A World Of Grownups

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Perhaps it says something about the present state of American painting that one of the most beautiful, intelligent and original shows to appear in New York City in the past few years should be by a dead artist who was dismissed by the modernist establishment when he was alive. (Oh, well, what else is new? Why should we expect modernist taste to be any smarter than premodernist or postmodernist?) He was John Koch. His work is at the New York Historical Society. As it should be, for it is intimately part of the history of Manhattan, as, say, Jackson Pollock's is not.

In the 1960s, the New York art world was a little like Lake Wobegon, where all the children are above average. Everyone was a radical, except an enlightened few. Koch was not, not at all. Born in 1909, he was self-taught, spent all his life in New York (except for a period of study in Paris) and died in 1978. There were quite a few reasons for well-thinking folk of a conventionally radical disposition not to take him seriously. One: he was a figurative painter. Two: he and his wife Dora Zaslavsky, a noted piano coach, were reasonably well off from his bread-and-butter work of portraiture (which, wisely, is not allowed to dominate this show), and they lived in a big flat overlooking Central Park, surrounded by antique furniture, bibelots and old paintings, some genuine and some not, which he liked to include in his own canvases. (Sometimes he would make up the paintings he liked. There is a Tiepolo on the wall in one of his pictures; it never existed. Koch invented it, convincingly, for his room.)

Three: he loved to paint nudes, of a low sexual intensity, and to record the interaction among guests at the parties the Koches liked to give, at which all the male guests, incredibly, wore ties, and the female ones favored pearl necklaces--natural, one suspects, not cultured. But the pearl necklaces were about the only noncultured things in Koch's painted world (as, come to think of it, they were in the world of one of his chief idols, Vermeer). His pictures celebrate refinement--of material, of craftsmanship, of manners and, so far as a silent art can do so, of social speech.

As Michael Thomas observes in his catalog essay, Koch's world is one of grownups. They congregate in those elegant friendly rooms like the inhabitants of an ideal but real fete champetre within four walls: New York's high bohemia, in mutual recognition. In it, children are rarely seen and subliterates are never heard. The fear, disgust and boredom that are the axial coordinates of American urban life in the 2000s do not appear. People are not afraid of growing older. Ripeness is all. They have not become depressed helots to the culture of ignorant mall rats with Dolby stereos. Nobody has heard of Madonna, let alone Donald Trump or Osama bin Laden. No one has started bleating about elitism. Not yet.

Koch had a wonderful eye for nuance. It lifts images that might otherwise seem beautifully rendered but fringed with banality into real, unforced poetry. Take, for instance, Central Park Looking North, 1967. A chilly, wet day in New York, seen through a metal casement window. An antique statue of a faun on the sill, far in space and temperature from his native Mediterranean. And high on the brick wall of the apartment building to the left, a pink patch: a ray of sun breaking through winter's grisaille. Surely Koch had been thinking of the "little patch of yellow wall" in Vermeer's View of Delft, the last thing Proust's connoisseur Bergotte notices before he is felled by a heart attack. Memory and desire: Koch's great understated themes.

Koch understood material substance, and he matched it with an unfailing sense of the beauty of paint as an autonomous surface, something to be enjoyed in its own right. His still lifes are exquisite. He was not attracted to raw landscape--liking neither vast American space nor the feeling of bugs in his trousers--but rather to the panoply of stuffs and textures with which he and Dora lived surrounded, the Great Indoors, and the light that bathed them. Everything gets equal attention from this light, and the structure of shadows and highlights Koch could raise from it can be extraordinarily dramatic and resolved. Witness his Music, 1956-57, and what this lovely fugue of pewter-gray and dark would lose if the L-shaped opening in its lower cupboard door were closed. Has any American artist ever painted the sheen of polished mahogany better than Koch? Well, maybe one: John Singleton Copley, whose work, not coincidentally, Koch adored.

Maybe these are small virtues. Or maybe not. Certainly they are a lot more intriguing than the Failed Sublime that made up so much American art in Koch's time. And they suggest how much is still to be said about that time, so much more alluring than our own. How can you not love such a show?