Friday, January 16, 2009

Picture This: A New York Painter

Ages ago, in talking about a little fête chez Muscato, I used this painting, Cocktail Party, by American painter John Koch to illustrate the post. I don't know when, exactly, I first ran across it, but I remember it being much on my mind all those years ago when I was throwing far more modest parties in my own little New York flat, for it has long seemed to me to sum up a certain kind of very specific New-Yorkiness.

As, it turns out, did much of the life of this remarkable and highly underappreciated painter. Almost wholly self-taught, he dedicated himself to a thorough exploration of the pleasures of life, in their more moderate and civilized forms.

His partner in much of this was his wife Dora, a music teacher and fellow aesthete. Together, they transformed their rambling Upper West Side apartment, in the words of one essayist, into "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..."

The apartment appears, in various guises, innumerable times in his works, as both a setting for their social life and a workspace; this 1974 painting of a model watching the artist work captures the winter light of Manhattan better than any painting since Childe Hassam.

Koch used portraiture to help pay the bills; his picture of HRH The Princess Margaret captures far more of that lady's amused good humor than is normally seen; she seems almost to be supressing a giggle.

Perhaps she was, while sitting, looking at one of Koch's nudes, for they are very pleasing indeed, and show a healthy interest in both genders (as, apparently, did the painter in his private life). Here we have The Sculptor, showing a private moment between painter and model (and the most superlative ass, I would say, to appear on canvas in the 20th century).

If you like, you may read an excellent pair of essays on Koch here and here, written in connection with a 2001 exhibition of his works at the New York Historical Society. I really think you ought to.


  1. I don't know this artist but I adore the cocktail party painting. I would like to see it in person.