O ne mark of a good artist is the ability to reinvigorate the content of our cultural narratives. When Caravaggio painted the Virgin Mary with dirty bare feet that seemingly simple gesture came to be seen as the gateway to Humanism and a dramatic and irreversible shift away from orthodox interpretations of Christian narratives.
I am not elevating John Koch to the genius of Caravaggio, but I use the reference to illustrate how a seemingly small shift in convention results in a big impact.
Koch worked within a genre of American realism that includes Eakins, Homer and Hopper as its luminaries. This particular kind of realism sought to find the epic and the archetype among the plain spoken and quotidian. In his painting, The Accident #2 – one of Koch’s most surprising works – he takes on the genre of the artist and his model and manages to subvert it for unanticipated effect.
Here is the picture: We are looking into the artist’s studio, an intimate space the size of a bedroom. He establishes a sullen interiority by bathing the room in an almost crepuscular light, contrasting it with the midday sun-filled light glinting through the windows. The props in the room are a bed with tousled sheets, a rumpled, thrown off red silk robe, a pair of boudoir mules casually kicked off, a hand-mirror propped on the rim of a waste basket (both shoes and mirror a nod to Balthus), a curtain pulled back and the painter’s station: easel, canvas, palette.
The artist and the model is a well-defined genre. It explores intimacy, beauty, desire, mystery, otherness and love. It is also an act of possession. Historically it depicts a moment of deep concentration and privilege on the part of the artist and of detachment on the part of the model, who is often pictured sleeping or daydreaming. It is a space in which only the two exist. They are in their own world. Nothing else matters or is of interest.
This is where John Koch’s painting disrupts the genre. In his room are two figures, artist and model. She is naked, he is clothed. However, rather than being in the traditional artist/model relationship where he observes her, they are both standing at the window. She is pointing to something that he is straining to see. Whatever is the nature of the accident we will never know, but it has trespassed their intimacy, pulling them into the outside world, and broken the spell of their erotic engagement.