhole" in the center of the forest. This intriguingly carved opening reveals a far distance that seems borrowed from our second painting, the cooler blue Hudson River scene. He keeps the blue far distance way toned down. Against all the sienna and yellow in the foreground it seems cool enough as it is. You can see into the artist's imagination through this painting. He's saying "I'll make a  warm world with just a bit of cool color that will be the exception." Gifford was about subtlety. But in his hands that's a far cry from indecisiveness or timidity.