Editor's note: The following essay, written in the 1970s, is printed with permission of the author, Don Gray. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay please contact the author directly through either this phone number or web address:
John Koch: Intimate Realism
by Don Gray
Objects take on a quiet life of their own in John Koch's (1909-1978) paintings of interiors. Lamps, chairs and vases seem nearly to carry on a gentle dialogue with the human occupants of the pictures. There is a reverence for the fact and substance of their existence as parts of the world. That the world exists at all is a miracle to be appreciated by artists of Koch's sensibilities.
Utilizing a very sophisticated, atmospheric oil technique, John Koch paints his surroundings, and it is evident that they have a very personal, perhaps indefinable meaning for him. He is a romantic whose paintings of his Central Park apartment somehow express and coincide with his own interior as a man and an artist. Yet these mysterious rooms, like Vermeer's, are often connected to the outside world by a window that, in this case, appears to have both the quality of a threat to the inner security and a longed-for escape from restriction.
How important is the window in "End of Day" where a man sleeping on an orange couch is drawn by the picture's perspective to the luminous rectangle while the room itself and the objects within keep a silent vigil. The window, man on the couch and cloth-draped dark chair are three very richly different and expressive points of a compositional and psychological triangle. What opposite poles of thought, being and symbol they represent.
In his rather stiffly formal (in terms of mood and composition) "Cocktail Party," he arranges his figures in a shallow, façade-like space in front of a wall that echoes the picture plane. For the later "Summer Party," more easily-posed, relaxed figures are placed as reference points in much deeper space, an enlarged, cathedral-like room with a small studio light at the very apex of the picture.
The artist is in love with light as it caresses human flesh, glints on glassware and metal, shines strongly from varnished floors or falls softly through an implied window onto a rug. And, of course, lamps have a way of glowing around corners or from alcoves in such a manner as to be lovely and luminous in themselves, but also serving to expand and define space. Like life itself, darkness and shadow are as much a part of this world as the light, and both are so richly used and intertwined as to suggest infinite poetic, spiritual and symbolic associations.
John Koch does not paint simply surfaces, though he does that very well. His work has that certain inexplicable something...call it character, or the fact that he has a sense of the mystery that underlies all things. There is a transmuting enchantment of all objects through the unique chemistry of his personality. Whatever it is, they are extremely rich and expressive works with more than a hint of melancholy, a suggestion of possible loss and a deep emotionalism that may not be immediately apparent because of the exquisite technical and compositional control.
Copyright by Don Gray
About the author
Don Gray is a painter who writes. In addition to being an
artist, critic and poet, he was a university professor of studio art and
art history, as well as producer/moderator of cable television programs
on art. He received a B.A. degree in Art from Arizona State University
and an M.A. degree in Art from the University of Iowa. Now living
in Arizona, he resided in New York for twenty-five years. He
has long been a supporter of significant realist art.
Search for more articles and essays on American art in Resource Library. See America's Distinguished Artists for biographical information on historic artists.
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