bohemia on central park west

Art mirrored life and vice-versa in painter John Koch’s polished household, a milieu that was as far from a traditional garret as one could get…

About eighty New York  blocks separated the sumptuously appointed fourteen-room apartment of the painter John Koch on Central Park West from the stark lofts and bare pads downtown around Tenth Street that were favored by many of America’s leading abstract expressionists. And a whole world of contrast separated his art and way of life from theirs.

Koch was a painter of genre pictures in a meticulously, realistic style whose atmosphere and use of light recalled Vermeer’s. The little practiced art of genre painting dwelled on intimate, anecdotal details of everyday life; but the life of the Koch household, was rather special. It was an opulent, many-sided, gregarious existence in a setting of elegance unusual among artists: in short, la vie boheme de luxe. Five star bohemia.

Though the Koch’s gave many parties, the one depicted here took place only on canvas. The guests posed for the painter separately and at different times. In the farther room are the painters Roger Baker and Maurice Grosser, in the foreground the pianist Ania Dorfman and the critic Leo Lerman. The host has painted himself at the bar with Mrs. Edgar Feder. Also in the painting is the painter Raphael Soyer. The large baroque painting at right is an imaginary “old master” that Koch invented for his imaginary party. Image:

While the artist painted, his wife, Dora Zaslavsky, a pupil of Harold Bauer and William Backhaus,gave advanced piano lessons at home and sometimes posed for him. Baroque mirrors, grand pianos, old masters, classical sculpture, Oriental objets d’art, and roomfuls of contemporary paintings, and people, surrounded them. Composers, writers, critics, pupils, patrons frequented the apartment in numbers, with as many as ninety guests known to sit down for supper at the Kochs’.

—Believable scene of art and model: yes. Every inch of the painting is “photographically”
correct—the three-dimensionality of the room, the gleam of the
highly polished floor, the accurate details of the gooseneck lamp and other
decade-appropriate objects. The apartment/studio, and the two women
(Koch’s wife, Dora, and the model, Rosetta Howard) appear in many John
Koch paintings. Yet he admits to “staging” his scenes—and leaves the viewer
to imagine his purpose.
Is Interlude simply a portrayal of a relaxing break in the process of painting?
Or does it also gesture toward some of the social changes of 1963, the
year it was painted? Consider, for instance, the implications of the multiple
reversals—the windows revealed to be reflections, and, at the center, a white
woman serving a woman of color.—Read More:

Remarkably, the only formal art training the painter ever had was less than a year’s study at fourteen in his home town of Ann Arbor, Michigan, under an Italian painter whom he disliked intensely and who threw Koch out of his studio for being sassy.Unimpressed, Koch began painting portraits of he citizenry of Ann Arbor, which his family had helped settle. Although Koch’s parents were in easy circumstances, he began seeking his own livelihood in his teens from a deep seated desire to be on his own and independent, becoming one of the top portrait painters in America.

After a stay in Europe beginning in the late 1920’s he returned to America in 1933. He had been influenced successively by the Picasso of bleached bones on beaches, surrealism, symbolism, and Kandinsky’s ideas of abstract art, to the point where he forced himself into the shape of the moderns of the period.  But back Stateside, he felt no obligation to the modern movement to which he had ultimately been ambivalent, and he could devote himself to realistic but romantic landscapes.

—According to those who knew him, John Koch composed his persona as carefully as he arranged the objects in the still lifes and interiors he painted. Every aspect of his life was meticulously considered: his tailored clothes and manicured mustache, his circle of sophisticated friends and acquaintances, the fine art and antiques of the tastefully appointed apartment he shared with his wife, Dora.
In Koch’s life as in his art, this apartment was the stage for a play-in-progress, in which furniture and friends alike were props and Koch was the director and lead actor. Everything was placed just so as evidence of his exquisite tastes, in anticipation of an admiring audience. Dora was John’s dramaturge, dedicated to her husband and to his art. Inwardly focused, unconcerned with the hoi polloi outside their purview, the Kochs constructed a private society, secluded from a city and an art world that moved to other, noisier distractions. It was this world of their own creation that Koch immortalized over three prolific decades.—Read More:

Koch’s style had a long pedigree going back to the Flemish and Dutch masters like Frans Hals and Rembrandt and in eighteenth-century England and France “conversation pieces&

1; which were immensely popular through the work of Zoffany and others.


(see link at end)…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….

—JOHN KOCH 1909-1978
Music, 1956-57
Oil on canvas, 48 X 60″ (121.92 x 152.40 cm.)
John Koch, born in Toledo, Ohio, is best known as a painter of fashionable Manhattan and New England mansion dwellers. As Koch himself stated, “I am quite visibly a realist, occupied essentially with human beings, the environments they create, and their relationships.” He remained aloof from the cross-currents of abstract and experimental fashions of the day, continuing his own steady path toward success as a figurative painter, using as his setting his own elegant fourteen-room apartment facing Central Park West. The figures who people his canvases are those whose presence permeated the everyday life of the Kochs: Mrs. Koch, an eminent pianist and instructor, her students, Koch’s models, artists, and other friends. In defense of this seemingly “upper-crust” subject matter, Koch once stated, “I have great affection for … dishonored subject matter … because of the arbitrary … way in which it has been dismissed. Have (sic) the sensuous, the lyrical elements really been expelled from modern life? Of course not. Is modern man exclusively occupied with his own tragic plight, his neuroses, his destruction? This … is as much the sentimentality of our day as was the sweetness and light for which we so tirelessly berate the Victorians.” Read More:

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. Read More:
(see link at end)…Then in his early twenties, Koch joined the Internationale Union des Intellectuals, where he encountered such eminencies as André Gide, André Malraux, and Jean Cocteau. This group, which met regularly in the homes of its members, offered Koch his first exposure to the lives of artists and intellectuals, and allowed him to sit in on discussions about Surrealism during the period that André Breton’s authority was giving way to Salvador Dali’s showmanship. Not surprisingly, the impressionable young artist painted a few Surrealist works during this period but was dissatisfied with the results. Far better, Koch felt, was his painting of a nude man and woman in bed. He also enjoyed the scandalized reaction when the painting was exhibited-clearly, Koch felt he was onto something.

Koch returned to New York in 1934 determined to win Dora. Taking an apartment adjacent to Dora’s at 56th and Madison, he awaited her divorce. Once that hurdle was cleared, John and Dora soon married and jumped into a very social life. The newlyweds hosted parties driven by sharp business acumen: as John served cheap port to his wife’s students and their parents, Dora worked the room, procuring portrait commissions for her husband. Thus the couple launched the partnership that would garner their future success. After the war, as New York inherited the mantle of modernism and the city’s artists and intellectuals entered into a long debate about the future of art, the Kochs’ collaboration would subsidize their move to more substantial digs.Read More:

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