NEW YORK, Jan. 15 (UPI) -- John and Dora Koch were one of the golden couples of New York in the years just after World War II, reigning over a living room salon that attracted artists, musicians, socialites, and other notables of the era to their lunches, cocktail parties, and instrumental recitals.
He came out of the Midwest, a self-taught painter whose work echoed Vermeer and Rubens, and he specialized for steady income in $10,000 portraits of the rich and famous, such as publisher Malcolm Forbes, several members of the Roosevelt family, and Princess Margaret. But he is best remembered today for his exquisite anecdotal interior scenes, painted mostly in the Koch apartment-studio overlooking Central Park.
She was born in the Ukraine and brought to New York as an infant. She became an able pianist, which led to a career as a piano coach for some of the outstanding concert pianists of the day, including Abbey Simon, Ania Dorfman, and David Bar Ilan. She headed the piano department at the Manhattan School of Music and developed it chamber music section.
They were a team, married for 43 years, in the manner of Noel Coward's "Design for Living" but without the other man, although Koch peopled his canvasses with plenty of handsome and often nude male models. He was elegant and liked to wear velvet suits. She was beautiful but earthy and hid her increasing girth that came with age under shapeless caftans.
The Kochs' legend is recalled in a nostalgic exhibition at the New-York Historical Society, just a half mile south of their old home in the El Dorado apartment house on Central Park West where Sinclair Lewis and Benny Goodman also lived.
The show, which runs through Jan. 27, has attracted an unusual number of celebrity viewers, according to museum officials. It seems that almost everyone who was anyone in New York in the era of the 1950s, 1960s and early 1970s has been to the museum to see 50 paintings, 10 drawings, and memorabilia and perhaps catch a glimpse of themselves in one of his paintings.
Aptly titled "John Koch: Painting a New York Life," this is the first retrospective given the artist's work in 25 years and long overdue. Koch defied the increasing popularity of abstract and expressionist art during his lifetime and had a loyal following, but after his death his uncool, anti-modernist work fell into an eclipse that is only now beginning to wane with the waxing of interest in figural art.
He was what the French would call "a little master," limited by the intimacy of his subject matter but not by his technique, which was tremendous. No American artist has ever caught the half light of interiors and the reflecting surfaces of polished woods and crystal glassware with as remarkable accuracy as he did.
Depicting light, ranging from sunlight flooding in from Central Park to the soft glow from a television set, was his obsession and the subject of continuous experimentation.
He even used light to suggest the intensity of sexual situations, as in "Siesta," a shadowy bedroom scene in which a window blind is drawn against brilliant afternoon light by a couple who have just been making love. This painting was used on the cover of a 1964 issue of Time Magazine reporting on new sexual freedoms in the United States.
Koch often painted couples in bed but not in contact, in line with his usual reticence in depicting physicality.
In this regard he could be extremely subtle. His greatest nude study is that of a male model seen from behind as he casually offers to light Koch's cigarette with a lighter as the artist, takes a break from work on a sculpture, "Prometheus and Hercules." Koch depicts himself leaning forward so that his eyeglasses catch the reflection of the flame, a sexually loaded reference to Prometheus' gift of fire to mankind.
This complex artist, born in 1909, was the son of a failed furniture dealer who unsuccessfully ran for governor of Michigan on the Socialist ticket. Koch studied art briefly in his youth, then spent five years in Paris honing his skills by copying the Old Masters in the Louvre museum collection. He took up residence in New York in 1934 and lived here continuously until his death in 1978.
Probably his best known work, the centerpiece of the exhibit, is a large 1958 oil titled "Cocktail Party," which shows the Kochs' elegant El Dorado living room full of friends, seated and standing in a setting of fine French and English antiques, shelved displays of rare Meissen porcelain, and Old Master paintings the couple collected.
Koch portrays himself at a bow-front console doubling as a bar as he pours one of his reportedly mean martinis for a woman guest. The light is low, picking up a face in profile here and a three-quarter portrait there. The viewer senses that the conversation is quiet and decorous. It is the perfect example of art reflecting life, in this case an intellectual paradise.
Included in the portrait are composer Virgil Thomson, brother artists Moses and Raphael Sawyer, critics Noel Strauss and Leo Lerman, artists Aaron Shikler and Felicia Meyer Marsh, art dealer Roy Davis, and biographer Francis Winwar. They are just a few of the hundreds of personalities the Kochs entertained at their apartment, their Long Island summer home, and in their box the Metropolitan Opera.
Less crowded canvases depict Dora relaxing with a cup of tea, with her pupils during coaching sessions, and overseeing movers handling a huge painting. There are paintings of window washers, painters, and plasterers working at the apartment, views of a table with the remains of a luncheon party and another table being prepared for a dinner party, and a still life of two huge floral arrangements.
All the accouterments of the good life are displayed in Koch's paintings. The love of music that he shared with Dora is reflected in the painting of a violin and bow resting on a Queen Anne chair with a violin-shaped splat. Music is strewn on a sofa below a mirror reflecting a young male violinist talking on the telephone.
The music has been interrupted by a phone call from a friend, but the melody seems to linger on in this small but lovely room transparently lit by distant French windows. It was one of the artist's favorite works and his careful preparatory sketches for the painting, titled "The Violinist," are on display.
"It is a still life, but it is about people," Koch once remarked about the painting.