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This essay is reprinted with permission of the New-York Historical Society, New York, NY. It appeared in the catalogue for the exhibition John Koch: Painting a New York Life

 

Enigmatic Intimacy: The Interior World of John Koch

by Grady Turner

 

A Singular Man

According to those who knew him, John Koch composed his persona as carefully as he arranged the objects in the still lifes and interiors he painted. Every aspect of his life was meticulously considered: his tailored clothes and manicured mustache, his circle of sophisticated friends and acquaintances, the fine art and antiques of the tastefully appointed apartment he shared with his wife, Dora.

In Koch's life as in his art, this apartment was the stage for a play-in-progress, in which furniture and friends alike were props and Koch was the director and lead actor. Everything was placed just so as evidence of his exquisite tastes, in anticipation of an admiring audience. Dora was John's dramaturge, dedicated to her husband and to his art. Inwardly focused, unconcerned with the hoi polloi outside their purview, the Kochs constructed a private society, secluded from a city and an art world that moved to other, noisier distractions. It was this world of their own creation that Koch immortalized over three prolific decades.

The Kochs' public milieu of afternoon cocktails, living room recitals, and painting unveilings was made possible by private hours in which Dora offered musical tutorials, John painted portraits or sketched nudes, and the pair collaborated on invitation lists for their social occasions. Only Koch's paintings made it all seem effortless. His studies of life in the apartment are marked by grace, bonhomie and all the essential ingredients of a recipe for the good life, as improbable as it is delectable to contemplate. Behind the gracious lifestyle were two workhorses, each dedicated to their respective arts and to one another. Both believed that hard work and vision could pay off with the life one wanted, and neither was a stranger to contradictory ideals. John was the son of free-thinking Midwesterners, a mother of Irish descent who left the church after her son's baptism, and a charming father who failed at running a furniture store as he made unsuccessful bids for governor of Michigan on the Socialist ticket. Dora Zaslavsky was a Jewish immigrant, born in the Ukraine, whose father's early occupation as a peddler reputedly led to her discovery of classical music through a toy piano in his cart.

Dora was married when she met John in New York, and gaining a reputation as a promising young music teacher. The two became fast friends, but their affinity was put on hold when John sailed for Paris, intent on pursuing his life as a painter in the world's art capital. Yet he enrolled in no formal training there; rather, Koch taught himself by copying masterpieces in the Louvre. He also developed a passion for the life of the mind. Then in his early twenties, Koch joined the Internationale Union des Intellectuals, where he encountered such eminencies as André Gide, André Malraux, and Jean Cocteau. This group, which met regularly in the homes of its members, offered Koch his first exposure to the lives of artists and intellectuals, and allowed him to sit in on discussions about Surrealism during the period that André Breton's authority was giving way to Salvador Dali's showmanship. Not surprisingly, the impressionable young artist painted a few Surrealist works during this period but was dissatisfied with the results. Far better, Koch felt, was his painting of a nude man and woman in bed. He also enjoyed the scandalized reaction when the painting was exhibited-clearly, Koch felt he was onto something.

Koch returned to New York in 1934 determined to win Dora. Taking an apartment adjacent to Dora's at 56th and Madison, he awaited her divorce. Once that hurdle was cleared, John and Dora soon married and jumped into a very social life. The newlyweds hosted parties driven by sharp business acumen: as John served cheap port to his wife's students and their parents, Dora worked the room, procuring portrait commissions for her husband. Thus the couple launched the partnership that would garner their future success. After the war, as New York inherited the mantle of modernism and the city's artists and intellectuals entered into a long debate about the future of art, the Kochs' collaboration would subsidize their move to more substantial digs.

In 1954, following a five-month sojourn in Paris, John and Dora moved into a fourteen-room apartment at the El Dorado, one of the twin-towered prewar apartment buildings that gives Central Park West its distinctive skyline. There, the couple joined an uptown bohemian set that included a growing number of Upper West Side artists, writers, and musicians; the El Dorado itself was home to Sinclair Lewis and, briefly, to Benny Goodman. Soon, the couple acquired the adjacent apartment on their floor for use as Dora's music studio, where she continued her practice as a private tutor. These rooms were a bastion for the Kochs, as they fashionably pursued artistic practices that were to become increasingly unfashionable.

To commemorate their new home, Koch painted The Movers (1954), in which two men hold up a large painting as Dora, squatting behind a sofa, contemplates its placement in the living room. Small paintings lean against the furniture. Another is already hung and its light fixture plugged in, and a gilded mirror over the mantle reflects a painting on the opposite wall. This is the final step in the choreography of moving: with the furniture arranged and the books shelved, it is time for the placement of art. The movers seem anachronistic, an intrusion of contemporary life in a room designed to deny the passage of time. The men's work also offers a counterpoint to the task undertaken by Dora. Her face is focused and serene as she contemplates the unseen painting. By contrast, the men strain with physical labor, their muscles delineated in curvaceous forms, most notably in the serpentine line of the mover's back in the foreground. The Movers introduced a juxtaposition of mental and physical labor that would recur throughout Koch's decades of painting his apartment. Devised to please his eye and invigorate his mind, the apartment became a locus of refinement and the site for indulging his love of the sensory.

Throughout his career, Koch's income was augmented by portrait commissions. He excelled at group portraits, including several paintings of families in interiors. There is a studied informality to works such as The Forbes Family (1966), in which the family of publisher Malcolm S. Forbes relaxes at home shortly after the birth of a new daughter. When painting groups, it was Koch's practice to make studies of each individual, then to join these studies as a group against the backdrop of a chosen interior. "In all the pictures, the models never pose together," Koch explained. "What is more important than whether there is or is not someone posing for you is the relationship between them."

This approach, while blessed by academic tradition, could result in stiff, frieze-like compositions. Ostensibly engaged in pleasurable pursuits-reading a newspaper, playing chess, practicing piano, engaging in conversation -- the family appears disconnected, each as isolated from the others as was their home from the prying world, kept at a distance by the wall and landscaping visible through a window. A few years after painting the Forbeses, Koch told interviewer Paul Cummings that he had once considered portraiture an inferior art form that financed his better artistic efforts. As he matured, he came to be challenged by the nuances of the form. But one can appreciate Koch's lingering favoritism when comparing the commissioned work with the group studies that were his labor of love, a series of paintings depicting parties and conversations in the apartment that was his domain.

Unfettered from the requirement of representing reality as it is, Koch was free to depict reality as it should be. the Cocktail Party (1956), the first and best known of the artist's party paintings, assembles a group fitting Koch's description of his social circle as "people of our own making, our own way of looking at things." The party he portrayed occurred only in his imagination, although its attendees were all acquaintances of the Kochs in the mid-1950s. Each was painted from life at separate sittings, and placed by Koch into his immaculate new living room at the El Dorado, with the painter and his wife as the consummate hosts. John stands at the bar, self-consciously reflected in a mirror as he pours one of his famous martinis; Dora bends forward to attend to the seated music critic Noel Strauss.

Compare this painting to The Movers and you may note that a painting now replaces the mirror that once hung over the mantle. Such a redecoration may or may not have occurred in reality, as Koch often shifted the location and appearance of his precious objects in his paintings. A couch might be burgundy in one work and navy blue in another. A door might lead to a bathroom or a bedroom, depending upon the needs of the composition. In this instance, the painting over the mantle is a Tiepolo entirely of Koch's creation. Tiepolo never painted it, and the Kochs never owned it. Nonetheless, Koch thought it was a fine placement for a Tiepolo such as this one, and so here it is.

Koch once said that he never sought critical praise, but rather surrounded himself with a circle of friends whose tastes he trusted. Plagued by self-doubt, he valued the opinions of "small groups of people who believed in me, freeing me from inhibiting intellectualizing factors." the Cocktail Party is a roll call of like-minded aesthetes, each gaining sustenance from civilized comrades. As a picture of the perfect cast for his perfect party, the painting remained in Koch's possession for the rest of his life.

A Change of Cast

After years of acting the host, Koch grew more relaxed in reporting on the gatherings in his living room. The attendees of Afternoon Party (1970) are Dora's students, and while she arranges flowers in the center of the composition with the same dutiful attention that marked her parties of another era, her guests are less formal as they slouch on the furniture and lean against the walls. One wonders if in this painting Koch was commending his wife's continued engagement with young musicians or regretting a shift of social mores. Rather than supplying entertainment, like the sophisticates of the Cocktail Party, guests now expected to be entertained. More in spirit with Cocktail Party is The Party (Summer Party) (1971), which mixes the old crowd of John's supporters alongside the current generation of Dora's students. At a canvas at the center of the room, Dora expounds on John's newest work, while the gathered company engages in a half-dozen different conversations. Acquaintances from the Cocktail Party are represented by proxies-here is Aaron Shikler's wife Pete, there is Raphael Soyer's brother, Moses -- comfortably mingling with a crowd of young musicians. At the center of the composition, like a leitmotif intended to inject the past into the present, is the mirror that hung over the mantle in The Movers.

Koch's appreciation of the accouterments of refinement is evident in his many still lifes featuring the objets d'art that decorated the apartment. In his still lifes, Koch rehearsed the lessons of two admired masters, Jan Vermeer and John Copley, each of whom reveled in the substance of things. Dining Room Still Life (1972) showcases Koch's facility in representing a variety of textures and surfaces. Crystal, silver, lace, and flower petals are rendered with immaculate distinction, reflected in the lustrous surface of a polished table. Given the intimacy of the view, the scale of the painting, five feet square, is stunning. Studio - The Visitor (1969) is another example of Koch's bravura, including a self-portrait of the artist at work. As a young woman sits on cushions watching, Koch daubs his brush onto his palette, casting a clinical eye at the flower arrangements he is painting. On a table in the foreground rest his subjects, a vase of lilies and a glass goblet of peonies, luxuriant and glowing in the muted natural light.

The chair at the center of The Violinist (1968) is a frequently moved item -- it can be found in The Movers and the Cocktail Party among dozens of other paintings. A violin rests in its seat, and the sofa behind it is littered with sheet music. The mirror reflects the silhouette of a man on the telephone as if interrupted from practice by the call. Koch debated about including the man, concerned that he might introduce an unwanted narrative emphasis. He preferred to draw attention to the objects in the foreground, and to his subtle contrast of the effects of natural light on the wood and fabric. While the painting appears almost photographic in reproduction, the surface of the chair was rendered with surprisingly loose gestures, with evidence of the canvas visible beneath. Koch generally sought to impress with his technical abilities, but occasionally broke the mimetic illusion to remind viewers that they are, in fact, looking at pigment on canvas.

A self-taught painter, Koch was justifiably proud of his technical prowess. But he considered his true artistry to reside in his depiction of the relationships between people, and between people and the space around them. His mature work was distinguished not only by an inventory of his accumulated possessions, but also by a concentration on moments of intimacy within the adult relationships he most admired: man and woman, teacher and student, artist and model. Seen together, the paintings offer another type of inventory, one that itemizes the details of how life should be lived.

Intimacy and Reflection

Just as he changed the décor of his apartment to fit the needs of a composition, so too did he reorganize reality to suit the preferences of his imagination. Keeping in mind that each of these casual moments was rendered with great care and precision-with each person and object studied separately before being united by the artist-one might wonder: what do Koch's interiors tell us about how he organized his world? Whatever its realities, how did he chose to record the life of an artist among sophisticates and young musicians?

The Conversation (1975) eavesdrops on a quiet conversation between a man and woman beside a window in the Kochs' elegant living room. Given the choice of formally placed furnishings, the couple has selected two chairs near a window. We see them at some distance, across the room and well beyond the floral arrangement and goblet on the table in the foreground. It is difficult to ascertain our intended subject -- are we gnawingly curious about listening in on the conversation, or happily distracted by the bowl of lovely geraniums on an ornate table?

Similarly elusive is the central focus of Interior of Studio (1956), which seems to be about nothing other than relaxing in amicable company. On a sofa sits one of Dora's students, Ernest Ulmer, enjoying a cordial as he converses with his seated mentor, who is on the telephone. Reflected in the mirror are the artist at his easel, an elderly man-the model is Koch's father, who lived with John and Dora after the death of his wife -- and an animated young man, Don Edmans, all silhouetted against a bright window. Surely Ulmer is the intended subject: handsome, poised, clearly rendered by contrast to his companions and at dead center of the composition. But still, one can't help but be distracted by the white noise of Koch's in-house mise-en-scène. With his wife on the telephone and his father otherwise engaged, Koch gazes intently at Ulmer -- and beyond him, in a touch worthy of Velasquez, toward the viewer.

The comparison of these two paintings highlights a contrast in Koch's approach to the subject of intimacy. On the one hand, he posed models in situations implying great familiarity; though his process determined that the models might not be acquainted, much less pose together. It meant nothing to Koch that models might pose separately, for such was the practice of the great painters of intimacy that he admired, from Vermeer to Thomas Eakins. The time-consuming process of sketching from life, enlarging sketches to cartoons, tracing cartoons onto canvas and painting from the results was simply the most economical way to record the appearances of things and transform them into art. On the other hand, Koch was impressed by moments of genuine intimacy, and used the artifice of painting to render them permanent. Just as he never hosted such an event as the Cocktail Party, perhaps he never looked up to see Ulmer talking with his wife in front of a mirror. His imagination conceived such scenes and he could realize them in his art.

This tension between concept and observation was a subject of some debate among realists in the era of Abstract Expressionism, and in Koch's work perhaps nowhere more intensely considered than in his copious paintings of nudes. If one accepts Sir Kenneth Clark's then contemporary distinction between the nude, which is bound in a tradition of idealization, and the naked, which presents the body as exposed and mortal flesh, then Koch's approach falls somewhere in between. While unquestionably idealized and informed by art history, his nudes are often placed in situations that imply vulnerability and trust, whether as sleeping lovers or as models in the midst of clothed artists and friends.

Koch always maintained that his nudes were not intended to be erotic, even when showing couples in bed. Indeed, Koch's paintings of lovers generally show men and women relaxed as if in a perpetual post-coital state. There are no signs of arousal, desire, or discord. Reacting to the sexual revolution of the 1960s, Koch offers a heterosexual idyll of comfort and ease untrammeled by lust or angst. A man drying himself on the edge of a tub in The Bath (1973) glances at the woman who remains in the water. Her body is soft and supple, and rendered with a fluidity that alludes to Renoir. By contrast, her companion is muscular and earthy, so deeply bronzed that he exudes warmth in an otherwise cool white space.

This contrast of warmth and coolness is also apparent in Night (1964), described by Koch as "a picture of a young couple before they go to bed at night, which I think is as splendid an idea for a picture as any could be." Lying uncovered with the window open, as if on a summer's night, the couple is rendered as a study of artificial light at night, a favorite subject for Koch. The woman dozes off, illuminated by the soft blue glow of a television, while her lover reads a newspaper that is transformed into a paper lantern by the glow of a lamp on the night table. The light from another room shines on an empty pillow in Morning (1957), as a seated man dresses without disturbing his sleeping lover. She remains in shadows, her hand silhouetted against the crisp white of his pillow. The faint morning light from an unseen window illuminates his back. The scene is domestic, but uncertain-is he a thoughtful husband, taking care not to rouse his wife, or a thoughtless cad, sneaking out at daybreak? -- until one realizes that in Koch's idylls, cads would never be tolerated.

As with Koch's paintings of parties and conversations in his apartment, these depictions of intimate moments were purely the imaginative handiwork of the artist, who would never have embarrassed himself or his models by asking them to pose together. This habit began when he painted his first couples in Paris: female models came to his studio in the morning, males in the afternoon. Thus, too, the paintings of couples deal primarily with an idea of intimacy, articulating Koch's sublimated idyll of how conjugality should be. Thus, they are different in many respects from his other significant group of nudes, which depict a relationship Koch similarly revered, that of the artist and his model.

Koch returned often to the theme of creative work. Dora's sessions with her music students was a favorite subject for her husband, who painted them at practice or in conversation but rarely in concert. His interest lay in revealing the labor of the creative process. Music (1956-1957) shows Dora reading from a score and posed as if encouraging her rapt piano student to emote. Years later, in The Lesson (1970), she reads along and conducts as two pianists rehearse a duet. Dora's teaching ensured a steady group of music students in the mix of their social life. The musicians were invited to gather weekly for meals at the apartment. As students became friends of the couple, some became models for Koch, either clothed, as in his paintings of Dora and her students, or nude, as in his paintings of couples.

Since the late nineteenth century, the relationship of artist and model had been a popular subject for painters, from academics such as Eakins and Jean Léon Gérôme to moderns such as Pablo Picasso or Henri Matisse. As grand-style history painting had fallen into disfavor, the heroic nude was no longer considered a viable subject. Studio scenes of the artist working with models allowed for nude subjects while doing away with the historic and literary allusions that now seemed fusty. Koch differs from these in his domestication of the subject, which is in other hands more typically represented as fraught with erotic tension. As with his nude couples, Koch's artists and models are most often depicted at ease, perhaps discussing a work in progress or making telephone calls that reconnects them to the reality of off-stage friends, lovers, and baby-sitters. The fact that nudes inhabit his apartment, Koch suggests, is simply part of the routine of an artist's life, nothing more, nothing less.

Still, Koch would often alter those routines in the process of painting what were ostensibly true-to-life representations. As the painter in The Studio II (1971) turns to reload his brush, the blonde young woman sitting for him talks on the telephone, a glass of water within reach. On a nearby couch sits a male model taking a break, his nude back draped in a cloth as he looks vacantly toward his fellow model. Of course, such a moment would never have occurred in this studio, where Koch always worked alone with his nude models. Yet Koch was not simply concerned with documenting his process -- keenly aware of the tradition in which he worked, Koch represented himself as a cultivated bohemian, living in perfect ease in the scenes he painted.

The Accident (1968) shows an artist and a model at an open window, looking down to Central Park West where a collision has just occurred. Apparently based on an actual event, the scene appears spontaneous (although Koch's ever evident wit soon has one wondering how it is that the sketched canvas on the artist's easel looks so much like this very painting-right down to showing a clothed man and a nude woman at the window). This vignette is unusual for Koch, who rarely allowed the outside world to intrude on the serenity of his studio, a place where the spell of work was rarely broken. Truer to form is End of the Day (1970), which shows a painter reclining in apparent exhaustion though still fully absorbed in contemplating his work. Next to his easel is his model's dressing gown, draped over the chair so often seen in Koch's work, ready for tomorrow's session.

The decorum that pervaded Koch's actual studio practices is perhaps best evident in Studio, End of the Day II (1974). John and Dora chat casually while behind a screen, away from their view but fully in ours, a woman begins to pull on her clothes. Such modesty is purely a matter of convention, of course -- it makes little sense that someone would require privacy to dress after posing nude for several hours. But this is the common practice of professional artists such as Koch, who made every effort to avoid any suggestion of untoward intimacy with his models. As if to underscore the point, the table between John and Dora is set with a tea service for two, not three. The model will soon be leaving, and the couple will get on with their evening.

Yet even in such decorous environs Koch was not insensate to the beauty of his models. The subjects of Two Artists and a Model (1965) pause in their work to review the progress of one of the painters, who props his small canvas against an easel. At the center of the room stands a statuesque black woman, her arms folded, her legs contrapposto. Despite her strong body, she is not the most sensuous figure on view. The eye is soon distracted by the sumptuous attention Koch paid to the men. The gracefully turned neck and defined shoulders of the seated artist send the eye toward the curved back and extended reach of his colleague. Koch once observed that "I find the back of a human being as eloquent and expressive" as a face, an observation he proved in delineating the musculature of these men, as well as those of The Movers and the young painter of The Accident.

Strangers and Friends

Koch's attitude toward depicting relationships, particularly between men, evidently changed late in his life, when New York was the epicenter of a sexual revolution sparked by feminism, the pill, and the Stonewall riot. As evidence of Koch's shift, consider two paintings that use the same prop, a canopied bed, to indicate easy intimacy. The bed is in the foreground of Siesta (1962), in which a woman combs her hair at a mirror while glancing back at her mate asleep on the bed, raked with the light of late afternoon. Although perhaps still flushed from lovemaking, her face bears no suggestion of shame. Her comfort with sensuality was conveyed to a wide audience when the painting appeared on the cover of Time magazine as the companion to a report on "Sex in the United States: Mores and Morality."

The same bed recurs in Manuscript Number 2 (1974), which depicts two fully dressed men relaxing on top of the sheets. Koch's friends recall that the artist was then engaged in the task of dictating notes toward an unfinished autobiography. This task may have provided the inspiration for the painting. One man reads from loose pages to his companion, who languidly reclines with his papers laid aside and his glasses cast off. The men are working, or at least intended to be, when they selected the bed as their office. But true to form, Koch enjoys the moment when work is set aside, so that the viewer can join in the satisfaction that follows a job well done. Listening as his dictation is read back, the man on the pillows is relaxed and sated from his efforts.

Though Koch made a point of containing eroticism, among his most enigmatic works are those in which he acknowledges an erotic frisson between artist and model. There is a submerged homoerotic tension on those rare occasions when a male model interacts with an artist. As the models rest in Painter and Models (1972), a nude woman reclines on a pillow and makes a telephone call, one leg carelessly propped on her raised knee. Her male counterpart has joined the artist at his easel to see how work is progressing. As the seated artist indicates an area of the painting, he turns to look up at the standing model. In this perfectly innocent situation, Koch has created an intimate and erotically charged moment.

The innuendos of close friends, plus a critical reading of the paintings themselves, would seem to confirm Koch's sexual desire for men -- in sensibility if not in realized fact -- even though his forty-three year marriage and obvious love for Dora diverted the "straight" world from guessing that such desires were even possible. Typical of closeted homosexuals of his generation, Koch revealed his sexuality only in coded references. Far more explicit in this regard than Painter and Models is The Sculptor (1964), in which Koch portrays himself as a sculptor taking a break with his model, posed by Ernest Ulmer, Dora's former student and the subject of Interior of Studio. Ulmer is painted in full view from the back, his muscular body extended in a classic pose as ancient as Praxiteles.

Initially entitled Prometheus, the painting refers to the Greek myth in which Prometheus brings fire to humans and is punished by being chained to a rock. Each day a hawk ate his liver until Hercules came to his rescue. Describing this painting, Koch said it amused him to have "counter references," and the work is indeed loaded with them. The sculptor has been at work on a large statue of Hercules wrestling the bird from the prone body of the unfortunate god (in reality, based upon a smaller sculpture Koch made for use as a model). As the sculptor sits, the standing model reaches out to light his cigarette. Koch leans forward with the cigarette in his mouth, and the lighter's flame is reflected in his glasses, extending the spark to the man himself.

Reprising the action of the god for which he is modeling, Ulmer also acts as a rescuer, a catalyst that spurs Koch to his most self-revealing painting. Koch regularly painted himself and Dora at their anniversaries, and in those portraits we can witness these comrades as they grew old together. In his paintings of Dora or Ulmer, Koch attempts to capture not just a likeness but also his personal affection for a subject. Koch may have felt it necessary to allude to his desires in the context of Greek mythology. In the era of Edith Hamilton and Mary Renault, this provided a culturally acceptable iconography for discussing desire between men. In this context, Koch could also rely on the academic tradition of projecting contemporary ideals onto the presumed reality of a distant classical past.

These days, it is easy to diminish the role of the closet for another generation. But if you are attuned to your own times, then ask yourself: how does Koch matter in an era in which the characteristics that once made him seem out of step -- a dedication to the realist tradition, an interest in personal subjects, a homoerotic sensibility -- are the very attributes that may have gained him success in the contemporary art world? When next you encounter the work of Alex Katz, Chuck Close, Nan Goldin or Elizabeth Peyton, remember Koch. He was there when realism was the epitome of uncool, and used its traditions to realize his subjective ideals of a more perfect life. In his self-exile from the main currents of contemporary art, he may have cherished his place as a petit maitre of mid-century realism. But now, perhaps, Koch is due his legacy as a chronicler of intimacy as it was experienced in the mid-twentieth century -- sublimated, yes, and closeted, perhaps -- yet marked by an exquisite refinement and attention to detail that is lamentably lost to those of another era.

 

About the author

Grady T. Turner is Director of Exhibitions at The New-York Historical Society and an art critic for publications including Art in America, ARTnews, Flash Art, The Village Voice and Bomb, where he is a contributing editor.

 

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