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One Encounter: John Koch’s Figure on a Bed

By (April 1, 2015) One Comment


Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond. Gift of Joseph T. and Jane Joel Knox Photo: Travis Fullerton ©Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, Richmond. Gift of Joseph T. and Jane Joel Knox. Photo: Travis Fullerton ©Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

I am often delighted and dismayed by the volume of treasures tucked away in the basements of museums; in collectors’ storerooms; and in the hidey-holes of small businesses that rarely check old inventories and, albeit unconsciously, rely on the sticky fingers of employees to take care of their surplus. I’ve been in similar circumstances, but haven’t had the gumption to capitalize on them. After, however, somebody else has, I hate myself as much as I possibly should.

John Koch’s Figure on a Bed is in no such danger. It can be seen by anyone who cares to visit the gratuitously named Virginia Museum in the state’s capitol at Richmond. Yet it is not the sort of thing you notice right away. I would even suggest that you’ve got to be a regular who, as you roam its planetarium-style interior, you’ll notice all sorts of other things first – of which there are a legitimate abundance. But if you have time enough to meander, Figure on a Bed will materialize from of the museum’s out-of-scale architecture, chrome-plated surfaces, and bewildering spatial organization.

For one thing, Figure on a Bed is rather small. For another, it’s in an area that isn’t generally dedicated to the display of artwork. In terms of the high visibility with which the unsung, yet spectacular, might come to be known, it appears to have no advocates among a staff that should possibly know better. It’s as if Django Reinhardt were playing in a small, but acoustically sophisticated crawl-space where only the museum’s personae non grata might listen to him. For whatever reason, this astoundingly luminous painting hangs in the museum’s reading room/library, which has traditionally called to scholars and stragglers alike. There on a wall that isn’t a wall, but a columnar interval, it’s been put at eye level for anybody who decides that he or she needs a little visual stimulation outside of a bookshelf or a display-table.

The reputation of John Koch has suffered in recent decades; his detractors characterize him as a painter of bibelots. Admirers cast him as a chronicler of the bohemianish haute bourgeoisie, of which he was a card-carrying member for his entire (1909 – 1978) life.

John Koch (American, 1909-1978). The Sculptor, 1964. Oil on canvas, 80 x 59 7/8 in. (127.0 x 152.1 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Gift of the artist, 69.165. © Estate of John Koch

John Koch, The Sculptor, 1964. Oil on canvas, 80 x 59 7/8 in. (127.0 x 152.1 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Gift of the artist, 69.165. © Estate of John Koch

Here is Robert Hughes, whom I am – in the interest of space – adumbrating somewhat: Hughes dismisses the nudes that are, by general acclamation, Koch’s strong suit as “low intensity.” Yet in recognizing that, in Koch’s paintings, one is in the presence of grownups, he confesses that “memory and desire” are this painter’s “great understated themes.” With which I agree. Hilton Kramer meanwhile stands with his arms akimbo, defying Koch’s legacy yet begrudging him a small, but honored, place in the history of our nation, if not among its more vigorous “creatives.” Kramer’s contention that “Outside of an inner circle of reactionary artists and their patrons, Koch was ignored in his lifetime and remains more or less unknown today” is somewhat unfair, but only somewhat. Mr. Kramer thinks Koch is a footnote, but he tells you why and you have to respect him for it. Or least wonder how a man could be so wrong, yet want to be so right about it.

Yet in identifying Koch with the musty sort of world through which he moved, both men are correct.

John Koch was an anomalous figure amidst the ferment of The Great Depression, in which he participated, as it were, off-camera. After the rise of Abstract Expressionism – at which he and fellow realists bridled in an unobtrusive sort of way – he began, like many of his colleagues, to disappear into the folds of an art history that had noticed, if not lionized, him. He and these colleagues started a short-lived publication called “The Realist”, which provided a necessary, but mostly unregarded, backlash to the non-objective painting that would not only sweep away all opposition, but threaten the livelihoods of painters whose standing had, before WWII, seemed – insofar as stability is possible anywhere – inviolable.

Koch was a fortunate man in that he didn’t need to make a living except with the occasional portrait, for which he was abundantly remunerated. As such, his artistic integrity was not only organic, but fairly easy to maintain. He lived the lush life of his subjects; his daily routines could be as well-regulated as any stock-broker’s; and he was as genteely satisfied as a man with secret yearnings (his homosexuality was of the closeted kind) might pretend to be.

Over the years, his work has found its way into serious articles and exhibition catalogues, but he is not the icon Edward Hopper became. Nor should he be. In the final analysis, Koch painted a sort of Proustian world in which memory and desire moved at a sluggish pace and change wasn’t a matter of concern unless it impinged upon the social rituals that constituted life itself. Even so, Koch’s mastery is almost universally acknowledged, even if it might be dismissed as a kind of parlor trick more serious painters might be tempted to withhold. Such is the fate of your “painter’s painter” – who’s celebrated among colleagues, but given short shrift by those who might have ensured him or her a wider audience or more enduring profile. Koch has had few posthumous moments that measure up to those of Hopper, Burchfield, or even Bellows. The Metropolitan Museum has left him high and dry. The Whitney has been conspicuously non-committal. Only the New York Historical Society has given him the retrospective which is not only manna in a major artist’s career, it is his or her just dessert and necessary monument. I believe the jury is still out. Koch’s work is not merely intriguing; nor is it an historical document that might subsume material that is dedicated to that thing only. It has a surpassing merit, though that merit might be considered smaller than artists of the first rank and caliber. Yet, over time, I believe Koch will be considered a major artist and not, as Hilton Kramer would have us believe, the darling of a reactionary element that cannot relinquish its musty interiors for love or money.

His paintings, in other words, are not something to be quietly tucked away and forgotten about. When I first caught a glimpse of Figure on a Bed in Richmond, I thought it was a print – albeit a very good one: the color was authentically elusive, the privacy of the figure inviolable, and the space that surrounded and contained this figure was irreducibly present. But a closer inspector soon revealed this painting’s extraordinary reach into an inner world about which the Virginia Museum seems ambivalent. For anybody who decides to step off of the beaten track, his or her curiosity will be rewarded.

A beautiful young woman is back from a shopping expedition, wondering how she might exploit the day’s catch. How might the gauds I have assembled, thinks she, enhance what everybody knows: that I am a spectacular sort of person who needs her privacy, but must also play to the crowd. Her privacy is as titillating to us – because we are afforded a glimpse of her enjoying it – as it is to her. In staging a scene that had, in all likelihood, staged itself, Koch gives us a moment that is, in any beautiful person’s journey toward the quintessential, generally forgotten – or gets caught up with so many others. The light comes from a lamp that’s almost out of frame; its yellow imprint plucks the wall-space out from an undifferentiated murk while glinting off of a bedframe that is vaguely boudoirish. One of the painting’s most signal pleasures is following the light as well as its chromatic undertow. While it lolls, in satisfied splendor, in the trough of a bed-sheet, it leaps into prominence on this bed-sheet’s raised and wrinkled convexities. There is a radio, which may or may not be playing; a purse, which is not so much slung as patted down; and a rotary phone – which reeks, to our eyes, of a powder-faced nostalgia. Such ordinary objects spoke, in the early 1970’s, not only of comfort, but its immediate and comforting accessibility. This woman is a wispier version of a François Boucher voluptuary, whose lapdog might traipse across the bed. Yet there is a greater refinement here – not to mention bournes and barriers. Sex might happen, but it’s got to get through all of this other stuff – which might temporarily strangle it. I can imagine a John O’Hara suitor coming in, getting a load of the place, and slamming the door.

My Studio (c. 1952), Smithsonian American Art Museum, Bequest of Henry Ward Ranger through the National Academy of Design

My Studio (c. 1952), Smithsonian American Art Museum, Bequest of Henry Ward Ranger through the National Academy of Design

Like John Singer Sargent, Koch had a feeling, not only for intimacy, but for what makes a woman a beautiful object as well as a striking or memorable personality. Of course I do not endorse women as objects of any kind. Yet they appear, in artistic imagery, in every guise imaginable. Like men, they can be painted as mere objects whether we like it or not. In fact, no one made objects of women with such an easygoing sangfroid as Boucher or Fragonard. And if Rubens didn’t objectify a woman, no one ever has. Koch may not have intended to do the same with this woman – nor Sargent with his smirking victims. Yet he succeeds quite spectacularly; in his hands, it is as appealing as time and context might allow.

Because it appears to be her domain, Koch has placed his heroine in bed already, though it is not, as with Boucher, a locus for sexual pleasure, but for the afterglow of that perfect shopping expedition. Or, possibly, a prelude to one. Koch’s libido finds its voice in the enumeration of palpable things. Unlike Edward Hopper, whose figures are somewhat alienated – and no more sensual than the stale air that fails to cool or heat them – Koch’s are as comfortable as a pillow. And while their vibes are sexy, they don’t stick to you as Hopper’s people often will. Koch’s Lady of the Rumpled Bedcovers is as sexy as all get-out, but we are superficially aroused – which works in real life, but not so much in a painting. Our superficial arousal might then be taken, as similar sensations rarely can, with a grain of salt. There’s trouble here, but also glory. And the trouble is: she is almost too perfect a representation of a type. You suspect that, if somebody drops over, she can get into something nice and start trumpeting inanities as she comes through the door. Hopper’s people are having second thoughts; this woman is not angst-ridden and can never be. She is too happy, not only with her stuff, but with a soft and pleasure-oriented aesthetic. We find Hopper’s people in an empty room and long, albeit unconsciously, to furnish it. Koch has furnished it for us. And with such a casual sense of what is good in life that we are irresistibly drawn to its specific weights and measures as divvied out from a lampshade’s vantage; a dark rotary-dial; and a coverlet’s s-curve.

It is bracing to know that such an object as this painting is accessible to us as well. Will we take it up as a quietly personal invitation or will be pass it by and rush toward the Picassos and the Cy Twomblys and the Chuck Closes? I could say “Not that there’s anything wrong with that,” but I don’t bloody well believe it.


Brett Busang, Art Correspondent for Open Letters Monthly, has contributed articles, reviews, and profiles to such publications as New York Press, The Bloomsbury Review, Footnotes, Loch Raven Review and numerous others. He is also a painter whose work has been widely, if haphazardly, collected.