Katonah Museum of Art
Hudson River Trilogy: Ellen Kozak
Essay by Ellen J. Keiter, Curator of Contemporary Art
For although we are accustomed to separate nature and human perception into two realms, they are, in fact, indivisible. Before it can ever be a repose for the senses, landscape is the work of the mind. Its scenery is built up as much from strata of memory as from layers of rock.i
Ellen Kozak is an artist with incredible focus and perseverance, returning to paint along the banks of the Hudson River every summer for the past eighteen years. She has a studio in New Baltimore, a small town south of Albany, nestled on the western shore. Each morning, no matter the weather conditions, Kozak heads to the water to paint. She combines a tradition of plein air study with studio work, much like her 19th-century predecessors of the Hudson River School. Outside she records the climactic conditions of her subject—tide, current, wind, mist, fog, as well as fluctuations in temperature, moisture, and light. While some paintings are completed on site, many are finished months or even a year later in Kozak’s SoHo studio, thereby incorporating the elements of memory and time into the composition.
Kozak’s strength lies in her ability to translate direct observation of natural phenomena into lyrical paintings. Her images straddle the line between representation and abstraction. Without the reference of horizon lines, viewers are immersed in scenes of saturated hues and subtle movement. And yet her paintings are jewel-like, small and nearly square. Unlike traditional landscape, which tends toward horizontal orientations and vast vistas, Kozak’s format lends itself to intimate, abstract readings. While ostensibly her paintings depict the Hudson River, they are, in fact, explorations in the phenomenology of sight. For Kozak, the river acts as a mediator, or lens, through which to study reflected color and light.
Kozak is first and foremost a colorist. Her paintings elicit distinct moods; the viewer can palpably sense whether a work depicts an overcast morning or a bright summer day. The earthy browns and ochres of Opening Dark, for example, are molten and moody, compared to the brilliant yellows and whites in Silver Shimmer, which vibrate before the eyes. In every composition, Kozak conveys depth through a gradation of tones, while horizontal marks articulate movement on the river’s surface. Luminous specs of contrasting color record light and how it reflects off the water. These light particles appear to “jump” from the painting; this is especially noticeable in In the Second Circle where impastos of radiant red dance across the picture plane. In other works, the points of light are more fully integrated into the overall patterning of the composition, as in Vessel and Meter. Kozak also uses color to suggest distance: darker hues along the top of Back and Forth, Sky-peeled-back, and Edge can be interpreted as the reflection of trees along the opposite bank of the river.
As Kozak resolves a painting in her studio, the work-in-progress will sometimes bring to mind images from literary sources. The memory of a passage described by Dante in the second canto of his Inferno, where Paolo and Francesca are caught in a whirlwind, unexpectedly provided the means for her to complete In the Second Circle. Like Dante’s forbidden lovers, Kozak’s colors spin around a vortex, visible to one another but never again to meet.
Kozak paints on wood panels primed with handmade gesso, which she intentionally builds up along the boarders to form wavy edges. The concentration of linseed oil mixed in the paint creates glossy, liquid surfaces and beautiful textures. The painterly effect produced when fresh pigment is applied over a tacky surface, most evident in Edge and Moonlit Planet, results in unexpected patterns that mimic Kozak’s aquatic subject.
The newest work in the exhibition, Crepusculum Vespertine, was executed entirely in Kozak’s studio. Painted from a three-minute digital recording, she exaggerates color and reflection to create a shadowy, evocative composition. Crepusculum Vespertine represents a fresh direction in Kozak’s work: after nearly two decades, she has augmented first-hand observation with state-of-the-art technology. Kozak is quick to point out, however, that Crepusculum Vespertine is inspired by countless hours spent watching the river more than by any visual aid. It is Kozak’s long experience of the Hudson River, as Dore Ashton notes, that informs “all that she sees, but also all that she feels… .” ii
Notations on a River, Kozak’s first video work in twenty-four years, signals a return to her artistic roots. She studied at the Center for Advanced Visual Studies at MIT, where her graduate thesis was a four channel video installation created, in part, by using one of the original Paik/Abe video synthesizers. Notations on a River is a compilation of digital stills she has taken of the Hudson over the past two years. One image slowly dissolves into another in a hypnotic, rhythmic progression. Similar to her paintings, the images are close up views of the water’s surface; they are abstract, fluid, and have a formal beauty that is difficult to categorize. In two sequences, the early morning light transforms the river’s surface into a textured blanket of gray tonalities, while a third segment is as aquamarine as the Caribbean Sea. Here the images focus on a single reflected vertical line (a tree? telephone pole? sailboat mast?) as its shape morphs and moves with the wind and tide.
The relationship between Kozak’s video and her paintings is undeniable. Whether her inspiration comes directly from nature or from a camera lens, she successfully captures the energy and serenity, textures and tides of her ever changing subject. The Hudson River proves the perfect source for Kozak’s investigation and, ultimately, celebration of color and luminosity. It is no surprise to learn that she is a professor of color and design at Pratt Institute. By minutely adjusting her color choices months after the initial impression, she can significantly alter the perception and mood of a composition. For Ellen Kozak, painting the Hudson River is as much an intellectual engagement as an emotional one.
Hudson River Trilogy
Ellen Kozak’s exhibition is the second of three solo shows presented by the Katonah Museum of Art to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Henry Hudson’s historic exploration of the waterway that bears his name. Nancy Cohen (March 29 – June 28), Ellen Kozak (July 12 – October 4), and Alison Moritsugu (October 18 – January 24, 2010) all live along the river’s banks and draw inspiration from its beauty, its ecology, and its rich maritime history. Each presents a uniquely different perspective based on personal experiences and aesthetic preferences.
[i] Simon Schama, Landscape and Memory (New York: Alfred A. Knopf Ind., 1995), pp. 6-7.
[ii] Ellen Kozak, Orpheus. Eurydice. Hermes: Notations on a Landscape, foreword by Dore Ashton, poetry by Rainer Maria Rilke, translation by Stephen Mitchell (Merrick, NY: Cross-Cultural Communications, 1996), p. 2.