John Koch’s Best Work Is With Naked Subjects

It is sometimes forgotten that the art of painting lends itself to a great variety of beguiling appeals. In skillful hands, it is capable of conferring high glamour on the most commonplace objects and fables and, in another veil, 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 masquerading as unembellished Realism. For the imposture is often greatest where the Realist detail is most factitious.

This is a point worth bearing in mind for anyone who goes to see the work of the American painter John Koch (1909-1978), which is currently on view at the New-York Historical Society. Realism of a certain type–an avowedly anecdotal Realism that specialized in the genteel narcissism and snobbery of what used to be called “Upper Bohemia”–was Koch’s forte. He was hugely adept at mastering the technical means appropriate to his fictional subject (which was mainly focused on the social pastimes staged in the artist’s lavish Central Park West apartment and studio for pictorial purposes), with its glittering cast of friends and artist’s models and the tasteful props that were still associated with upper-class money and privilege in mid-20th-century America.

The result is painting that is often very entertaining, but in the way that certain Broadway shows used to be entertaining–which is to say, diverting, shallow and instantly forgettable. Or, to put the matter another way, this is painting that can be amusing in the way that other people’s fantasies about themselves can sometimes be amusing–until, that is, you come to understand that they actually believe in the fantasies they have invented for themselves.

Don’t be concerned, by the way, if John Koch’s work, or even indeed his name, is unknown to you. Outside a certain circle of reactionary artists and their patrons, Koch was ignored in his lifetime and remains more or less unknown today. He prided himself on being at odds with the art fashions of his time–whether or not the art itself was great, indifferent or somewhere in between–and the museums that specialize in trendy developments in art returned the compliment by refusing to show his work. He wasn’t a needy case, however. He enjoyed a loyal and lucrative following among a segment of well-heeled, 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,” whereas in fact they were only indulging their own incomprehension.

For collectors of this persuasion, Koch served as a kind of court painter, producing flattering family portraits and other inducements to self-esteem while at the same time producing for himself and his non-portrait clients pictorial celebrations of what passed for la vie de la bohème among the haute bourgeoisie. Many of these celebratory paintings of the artist’s life are themselves group portraits–or pseudo-portraits–in which the artist himself is prominently represented along with his handsomely dressed wife and a sufficiency of naked models, male and female, to lend a note of erotic suggestion to the otherwise very genteel mise en scène .

Koch made a point of insisting that the attention he lavished on naked flesh in his paintings had nothing to do with an erotic intention, but his paintings suggest that he protested rather too much on this score. He was clearly fixated on beautiful physiques as sexual objects, and he was extremely shrewd in judging exactly how far he could go–if I may paraphrase Jean Cocteau–in going too far, especially in his pictures of young, naked, handsome couples in their well-appointed bedrooms and baths. Frankly, I think these are some of the best paintings in his entire oeuvre , for Koch tended to lose interest in his beautiful people when they were fully clothed. They became mere mannequins when his sexual interest was in abeyance. Even worse are the really dead landscapes that are devoid of figures.

Except for the sexual interest in his naked models, Koch’s talents were most vividly engaged when he was painting expensive objects–old carpets and 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. As I made my way through the exhibition at the New-York Historical Society a number of times the other day, I found my attention more and more drawn to these details rather than to the paintings as artistic wholes. And this, in turn, reminded me of a passage in one of Henry James’ essays, when he was writing about the Paris art scene in the 1870′s.

The painting under discussion– Friedland , by the French academician Jean-Louis Ernest Meissonier–is of a military subject in the Napoleonic period. James clearly found it hilariously awful, and this, in part, is what he wrote: “It seems to me it is a thing of parts rather than an interesting whole …. The best thing, say, is a certain cuirassier, and in the cuirassier the best thing is his clothes, and in his clothes the best thing is his leather straps, and in his leather straps the best thing is the buckles. This is the kind of work you find yourself performing over the picture; you may go on indefinitely. That great general impression which, first and foremost, it is the duty of an excellent picture to give you, seems to me to be wanting here …. “

The difference, James added, is “like the difference to the eye between plate glass and gushing water.” There isn’t much “gushing water”–which is to say, painterly vitality and invention–in the paintings of John Koch, but there is an abundance of the pictorial equivalent of plate glass.

Needless to say, this isn’t everyone’s view of the current exhibition at the New-York Historical Society. My friend and colleague here at The New York Observer , Michael M. Thomas, is in radical disagreement with this adverse assessment, and he’s played an important role in bringing the current show, which is called John Koch: Painting a New York Life , to the New-York Historical Society. He has also written a spirited essay for the exhibition’s catalog. Unlike myself, he has the advantage of having been a friend of Koch and a participant in the social life that is so graphically illustrated in the artist’s pictures. If you want to sample the kind of nostalgia for old times which Koch’s pictures continue to elicit even now, when so much else in New York life has changed almost beyond recall, Michael’s essay is the thing to read. For myself, I never regarded black-tie openings at the museums or an over-consumption of martini cocktails at fashionable parties as the summit of human happiness, and so my view of the past that is so lovingly evoked in Michael’s essay is somewhat different.

Still, it is one of the functions of the New-York Historical Society to remind us of our past, and in this sense it is altogether appropriate for an exhibition like John Koch: Painting a New York Life to be mounted at this particular institution, where artistic distinctions are not the first order of business. Social fantasy is as much a part of history as artistic achievement, and in this exhibition it has certainly been given its due. As a painting exhibition, however, it remains–for some of us, anyway–a paltry experience.

John Koch: Painting a New York Life remains on view at the New-York Historical Society, 2 West 77th Street at Central Park West, through Jan. 27.