John Koch’s reputation was further enhanced in 1950, when his painting The Monument was exhibited at The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s national competitive exhibition American Painting Today.
In 1953 John and Dora spent five months in Paris and on their return to New York they moved into a fourteen-room apartment on the tenth floor at the El Dorado at 300 Central Park West, one of the twin-towered pre-war apartment buildings that presents such an iconic and distinctive vista on the Central Park West skyline. It was whilst living here that John and Dora became one of the uptown bohemian set which also included an ever-expanding number of Upper West Side artists, writers, and musicians. A short time later, the couple purchased the adjacent apartment on their floor to be used as Dora’s music studio, where she continued her practice as a private tutor.
Portraiture had always been a financially rewarding genre for artists and so it was for John Koch. His forte was group portraits and in 1956 he completed a group portrait for Malcolm Forbes, an American entrepreneur most prominently known as the publisher of Forbes magazine. It is a very informal depiction of the family. Malcolm Forbes relaxes at home shortly after the birth of a new daughter, Moira. We see Malcolm and his wife, who cradles the baby, along with their four sons, Steve (Malcolm Jnr)., Robert, Christopher, and Timothy. It is interesting to note Koch’s methodology in how he paints group portraits. He would make studies of each individual, then to join these studies as a group against the backdrop of a chosen interior. He stated:
“…In all the pictures, the models never pose together. What is more important than whether there is or is not someone posing for you is the relationship between them…”
John Koch carefully arranged where each person would stand or sit in the portraits just as he would when arranging the objects in the still life and interiors he painted. He was ultra-meticulous when considering where people and objects were placed. It was if he was an interior designer. This painstaking thoroughness was also a reflection of his own lifestyle in the way he dressed, the way he carefully chose his circle of cultured friends and acquaintances, and what fine art and antiques he would bring into his tastefully appointed apartment which he shared with his wife, Dora. Leslie Cheek Jnr., Director of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, between 1948 and 1968, wrote about John Koch’s interior depictions:
“…His pictures of his particular slice of our world today are vigorous and appealing. One enjoys with him his love of fine furniture, elegant mirrors, rich fabrics, and fresh flowers-all glowing with the individual reflections which light, his particular forte, gives to each…”
For some, Koch’s depiction of afternoon soirées are too good to be true, but does it matter? Maybe Koch had decided to pictorially represent how life should be rather than how it was. Probably his best-known painting is his 1956 work entitled The Cocktail Party. It never happened but it was a depiction of what Koch imagined what a great soirée would have been and the guests he would have invited. Koch described his social circle as:
“…people of our own making, our own way of looking at things…”
The attendees at this party were all acquaintances of the John and Dora Koch in the mid-1950s and as I explained before, Koch’s modus operandi was to paint each individual separately and then fit them into the painting which was set in his living room at the El Dorado where John and Dora were the consummate hosts.
The characters in the work are Leo Lerman (author and editor), 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, standing at the bar, busy mixing drinks, Mrs. Edgar Feder, an unidentified woman, composer Virgil Thomson (composer), music critic Noel Straus, Dora Koch seen standing and bending forward to attend to the seated music critic Noel Strauss. , 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 painting was John’s idea of the perfect guest list for his perfect party. He liked the painting so much that it remained in his possession for the rest of his life.
It is fascinating to view some of Koch’s paintings which feature interiors once you realise he has stage managed the depiction. It is as if in Koch’s life as in his art, his and Dora’s apartment simply acted as the stage for a play-in-progress. The props in the form of furniture and wall hangings were, like the figures, merely theatrical props, and John, with the help of Dora, was the director and often the lead actor. In his 1958 painting entitled Three Musicians there are three “actors”. There is the artist’s wife, Dora, as well as Leo Lerman, an American writer and editor who worked for Condé Nast Publications for more than 50 years, who is shown seated closest to the cello. The model for the third figure in the white shirt is probably Paul Rotella, who, like Dora Koch, was a pianist and music teacher.
I also like his “stage-managed” family portrait simply entitled Family Group. Such a happy family gathering of husband, wife and two sons. So contented in a sumptuously furnished room. Everything is placed just so to give the observer a view of a perfect lifestyle. For John and Dora Koch, paintings like this were just a chance to construct a perfect lifestyle, a world of their own conception.
John and Dora’s lifestyle was one of afternoon cocktails, musical recitals in their large living room and eagerly expected painting unveilings but they still had to be financially sound and this was achieved by Dora’s musical tutorials and John’s commissioned portraits. Let us not think for one moment that the Koch’s elegant lifestyle was achieved without hard work by the couple. It was their dedication to the arts, painting for John, music for Dora that gave them the greatest pleasure. We should also remember that the couple came from completely different upbringings. John was the son of liberal Midwesterners. His mother was of Irish descent who had a non-religious epiphany and left the church after her son’s baptism while his father, albeit a charismatic man was a business failure and later a political failure when he failed in all his attempts to become governor of Michigan on the Socialist ticket. On the other hand, Dora Zaslavsky was a Jewish immigrant, born in the Ukraine, whose father’s early occupation was that of a poverty-stricken peddler.
The closeness of the couple and the way they worked hand in hand can be seen in John Koch’s 1952 painting My Studio. A nude model looks out at us as she reclines on a chaise longue. John is perched upon a stool in front of his easel. A trolly holds his palette whilst on the shelves underneath it is all the oils and paraphernalia needed by the artist. Dora, holding a book of sheet music, stares out at the river scene. All is serene. It is a truly untroubled and harmonious life.
John Koch’s art was not just depictions of wealthy people living in opulent settings. Many of his works featured nudes, sometimes nude women, sometimes nude men and sometimes both. These like his group portraits were beautifully finished works of art. In 1962 he completed a work entitled Siesta which focused on human sexuality and the intricacies and complications of the male-female relationship. We see two figures, one, a nude female with her back to us, sitting in a chair at a desk brushing her hair. She is glancing in the mirror at her lover who lies asleep on the bed. We can just make out her flushed face, flushed from her early lovemaking. The other figure, her lover, is partly wrapped in a blue sheet, which is raked by the afternoon sunlight which has penetrated the bedroom. The large bed is centre stage of the painting. The depiction exudes an air of intimacy. It is not a condemnation of sexual activity but an at-ease acknowledgement of a tender relationship and the pleasurable sensuality of sex. Koch has composed his two figures in an idyllic state, contentedly relaxing in warm light that spills through the windows.
The work of art, through its domestic bedroom scene depicts the complexities of the male-female relationship. John Koch’s painting was chosen for the cover of Time Magazine in 1964 for a special issue entitled SEX in the U.S.: Mores & Morality, accompanied by an article Morals: The Second Sexual Revolution which ended with the following paragraph:
“…The difference between the ’20s and ’60s comes down, in part, to a difference between people. The rebels of the ’20s had Victorian parents who laid down a Victorian law; it was something concrete and fairly well-defined to rise up against. The rebels of the ’60s have parents with only the tattered remnants of a code, expressed for many of them in Ernest Hemingway’s one-sentence manifesto: “What is moral?…”
The painting went to auction at Bonhams American Art Sale on July 29th, 1962 and although had an estimate of between $40,000 and $60,000 it eventually sold for $596,075 ! Jennifer Jacobsen, Bonhams’ Director of American Art, commented:
“…We are thrilled with the success of our most recent sale of American Art. We saw competitive bidding across all of the genres offered in the category, demonstrating collectors’ demand for quality works and the strength of the current market. We are honoured to have achieved such a strong price for John Koch’s elegant, beautifully painted work Siesta, which is now his second highest price at auction and a near miss of his world auction record…”
……………………………..to be concluded.