Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Edward Hopper and Rockwell Kent: Painting Blackhead


In 2006 I first visited Monhegan Island off the coast of Maine. The small island has earned a special place in American art history from  the steady stream of artists who followed the advice of their charismatic teacher Robert Henri to go there and paint. Two of the best to take the advice were Edward Hopper and Rockwell Kent. Both spent important time early in the 20th century painting on the island. The commanding promontory Blackhead that stretches eastward out into the Atlantic inspired both of them make repeated paintings of it.


The first four images are all small oil studies Hopper made of Blackhead. The final four paintings are by Hopper's art school classmate Rockwell Kent. Though the temperament of their paintings differ, what the two shared was an almost obsessive willingness to create painting after painting of a motif that obviously fascinated them. There's a sort of driving youthful energy to their engagement with Blackhead. 


By their actions they seem to be saying that if you look long enough and hard enough important discoveries others have overlooked will reveal themselves to you.


When the art historian Eva J. Allen, PhD was organizing the eight venue traveling exhibition of my own paintings Unbroken Thread, she urged me to go to Monhegan and see the place that had inspired the artists from previous generations I so admired. So along with my wife Alice and my trusty French easel, I took the long ferry ride out to the island for a week of painting.



The first thing I did was to ask directions to Blackhead. It turns out to reach the overlook where Hopper and Kent painted one has to carry one's equipment over a long muddy and root-filled path through Monhegan's amazingly dense forest. At its end you climb over steep rocks before reaching the bluff from which they painted.
I made a note to myself that while I was 58, Hopper and Kent had dragged their heavy load of painting materials to the spot when they were young artists.



It turns out the view of Blackhead from this ledge is a tough view to paint. I was there midday and found the direction the sun was shining on the rocks generated few shadows and was poor for painting. Probably Hopper made the same discovery, as all four of his sunlight filled panels show he returned to paint there later in the afternoon.

Kent solved the problem another way, turning his focus more on the sea's white spray to add drama to his compositions. And his skies play a bigger role as well. All his paintings are enveloped in a foggy atmosphere.

Monday, September 7, 2015

Ghosts in the Closet

Charles Burchfield, Salem Bedroom Studio Feb. 21, 1917
Burchfield Penney Art Center, Buffalo, NY

Burchfield Penney Art Center posted this Charles Burchfield watercolor on their Facebook page.

Who doesn't remember worrying as a young child about supposed ghosts or monsters waiting to creep out of your bedroom closet in the middle of the night. (Under my bed was full of them too). Leave it to Charles Burchfield to take this normal childhood terror and turn it into serious art. He took his childhood sensations with him into his adult life. Using his profound knowledge of painting and his good eye he gave these emotions permanent visual form. 

His painting above takes a cloth draped over a chair and seems to turn it into a ghost. In his hands the clothes hanging in the closet become creepy spectral accomplices. 

In August my wife Alice and I traveled from Baltimore to the Salem, OH family home where Burchfield grew up and began doing some of his most important early work. It is now the Burchfield Homestead Museum. Here below is a photo I took of the curved ceiling and the closet door depicted in Burchfield's watercolor. Fortunately the closet door was shut tight so we didn't have to worry about the ghosts.

Here's the door to the second floor bedroom again showing the curved ceiling.

What struck me most about the visit to the home where Burchfield did his early works was its very ordinariness. Yet at the many reproductions of Burchfield paintings hanging on the walls you find Burchfield put specific features of his home and the neighboring houses into many of his most fantastical paintings of his early period. His very local roots nourished his otherworldly visions.

In many ways his early works from this commonplace house remind all of us that there is magic right under our noses.

The staircase looking down to the first floor.

The back of the house. It is painted the same colors as it was in Burchfield's day. It the late afternoon sun it reminded me ever so much of a paiting by Burchfield's friend Edward Hopper.

As Burchfield is probably the only recognized American artist who did repeated images of decorated Christmas trees in his work, there is appropriately a tree on display. Here I am keeping the holiday tree company with the drawing I was making looking out a second floor window. 

My wife Alice taking in the display in one of the second floor bedrooms.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

The Seven Secrets of Art

    Philip Koch, High Trees, oil on panel, 28 x 21"
    2015. To be included in the Burchfield Penney
    Art Center's Live Auction at their annual Gala
    Sept. 19, 2015

I like to make lists. Here are some bullet points I sometimes give out to my students. As you can see I failed badly at keeping the list down to just seven ideas. 

The 7 Secrets of Art, and a few more.                                        Philip Koch

Secret #1. That there are Secrets.

#2. That there are in fact rules (though they can be elusive to understand).

#3. Tones (darks and lights) are more important than color.

#4. Shapes are more important than color.

#5. Silhouettes are more important than details.

#6. Intervals of empty space are more important than forms.

#7. Craftmanship is always in style.

#8. The problem with ones work-in-progress usually isn't where one thinks it is. 

#9. Art is not an idea but a vision.

#10. Art is the marriage of the skeptic and the hopeless romantic.

# 11. Art revists the joys and terrors of childhood.

#12. An artist has to grasp some of the threads that were woven by the great masters and carry them forward into our own time.

#13. Creating art is ususally solitary, but sometimes the artist needs feedback from someone they trust who has a good eye.

#14. The art world is filled with all kinds of people. Most often they  

But inevitably you will run into things that are-
downright silly

#15. Keep your eyes open, your heart warm, and stick to your guns.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Salem, Ohio

As part of my being the Artist-In-Residence for this year at the Burchfield Penney Art Center, I traveled with my wife Alice to Salem, Ohio, the childhood home of the artist Charles Burchfield. The Burchfield Homestead Society restored the home where the career of the visionary artist began. It is very well worth a visit for anyone who admires Burchfield's work. Above is Alice cooling her heels on Burchfield's front porch swing. 

It's a modest but art historically important home. Burchfield made many of his powerful early paintings peering out through its windows at the neighborhood. Below is a vine charcoal drawing I made standing at the rear of his yard looking back at the house. At the far left of my drawing is a long one-story house that Burchfield would paint repeatedly.


Philip Koch, Salem, Burchfield House, vine charcoal
6 1/2 x 13", 2015

Here is probably his most famous painting of that building, The Night Wind, (note the vertical chimney in its center).

Charles Burchfield, The Night Wind, watercolor,
gouche and pencil, 21 1/2 x 21 7/8", 1918
Museum of Modern Art, New York

Here below is the same chimney in a pastel and charcoal drawing I made looking out a window from one of the second floor bedrooms of the house.

Philip Koch, Salem Rooftop, pastel and vine
charcoal, 14 x 10 1/2", 2015

Philip Koch working on Salem Rooftop, pastel and vine 
charcoal, 14 x 10 1/2", 2015

Here's the view of the neighboring one-story house from the same window.

I did a second drawing of the same building from the backyard. As it was hot I sought out the partial shade provided by the arbor that's part of the extensive restoration of Burchfield's beloved gardens.  Here's my drawing in progress earlier this week. 

The drawing's composition is unusual for me and shows the influence of Burchfield's love of two dimensional patterns.

Philip Koch, Salem: Burchfield Arbor, vine charcoal and white pastel
 9 x 12", 2015

My Salem trip revealed more than just peaceful bucolic yards. In many ways Burchfield's paintings and writings prefigure the urgent concerns of our present day environmental movement. He was keenly aware that humankind's interaction with the natural world wasn't always benign.

Tullis Johnson, one of Burchfield Penney's Curators is working on an upcoming exhibition Blistering Vision: Charles E. Burchfield's Sublime American Landscapes that looks at another side of Burchfield's imagination. Johnson urged me to take a side trip over to the abandoned coke ovens in neighboring Leetonia, OH, a somewhat otherworldly remnant of the 19th century heavy steel industry. 

I confess I had to consult Wikipedia to learn that coke was produced by heating coal in a controlled process.  Large beehive-shaped brick ovens were built in long rows and covered with earth to hold in the heat they produced. The ovens burned day and night and spewed forth clouds of toxic gasses. The Leetonia operation was still going in Burchfield's day. Its fiery drama made a deep impression on him. Below is one of his paintings from the site.

Charles Burchfield, Coke Ovens at Twilight, watercolor, 1920

Here I am working from some of the same mouth-like openings of the buried coke ovens. Honestly I found them a little creepy.

Philip Koch, Coke Ovens, Leetonia, vine charcoal 
and white pastel, 12 x 9", 2015.

Lastly here's a drawing I made just off the wonderfully named Egypt Road, on the outskirts of Salem, one of Burchfield's favorite sources for his paintings.

Philip Koch, Salem, vine charcoal and white pastel, 10 x 14 1/2"

To me it seemed ever so much like the rolling country roads I traveled as a boy in my hometown of Webster, NY (just outside Rochester). 

Burchfield wasn't an artist who needed to travel to the most dramatic mountain ranges or most rugged coastlines. Around Salem, Ohio he found material that inspired his inimitable and fantasy-tinged vision. His paintings show how this land felt as much as how it looked. He'd discovered a somewhat enchanted place, a place that he feared was too little noticed and too little appreciated.

I'll be giving a talk at the Burchfield Penney Art Center on Sunday, October 18, 2 -3 p.m. titled Three Watercolor Masters: What Homer, Hopper and Burchfield Want to Say to Us. Burchfield sensed there is a kind of magic hidden in our everday surroundings. His paintings gently urge us to drop our preoccupations and drink in some of that energy and mystery.  He would tell us it's right under our nose.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Sailing Lessons from Edward Hopper

Later this month I'll be traveling to see some art. My destination is Salem, Ohio to visit the home where the painter Charles Burchfield grew up and began his life as an artist. Along the way we'll stop in Pittsburgh to see the new Edward Hopper exhibition at the Carnegie Museum of Art (through Oct. 26).

Have found myself looking at one of my favorite Hopper's Sailing from 1911 that's one of the standouts in the Carnegie's Permanent Collection. It's an imagined view of a sloop on the Hudson River where Hopper grew up. It was included in the historic 1913 Amory Show and was the first painting Hopper ever sold. He would have to wait another 10 years before selling another of his paintings. 

I've always found the painting remarkable for the way Hopper's boat surges by us with energy. It seems in a moment it will have sailed out of our view altogether. Hopper had some tricks up his sleeve to emphasize that sense of movement.

Here's the painting with the small dark flag Hopper put at the top of his mainsail removed. Compare the two versions of the painting. To me the original boat at the top moves across the canvas with so much more force. That small dark spot of at the top seems to propel the the light sails to the left. The whole boat seems to heel over more from its visual impact. 

I've loved this Hopper oil since I first saw it years ago. Clearly it was in the back of my mind when I painted The Reach III below. It's an oil on panel, 24 x 36", 2015. For it I collaged together two separate ideas:  a shoreline from a vine charcoal drawing I made during one of my 15 residencies at Edward Hopper's studio on Cape Cod with my memories of sailing at night with my father years ago on Lake Ontario.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Two Drawing Masters: Edward Hopper and Charles Burchfield

Charles Burchfield, Tree in Landscape, 19 1/4 x 14", conte, undated 
Burchfield Penney Art Center, gift of the Burchfield Foundation

So often when we think of famous artists we remember them for their paintings, as well we should. But the hands that held their brushes were guided by someone with an incredibly astute eye. So often we see evidence of how well they saw in their drawings.

Two years ago I was able to see the major show of Edward Hopper's drawings that Carter Foster of the Whitney Museum in New York put together. It was a profound reminder that Hopper drew beautifully. This summer as the Artist-In-Residence at the Burchfield Penney Art Center in Buffalo, NY  I've been examining  the drawings of Hopper's contemporary, Charles Burchfield, at close hand in that museum's Archives. 

Charles Burchfield, Landscape with Distance Houses, conte, 8 x 10 1/2" 1915 
Burchfield Penney Art Center, Buffalo, NY, gift of the Burchfield Foundation

I don't think the drawings of either of these two artists are well known, so I wanted to do a little mini-exhibition of my own pairing Burchfield's and Hopper's drawings of trees together.

Charles Burchfield, Country Street in the Hills, conte, 14 3/4 x 22",
no date,  Burchfield Penney Art Center, Buffalo, NY, gift of the 
Burchfield Foundation

  Edward Hopper, untitled study of foliage, fabricated chalk, 10 1/2 x 16"
 no date, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

They share a delicious fluidity of movement. Both artists were highly selective, making drawings that would single out some key feature to highlight instead of wandering aimlessly. They knew what they were after and got their idea across in a boldly direct way.

  Edward Hopper, untitled study of foliage, fabricated chalk, 16  x 10 1/2"
no date, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

Hopper's work in drawing tended to be darker in its shadows. He also was more committed to expressing clear sculptural volumes, while Burchfield sometimes leaned more toward covering his page with decorative two-dimensional rhythms  

Edward Hopper untitled study of foliage, fabricated chalk, 16 x 10 1/2", no date
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York

Above all, Hopper's allegiance was to cover all his forms in an unbroken stream of intense light. You always knw where the light is coming from in a Hopper drawing. With Burchfield that's only the case some of the time. Very often light and shadow take a back seat to his restlessly imaginative forms. The Burchfield drawing at the top of this post gives star billing to some amazingly fanciful lines that wiggle and dance across his page.

To their credit both the Whitney Museum and the Burchfield Penney Art Center have posted a lot of their drawing holdings on line. Here's a link to the Whitney Museum's Hoppers, all 3154 of them (!) and here is a link to Burchfield Penney's online gallery of 1410 Burchfield drawings. I give both sites four stars.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Second Stay for Burchfield Penney Art Center Residency

Philip Koch, Chestnut Ridge Sunset:Cool
pastel, 10 x 7 1/2", 2015

I'm just returned from another week at the Burchfield Penney Art Center (BPAC) in Buffalo, NY. This was my second stay as part of my being Artist-In-Residence there for this next year. It is a chance to do a lot of my own paintings all around Western New York State. This is the landscape where I was born and grew up- it's indelibly etched in my visual imagination. On a personal level it is deeply satisfying to me to paint here.

One of the places I'm painting is at Chestnut Ridge Park, south of Buffalo. It's a place that was an important source for Charles Burchfield's art. Above and below are two pastels I made about the vista there that looks north to Lake Erie.

Philip Koch, Chestnut Ridge Sunset: Warm
pastel, 10 x 7 1/2", 2015

Both are based on the vine charcoal drawing below that I made on location with my portable easel.

Philip Koch, Chestnut Ridge Sunset
vine charcoal, 14 x 10 1/2", 2015

For many years I've adopted a method of working in a series - doing preparatory works in drawing media and in oil on a small scale before committing to creating a major painting. 

It takes time to let visual ideas percolate down to their essence and become clear in my mind's eye. Studying Burchfield's work during my last two stays at BPAC I realized that Burchfield devoted enormous energy to making preparatory drawings for his paintings.

While there I am slowly going through some of BPAC's extensive Archives. It contains an astonishing 20,000 Burchfield drawings. While some Burchfield paintings were rapidly painted and completed he often would take his time, working up to an idea very gradually. 

Here are two pieces that intrigued me. Both are very freely drawn studies he made as he was searching out how to present an idea in an upcoming painting. They're surprisingly large, about 15-18" across.

He took his time, circling around his idea sort of like a cat stalking its prey. Here he tries out two very different approaches to compose a gnarled tree and a small house- lighting the house first from the left above and then from the right in the drawing below. 

Whether these two particular drawings later led to one of his large watercolors I don't know. But they are telling evidence of his relentless searching for just the right forms to make his inner vision come to life. 

We see in Burchfield's paintings memorable spontaneity and the great trust he placed in his intuition to guide him.  Yet he made a veritable mountain of sketches and preparatory drawings. When he planted his ideas in a field it was only after he had waited until its soil was fully, and artfully, prepared.