What Edward Hopper and Charles Burchfield Showed Me by Philip Koch

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

At my gallery talk last Friday evening on my current exhibition at Edward Hopper House Art Center in Nyack, NY I spoke about my development as a painter. Above is a photo taken before the crowd arrived of me standing with my painting The Voyage of Memory, oil on canvas, 38 x 38". That's a favorite of mine that combines some serious notes of my personal history with a tip of my hat to Thomas Cole, the great grandfather of American landscape painting. Putting elements like that together is a bit unusual in today's art world. There was a time when I wouldn't have had the temerity to paint like that.

Beginners start at the beginning.

When I began painting it was in the then tiny studio art department at Oberlin College. I quickly pieced together what I thought were the essentials of the modern art story: contemporary art had evolved more or less in a straight line from the first Impressionists, then the Cubists, then the Abstract Expressionists. Armed with this reading of art history I honestly thought there was a correct style that all serious painters had to pursue.

After about a year of that I came to suspect I was missing something and began devouring art books in the campus art library. One artist I kept coming back to was Edward Hopper. I loved his shining bright sunlight and his long evocative shadows.

Now Hopper was somewhat confusing to my initial sense of art history. He had painted in a very different direction than the widely prevalent modernism. Yet he had a major show at the Museum of Modern Art and had had a big coffee table book on his work published. 

Hopper had been included in the historic Amory Show in New York City in 1913, the blockbuster exhibition that essentially introduced America to the waves of modernism that had been sweeping through the art studios of Europe. Hopper went to the exhbition and saw work like the Kandinsky and the Matisse pictured below. 

While aware of the shocking avant-garde paintings, Hopper just stuck to his guns and continued his straightforward version of realism. 

Another painter I fell in love with shortly after this was the watercolor artist Charles Burchfield. 

He showed at the same gallery in New York as Hopper and the two were long time friends. He too was the subject of a major show at the Museum of Modern Art and had impressive looking books published on his work. Like Hopper, Burchfield was well aware of modernist innovations that were sweeping the art world. But he too seemed to value the flavors of his own imagination more. He painted in a way that acknowledged the traditions of realist painting but added an almost psychedelic imaginative twist. 

I felt painters like Hopper and Burchfield were doing something closer to what I wanted to do. But just as important their example gave me the courage to strike out on my own with my paintings. 

Read more at Philip's website.

Learn more about Philip Koch at http://www.burchfieldpenney.org/artists/artist:philip-koch/