“Studio — End of Day,” 1961, oil on canvas, 60 x 60 in. Crystal Bridges collection
“Studio — End of Day,” 1961, oil on canvas, 60 x 60 in. Crystal Bridges collection
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John Koch’s work does not fit comfortably into the usual, sequential narratives of post-World War II American art, where abstract expressionism begat pop, which begat minimalism, which begat the next great thing. Instead, Koch traveled his own, private path, parallel to yet distinct from that of the nation’s artistic mainstream. 

The painter’s first and only major retrospective exhibition was mounted nearly a quarter century after his death, not by an art museum but by the New-York Historical Society. In a way, that makes perfect sense. Koch’s work documents an era of intellectual life on the Upper West Side of Manhattan that was exquisitely inhabited by his closest friends and associates. These individuals were mostly writers, musicians, actors and poets. Many of them were well known, and all of them were artistically literate and consummate craftspeople in their chosen fields. In his numerous paintings of gatherings in the elegant apartments of these members of the New York cognoscenti, Koch vividly captured the tinkling sparkle of fine crystal and the soft evanescence of urbane small talk. His best known work, “The Cocktail Party,” includes many of the artist’s friends, including his wife, a well-respected pianist and teacher. A charming dual portrait of current Maine resident Lucinda Lang and her mother in their New York apartment includes “The Cocktail Party” in the background (at the request of Mrs. Lang) — which for whatever loss in scale and grandeur makes up for in tactile intimacy — an important gift to the Farnsworth Museum. The original may have been known by Alex Katz, the other and far better known observer of New York’s cultural milieu, whose monumental “conversation piece” of his Lincolnville, Maine, artist friends and neighbors greeted visitors at the top of the grand staircase at the Museum of Modern Art, introducing the museum’s permanent collection. Group portraits of family and intimate associates are, however, also part of a long tradition that flourished during the 17th and 18th centuries, especially by American artists, Benjamin West, Charles Willson Peale and Gilbert Stuart. 

An important subgenre of Koch’s work focuses on the artist’s own creative endeavors. In “Studio — End of Day,” the artist painted his self-portrait at left, and, at right, the likeness of a woman recently identified as Rosetta Brooks, an actress and model who posed for Koch and several of his contemporaries. Brooks is the subject of the large painting and related small drawing on Koch’s easel. By depicting her in the intimate, workaday activity of getting dressed after a modeling session, Koch draws attention to Brooks as an individual as well as a professional. He also implies that making a painting is an open-ended process that involves collaboration between artist and subject. Yet another implied relationship is that between the artist and his audience. While Koch does not greet the viewer directly, he turns his body outward in a subtle invitation to enter his private world. 

Koch often references art historical antecedents, from Rembrandt van Rijn to Diego Velázquez to Èdouard Manet. Many of his paintings, perhaps most especially “Studio—End of Day,” are clearly indebted to the 17th-century Dutch master Jan Vermeer. The canvas’s immaculate brushwork leaves no trace of the artist’s hand. Light appears to emanate from deep within the image, a phenomenon that owes much to Koch’s laborious technique of building up many layers of paint. Koch was keenly interested in the varied sources and qualities of light. The window on the far left admits a cool, white, natural light that contrasts with and gradually suffuses the warm, yellow, artificial glow coming through the open door at the far right. 

Koch was a representational painter, but his was a selective realism that subordinated transcriptive accuracy to compositional needs, mood, and poetic content. For example, the dog looking out of the window and, perhaps, forward to its late afternoon walk — a touch of domestic routine familiar to many New Yorkers — is fiction; Koch did not have a dog. The position of the bed and the artist’s easel, moreover, presents a visual conundrum. In order to see and accurately record his model, the easel would have had to be placed much closer to the immediate foreground, more or less in the viewer’s own space in front of the picture plane. And do women normally begin dressing with their shoes? Race, class, feminism and the male gaze are other stories embedded in Koch’s elegant, deceptively real world of art that is also the painter’s deft, somewhat equivocal illusion of “how life should be lived,” as one New York critic observed about Koch’s work. It is also life from a distanced and highly sophisticated sensibility, at once celebratory and questioning.