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Koch had a wonderful eye for nuance. It lifts images that might otherwise seem beautifully rendered but fringed with banality into real, unforced poetry. Take, for instance, Central Park Looking North, 1967. A chilly, wet day in New York, seen through a metal casement window. An antique statue of a faun on the sill, far in space and temperature from his native Mediterranean. And high on the brick wall of the apartment building to the left, a pink patch: a ray of sun breaking through winter's grisaille. Surely Koch had been thinking of the "little patch of yellow wall" in Vermeer's View of Delft, the last thing Proust's connoisseur Bergotte notices before he is felled by a heart attack. Memory and desire: Koch's great understated themes.
Koch understood material substance, and he matched it with an unfailing sense of the beauty of paint as an autonomous surface, something to be enjoyed in its own right. His still lifes are exquisite. He was not attracted to raw landscape--liking neither vast American space nor the feeling of bugs in his trousers--but rather to the panoply of stuffs and textures with which he and Dora lived surrounded, the Great Indoors, and the light that bathed them. Everything gets equal attention from this light, and the structure of shadows and highlights Koch could raise from it can be extraordinarily dramatic and resolved. Witness his Music, 1956-57, and what this lovely fugue of pewter-gray and dark would lose if the L-shaped opening in its lower cupboard door were closed. Has any American artist ever painted the sheen of polished mahogany better than Koch? Well, maybe one: John Singleton Copley, whose work, not coincidentally, Koch adored.
Maybe these are small virtues. Or maybe not. Certainly they are a lot more intriguing than the Failed Sublime that made up so much American art in Koch's time. And they suggest how much is still to be said about that time, so much more alluring than our own. How can you not love such a show?