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Artist Spotlight: John Koch

By Christopher Harrity

John Koch was dismissed by the more progressive art scene as a society painter. He was little known outside his circle of wealthy, connected patrons. But time has a way of revealing something pleasurable that may have been ignored at the time.

Koch (1909-1978) captured scenes of a New York society that is mostly gone now. The value of seeing his work isn't just the paintings on their own, it has to do with the delight in viewing a world more formal and refined.

And then there are his paintings of nudes — sometimes languorous and erotic, where the artist's eye is the fourth unseen wall. Others are staged self portraits of Koch as the artist with models appearing more naked than they would have for the presence of his fully dressed and distracted figure along side them.

Koch's style would have been referred to as realistic, but his realism was tinged with the blurry fantasy of Park Avenue Bohemia. This is society as it would like to see itself. Contemplative and arty with fine Chinese antiques and sumptuous drapes. Now that the heat of Abstract Impressionism is off, the work has an elegant bittersweet feel.

But beyond the well-heeled devotees who were certain they were upholding "tradition" there are the sensuous nudes. They dare us to believe that the story ended with a shared cigarette in a dusty studio, the smell of oil paint and the setting sun catching the model and artist in an intimate moment.

Bacchanal, 1952

Family Group, 1951

After the Sitting

Two Models and the Artist

Cocktail Party, 1956. Leo Lerman (gay author and editor) is in the foreground in profile (with dark beard) conversing with pianist Ania Dorfmann. The other guests, left to right, are artist Roger Baker, artist and critic Maurice Grosser, the Dr. Leonard Smileys, the painter John Koch (mixing drinks), Mrs. Edgar Feder, an unidentified woman, composer Virgil Thomson (gay composer), music critic Noel Straus, Dora Koch (standing), an unknown seated woman, artist Felicia Meyer Marsh, artist Aaron Shikler, art dealer Roy Davis, butler Leroy Lowry, artist Raphael Soyer, and biographer Frances Winwar.

The Window Washers, 1975

End of the Day

The Window, 1947. Female figure on right is believed to be Dora Koch, his wife, but who is the young man who makes repeated appearances? Is he the young man in the pevious painting The End of the Day?

Father and Son, 1955

The Sculptor, 1964. Perhaps the most revelatory of Koch's self-portraits. It almost dares you to make a conclusion. From the stance of the model, to the gesture of the cigarette, intimacy steams from the canvas. Then there is the detail (see next page) of the posing strap string, delicately resting on the upper curve of the model's buttocks. And what about the calipers?

The Sculptor, detail.

Interlude, 1963. Another semi-self-portrait with wife Dora, beroobed, adding to the domestic and refreshingly interracial scene. Koch was a story-teller as much as a painter.

The Conversation. Is this the same muscular young man that appears in previous patings again alongside a housecoated Dora?

Farmers Nooning

The Bath

(Title unknown)

The Plasterers (detail), 1967

Leo Lerman (1914 – 1994) was an American writer and editor who worked for Condé Nast Publications for more than 50 years. Lerman also wrote for the New York Herald Tribune, Harper's Bazaar, Dance Magazine, and Playbill. The Grand Surprise: The Journals of Leo Lerman is a wonderful chronicle of this New York social scene.

My Studio, 1952 once again portrays artist, wife looking a decade older then artist, and a model who looks as if she stepped out of a Fragonard painting.

Masquerade, 1939. A dry and witty take on a society costume party.

The Party, 1971


Night, 1964

Still Life with Angels ( a self-portrait with Dora, Koch's wife)

Seated male nude study

Man Putting on His Shirt

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