Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Looking Through Hopper's Window

Here are a few more photos I took in Edward Hopper's S. Truro, MA studio this October when we were staying there during our 14th residency.  At the top is one of Hopper's kitchen table and chairs where he and his wife Jo would sit to eat. (We supplied the bananas).

Below is a view from overhead of the same table that's flanked by two windows facing due east.  In the mornings this bright unobstructed light comes in through the two windows. It's delightful.

Here is an 8 x 10" pastel drawing I did of the table from a similar viewpoint.

Hopper did a number of powerful paintings of people seated around a table as in this early oil of his, Chop Suey from 1929, five years before he built the Truro studio. I love all the personality he expresses in the torsos of the two women. The one is front sculpted with flat angular planes, the one on the far side of the table with more rounded forms. Hopper is enjoying playing off extremely pale colors in the far woman's skin and in the two white table tops against the overwhelmingly reddish-brown interior. Great color, Hopper knew, required a range of intensities with the color choices. 

Hopper loved this sort of inside v.s. outside composition and played with this arrangement throughout his long career. 

A lesser artist I think would have gotten lost in all the detail out the window, particularly the "Chop Suey" sign, but Hopper intentionally tones down the contrasts within that. Out the window provides an elaborate space as a backdrop, but Hopper insists on placing all the high contrast focus on his diners and tables in the lower left corner of the painting. Consummate master of ceremonies that he is, Hopper deftly tells you where to look.

Though it's not his kitchen, here's a photo I took in his bedroom looking out the window at the left to Cape Cod Bay and to the right through the doorway into his large painting room. I find it kind of remarkable that Hopper never did more literal paintings of these spaces in his studio. Perhaps in his later  decades when he worked in this studio he needed distance from his immediate surroundings for his visual inventiveness to fully kick in.

Here is a pastel of mine, Hopper Studio Kitchen, 10 x 8" that was done on location looking from Hopper's painting room, down a short hallway with an unseen bathroom at the left, and opening into his kitchen. The far window is just above the kitchen sink and looks out on a sandy hillside partly covered with beach grasses.

On my website philipkoch.org there's a special page devoted to photographs of the S. Truro Hopper studio that my wife and I have taken, and the home in Nyack, NY where Hopper was born and grew up, now the Edward Hopper House Art Center.

If you are in the New York area you can see five of my paintings of Hopper's studio and of his boyhood  home in Nyack, NY  in the solo show of my work at George Billis Gallery in the Chelsea art district. The show opens  Dec. 11 and runs through Jan. 19th, 2013.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The Tricky Balance of Contemporary Art

Philip Koch, Sun in an Empty Room III,  oil on panel, 12 x 9", 2012

To anyone who tries to follow contemporary art I want to say I understand why you feel confused. If it's true that art holds a mirror up to life, isn't this pretty much to be expected? Almost everyone I know is glad to be here. But that said, they're bewildered by living much of the time.

"Contemporary Art" isn't a style. It just means art that has been made today. If used properly, the term extends all the way from performance art using digital video projections to work made by artists who think everything that happened after the 19th century French painter Ingres stinks.

I have two observations.

There has been an explosion in the number of possible ways artists can make art. A young student at my art school in Baltimore is expected to have at least familiarity with the following: digital art, video art. performance, installation, time based art, community engagement art, sound art, and then drawing, painting, and the rest of the traditional media. It's a little like asking a struggling juggler to add another half dozen balls in the air all at once- some can do it, but just as often the attempts come crashing down and go bouncing off on the floor in all directions.

My advice to young artists would be to give all these competing media a try to see which speaks to you. But don't continue barking up every tree in the forest. Eventually you have to narrow down the tasks and practice until you get really masterful at it. That's what people are coming to you to see.

The other extreme are the artists who fall under the spell of the art of the past. It is easy to fall in love with the amazing accomplishments of a Rembrandt. Though that artist's drawings are pushing 400 years old, they continue to blow me away with their uncanny ability to let you feel the artist's hand and his heart. What seems troublesome though are contemporary artists who do paintings of figures wading on sandy beaches wearing dresses that were highly stylish 100 years ago and haven't actually been seen in public since. 

I always urge my students to learn from the best artists from art history but to be careful not to let oneself be taken over by the past. I make a joke about how they don't want to become practitioners of "Embalmed Realism."

Above is one of my oil paintings done just a few months ago. It's a painting where I'm taking my painter's eye (that was raised on color field painting and geometric abstractions) and using it to look back on the past- both my own and on art history. My painting was done on my portable French easel crammed into the narrow hallway on the second floor of the home Edward Hopper was born in (now the Edward Hopper House Art Center in Nyack, NY) I'm peering into the room where he slept every night more or less until he was 30 years old. 

Hopper was sort of an alternative father figure for me. Once I'd seen the way he captured sunlight and sculpted his long moody cast shadows I was hooked. Abandoning my early direction as an abstractionist I resolved to charge down the realist path. But I do it with tools I brought with me from my abstract painting days- in particular a willingness to playfully invent color combinations that I haven't really seen but that I feel will best express the feeling tenor I'm after. 

Inspired by the past grand gestural works of expressionist painters from Picasso to Arshile Gorky I learned I loved to play with the mark-making side of painting. An artist's brush moves over the surface on a painting and leaves a track just like an ice skater gliding through untouched ice. In my painting look at how the brushstrokes move diagonally uphill to the left in the dark blue foreground wall. Then I've pushed the opposite uphill-to-the-right direction in the far room's cream colored wall. I had to do this to make the viewer feel those walls contained an emptiness that mattered. 

Hopper was a great example to me because of the way he struggled to absorb the best from his teacher, Robert Henri, without becoming just a follower of this teacher's broadly brushed style. Some of Hopper's most beautiful oils I believe are his extremely Henri-influenced impressionist street scenes of Paris. Hopper made them shortly after studying with the charismatic Henri. Slowly Hopper evolved in this painting towards a way of seeing that retained much of Henri's drama, but was thinner and more dry-looking in appearance. It took Hopper years to find his own vision because it wasn't  just a matter of selecting a different philosophy of art. Rather his progress grew out of a years long trial-and-error search that is at the heart of all genuinely powerful art. 

My painting above couldn't be more Hopper-centric in terms of where it was painted. But if you look closely in its paint surface and color choices it really doesn't look like Hopper. That's because my personality at its core is different than his. As I grow as a painter I move down a path that I am in the business of discovering. There's a wonderful saying by the Spanish poet Antonio Machado "Searcher there is no road. We make the road by walking."

Thursday, November 15, 2012

More Edward Hopper Studio Photos

Wanted to show some more of the photos from the most recent residency in Hopper's S. Truro studio on Cape Cod in Sept. and Oct. Above is the studio seen just as the first sun of the day is beginning to hit its opposite side, This photo give you a sense of how Hopper carefully chose the spot for his studio, placing it on one of the more exposed high places on the ridge of sand dunes that run along the shore of Cape Cod Bay. He obviously wanted great unobstructed views. 

The studio has as many windows as the construction methods of his day commonly allowed. It literally catches the first and the very last rays of the day's sunlight. I think of it as his "observatory" where he spent years absorbing and studying the effects of sunlight. It shows in his paintings with their remarkable power to evoke the feel of strong sun and elegant moody shadows.

This is Hopper's kitchen in the afternoon sunlight that's coming in through the window on the kitchen door  and the one over the kitchen sink. Here's a drawing I did with my French easel set up in almost the same spot in the kitchen. It's Edward Hopper's Truro Studio Kitchen, vine charcoal, 8 x 10" (it will be included in my upcoming solo show at George Billis Gallery in New York Dec. 11 - Jan. 19, 2013).

So often Hopper employed a geometric patch of sunlight piercing one of his paintings of an interior- it's sort of his hallmark. One can see how much this stemmed from his direct observation of his surroundings. Here's an example from early in his career-

Here are at the right, Hopper's studio easel, on which he painted many of his most well known oils, and my French easel at the left. This is in his painting room, looking through the big north facing window towards the northwest.

Another view of Hopper's studio easel, taken early in the morning.

It was pretty chilly on Cape Cod this time when we were up there this Fall. Here is my wife Alice warming herself in front of a little fire in Hopper's fireplace. I am sure Hopper spent many such hours in just the same spot musing over the coals in his three decades up on the Cape.  At the right is the door to the bedroom he shared with his wife Jo Hopper.

The modern looking bookcase at the left was added in the early 1970's, after Hopper's time. That's my French easel on the far left.

I have been gradually adding photos to my website to form a gallery of photographs I and my wife have taken of Hopper's Cape Cod studio. Here's the link to that Hopper Studio Photos Page.

Monday, November 12, 2012

The Poetry of Sharp Branches

Landscape painting has been with us in the western art tradition since the Baroque era. Around then painters started having more fun with the backgrounds. Previously the landscape had been relegated to only  a supporting role to prop up flattering paintings of the local nobleman or pious saints. These new landscape painters urged us to delight in the natural world. And they help us answer some big, pesky questions- Where did we come from? Where are we now? The best of their paintings are a forceful reminder that we are part of nature, and that it is in us, right at our very core. 

Above is the 19th century German artist Caspar David Friedrich's Abby in the Snow, a painting that still gives me a little chill ever time  I see it. It's a masterpiece of gradating colors to create an almost supernatural glow to the sky. One of Friedrich's tricks is to push the darkness so forcefully into both his upper sky and into the low hanging mists on the horizon. It would look heavy handed except for his deft touch blending the edges of his clouds. He uses I suspect quite a bit of layering his pigments, and is careful to play off the overall raw umber brown hues against lighter pale yellows and touches of silvery grey off whites. 

The real kicker though has to be how he contrasts all his diaphanous clouds against some of the most craggy and sharp-pointed trees ever painted. Coaxing this kind of sharpness and that extremely delicate softness to cooperate as he does is a terrific achievement.

Those thorn-like branches get a very different handling in the American painter Charles Burchfield's watercolor from 1917- 20, The Insect Chorus. Where Friedrich wrapped his tree trunks up in a blanket of brooding dark along his misty horizon, Burchfield goes just the other way. His trunks and branches all stand out sharp and clear from their snowy field and the light cream sky. This could have left him with just a randomly assorted mess. But look at how he carefully masses some of the branches together into tight clumps (the top of the highest tree looks like it might have had two squirrel nests in it). And he deliberately pushes some branches into a decided red while leaving others in the more expected dark greys. 

Burchfield knows the expressive power of herding a multitude of individual forms into groups and keeping them there. In a way there's a wild abandon to the painting. But it also shows a firm hand orchestrating the clustering together of his colors and tones. My guess is Burchfield even consciously thought of himself as a conductor (it is titled The Insect Chorus after all).

And here is one of my pieces, a 9 x 12" vine charcoal drawing titled Land's End Inn. We were staying in a B&B in Provincetown of that name. Its gardens in back of the Inn were a little overgrown and felt a touch menacing. Perhaps these trees were descendants of the forests that so inspired our friends Friedrich and Burchfield.

In my composition I've chosen to put the emphasis on just some of the many branches. Completely eliminated are all details from the house except for its looming silhouette. A painting or a drawing can't be about everything- the artist has to choose just the best few notes that will sound together as the most resonant chord. I kept wiping out architectural details from the building as they felt intrusive on the simpler duet between my thicket of trees and the darks of the house.

Someone asked me if I was thinking about Norman Bates from Alfred Hithcock's film Psycho when I was working on this drawing. Well...yes. Cue the creepy music.

Friday, November 9, 2012

Are Labrador Retrievers Good Art Teachers?


I teach painting at a major art college in Baltimore. We have lots of very thoughtful discussions about    what makes for a good painting. Technique, process, vision, art history all get thoroughly chewed over. But underneath it all, I always find myself hoping that my students like dogs.

When I was a kid everyone in my rural neighbor hood had a dog, sometimes two. The dogs all had a heck of a good time together having informal running contests or fighting over a stick. Sure they didn't think and reason a whole lot, but they all had PhD's in knowing how to enjoy whatever was at hand. Dogs seem to live in a world of sensation. Their ability to embrace their experience wholeheartedly is remarkable, and instructive. They know they're alive and they know their experience is worth celebrating.

A big part of my life as a painter revolves around going on painting excursions in New England or the Adirondack Mountains in upper New York- traveling to a see new material seems to turn on an inner switch. When I first arrive I feel like a dog who 's just been let outside after being cooped up in a stuffy house all day- I want to run around breathlessly and almost everything I see looks like I could make a great painting out of it.

Unfortunately, Labradors don't really do well as painters, and it's only partly because they have trouble holding their brushes. The real problem is they get overwhelmed by seeing the possibilities in everything they look at. If you love everything you see, you get immobilized. 
Above is my painting Adirondack Forest: Red, oil on panel, 24 x 18", 2012. It was done from a drawing I did with my French easel set up on the shore of Lake Placid in upstate New York (where they held the 1980 and 1932 Winter Olympics). It's a beautiful place for painting, but the scene was way too confusing. You can't paint the thousands of branches and colors. On one level it is all great, but as a painter you're tasked with distilling the experience down to its essence. It's here that a  wonderful Labrador-like enthusiasm alone fails.
Something that helps me enormously is working in oil not directly from nature but instead doing a vine charcoal drawing first. Here's the drawing I used for the painting I just showed you. If I've chosen well and selected out just the best viewpoint, I'm still confronted with a source that presents a tableau of too many ideas. Doing a drawing, especially in a medium that pushes things together into softly smeared gradations and eliminates color altogether gives me a fighting chance. My head cools down from its intitial frantic enthusiasm. I can play around, selecting first this form to emphasize and then that. Your spirit has to look at the possibilities through tightly squinted eyes.
Who is good enough to stay, who has to be eliminated? At this stage you can't give an uncertain form the benefit of the doubt. It's a little ruthless. Below is a photo of how I feel when I'm trying to select just the very best elements for my drawing or painting.

My other great teacher growing up was a cat. Easily pleased he wasn't. He was friendly enough, but there was a certain look in his eye that made you think he was a natural skeptic- nothing ever seemed quite good enough.

Oil paint is amazingly sensuous, but it can go overboard. Sometimes when my paintings are fighting me and the colors aren't staying just where they should I'm reminded of how slobberingly good hearted a dog can be. Cats by comparison are fussy nay-sayers. Left to their own devices, I think cats would fail as painters as no idea or set of colors would ever be good enough for them to work with. 

What an artist needs is to tap both their wild inner Labrador side and their ever-so-critical inner feline nature. It's tricky, as the legendary antagonism between dogs and cats testifies. You have to marry your open hearted enthusiasm to your coldly selective eye. It's a heady combination.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Gazing at the Sea

Look above at the sailboat in Edward Hopper's 1935 oil painting The Long Leg. Then see the Adirondack chair in the second photo of the deck attached to Hopper's studio overlooking Cape Cod Bay. Thought it's just coincidence, check out how the Adirondack chair leans to the right at the exactly same angle as the sloop in the first painting. I get a kick out of things like that. This photo and the following ones were all taken in late September and early October of this year at the Hopper studio.

Hopper loved nothing better than to get off by himself to enjoy the considerable pleasures he could find with his eyes. In a way his paintings are like visual conversations he would have in his mind with the subjects, like the sea, that he loved to stare out upon. 

It all started when Hopper was a boy. He could see the wide expanse of the Hudson River one block away from his 2nd floor bedroom window in Nyack, New York (now the Edward Hopper House Art Center). His habit of falling into a reverie while looking at the water continued through his entire career. In many ways, Hopper's choice to build a studio high up on a sand dune overlooking the waters off Cape Cod was his way of recapturing the childhood view he loved so much  The Long Leg seen above is an imagined view Hopper concocted combining the sand dunes along Cape Cod Bay and his slightly fantasized version of the lighthouse at the tip of Cape Cod in Provincetown, MA. 

One other useful comparison between the photo and the painting is to see how careful Hopper was to install clearly defined large shapes onto the water's surface. Unlike the photo, Hopper wanted the water's surface to have noticeable near and far space. It's as if he corralled all the little waves into the clearly bounded lighter and darker areas on the water. It gives the water an extra layer of personality not to be found in the photograph.

He had started painting the ocean long before. Here below is a real beauty from 1914, Dories at Ogunquit, that was painted on the shore right in back of where the lovely Ogunquit Museum of American Art now stands in Maine. You can go there now and see the exact same formation of rocks in the narrow foreground cove. 

A few years back the Ogunquit Museum of Art borrowed work from the Whitney Museum in New York and put together a mini-blockbuster exhibit of this oil and and several other Hoppers that had all been painted literally on the grounds where the Ogunquit Museum of Art stands today. You could look at the paintings and go outside and look at the source Hopper worked from. It was fabulous- can't say I'll ever have a view experience quite like that again.

Here's the view standing on the deck pictured above and looking through the door the Hopper's would use to walk down the path that leads to the beach. That's my French easel set up near the door.

Below is another of Hopper's seaside inventions, his oil The Martha McKeene of Wellfleet. Look at the wonderful intricacy of the shadow shapes in the jib and mainsail. Hopper was a master of gradating the tones and colors to create a shimmering sense of light.

Here's the deck again (it was added to the studio by the present owners in 1983- the Hopper's made do with putting their chairs on the sand) looking southwest towards the water. I have no doubt Hopper spent countless hours firmly planted in just such a chair studying the way the light played off the waters.

Below is a photo taken on the path from Hopper's studio (the house at the left) to the shore in the early morning light.  Beautiful spot though, isn't it.

Hopper used to walk along these beaches and study the dunes. When you're there it's hard not to. Here's one of my own paintings, The Reach IV,  oil on linen, 40 x 60", 2011, that's based on some of those same dunes.

These photographs of the Hopper studio are on a special page of my website that's probably the largest collection of photos of Hopper's Cape Cod studio on the internet. Every couple of days I add a few more to the page. We're up to 36 new images there now and shortly will have far surpassed that number.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

A Preparedness Drill for Winter

Ah, the weather. Much nail biting in my studio last week over the impending Frankenstorm Sandy (we were already traumatized last summer by a violent local storm that left us without power for 4 1/2 days in 100 plus degree heat). This time we got lucky, but reports of terrible devastation from relatives up in the New York area remind us that nature is WAY bigger than we are. 

Here's a painter who knew that in his bones, Caspar David Friedrich (German, 1774-1840). While not technically a winter painting, his oil Rocky Reef on a Sea Shore sure looks chilly enough. Yesterday I stumbled over an image of this new-to-me painting and fell in love with it. 

It's a powerfully evocative example from one of the best painters of nature's sometimes frozen beauty. When one looks at it, the sharply pointed outcroppings of the ice-like reef command your eye. But Friedrich was a crafty devil of a painter. He knew that to hold your eye and your interest he had to offer more than just this one spectacular focal point.

Below is just the top half of the painting with the red browns of the foreground removed.

It's kind of amazing how much less expressive power the reef has without its companion, the dramatically different foreground. 

The shore is dark and reddish brown compared to the much lighter blue grays of the reef. Where the reef is all sharp points and parallel straight lines, the foreground is built out of more rounded forms. An inlet fills the bottom half of the painting with a shape that's totally different in personality from what's been hinted at above.

A great painting has to deliver surprises to your eye. Friedrich in his way is  profoundly generous in giving your eye a foreground you don't expect that fits the background perfectly.

Another painter who loved winter images and who loved the earlier work of Friedrich was Charles Burchfield (American 1893-1967). Here's a modest but lovely watercolor of Burchfield's that is also new to me.

While a more landlocked bit of visual poetry than the Friedrich, it uses some of the same ideas to intrigue the viewer's eye. Like his earlier German friend, Burchfield leave the most involved shapes for the middle distance, in this case a crazy pattern of half melted snow at the rise at the edge of a field. Here's a close up-

It should come as no surprise that Burchfield had worked in his earlier years as a designer of wallpaper- the decorative repetitions and interlocking shapes have that elegant stylized energy to them. But for maximum effect, the artist then plays them off against their opposite, a wide open and purposely toned down series of little flat fields in the foreground. Burchfield knew that to continue that amped up high contrast in shapes and white snow patches v.s. dark rocks could be too much for us. The foreground is like a glass of cool water after bite of hot spicy pizza.

I'm always amazed when I hear some of my (non-artist) friends talk about why they love summer so much. "Oh, I love the color of summer. Winter...it's just so gray" Well, maybe a good preparedness drill for such friends would be to spend some time with good old Friedrich and Burchfield. I know they helped me learn how to open my eyes to the strangely beautiful other world of winter.

P.S. Many readers know how badly the New York area was hit by our monster storms Sandy this week.  The Chelsea art district on the lower west side of Manhattan was badly flooded and many of the galleries will be closed to repair the damage. I'm scheduled to have my second solo exhibit at George Billis Gallery open on December 11. The good news is I heard on Friday from George Billis that his Gallery on W. 26th street just missed the deep water and will be fine. So we dodged a bullet. I'm really excited about the soon to open show!

P.P.S. I am gradually working through the new photos my wife Alice and I took from our latest residency in the Edward Hopper studio in S. Truro, MA last month. Every few days I add a few more  with commentary to  the special Hopper page on my website. It is probably the largest collection of original photos of Hopper's studio to be found online. And it keeps growing (all the Hopper maniacs out there keep cheering me on).