A postcard of the above painting was on my fridge for decades, until like me, it became yellow with age and brittle and finally fell on to the floor. It remains one of my favorite paintings ever.
It is by John Koch (1909 – 1978) an American painter and an important figure in 20th century realistic style, he is best known for his light-filled realist paintings of urban interiors, often featuring classical allusions, set in his own Manhattan apartment. In fact, much of Koch’s work is portraits and social scenes, including cocktail parties and scenes with the artist at work with his models.
Painting, in skillful hands, can confer high glamour on the most commonplace objects and it is equally proficient in transforming what is beautiful into something utterly grotesque. Painting is, in other words, a fictive art, and it is often most shamelessly fictional when pretending to be unembellished Realism.
Realism that specialized in the genteel narcissism and snobbery of what used to be called ”Upper Bohemia” was what Koch does best. He focused on the social pastimes staged in his lavish Central Park West apartment and studio, with its glittering cast of friends and artists’ models and the tasteful props that were still associated with upper-class privilege in mid-20th-century America.
Don’t be concerned if you have never heard of him. Outside a certain circle of reactionary artists and their patrons, Koch was ignored in his lifetime and remains mostly unknown today. He prided himself on being at odds with the art movements of his time, and galleries and museums returned the compliment by refusing to show his work. Still, he enjoyed a loyal and lucrative following among the well-connected people who were similarly disinclined to find any merit in the innovations of 20th-century painting and believed themselves to be upholding tradition.
Koch served as a sort of court painter, producing flattering family portraits and other tributes to self-esteem while at the same time producing for himself and his non-portrait clients, portrayals of la vie de la bohème among the haute bourgeoisie. Many of these celebratory paintings of Koch’s life include the artist himself, along with his sufficiency of naked models, lending a note of erotic suggestion to the otherwise very genteel mise en scène.
Koch insisted that the attention on naked flesh in his paintings had nothing to do with an erotic intention, but his paintings suggest that he protested a bit too much. He was shrewd in judging exactly how far he could go. Koch seems to lose interest in his beautiful people when they were fully clothed.
Except for the interest in his naked models, Koch’s talents were most vividly engaged when he was painting expensive objects: old carpets, antique furniture, china and glassware, bedding and drapery, and the cornices and moldings in the beautiful rooms that are the settings of so many of the paintings. Searching for images for this post, I found my attention more and more drawn to these details.