Cubism is most often associated with its inventors Pablo Picasso and Georges Braque, as well as a range of other European artists who took art in radically new directions at the beginning of the 20th century. Its effects, however, reverberated for decades throughout the American scene in the work of Manierre Dawson, Max Weber and many others. One name not widely mentioned in conjunction with this American brand of Cubism is Richard Koppe (1916-1973), but Corbett vs. Dempsey tried to help reverse this omission through a compact exhibition of 19 drawings and paintings. The works were borrowed from the artist’s estate, bequeathed by his wife, Catherine Hinkle (also an artist), to the University of Illinois at Chicago, where Koppe taught from 1963 through 1970.
The St. Paul, Minn., native moved to Chicago in 1937 to study at the New Bauhaus (later the Institute of Design of the Illinois Institute of Technology) with such notable expatriates as László Moholy-Nagy, György Kepes and Alexander Archipenko. Although Koppe’s works were included in such exhibitions as “American Painting Today” in 1950 at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, he, like scores of other artists who enjoyed a strong regional presence, never developed a lasting national profile.
This show offered glimpses of his career in early and late works, but included almost nothing from its middle three decades—a frustrating gap for viewers wanting to understand the artist’s evolution. Least memorable were 13 works on paper completed between 1938 and ’40, among them a small, strongly Braque-influenced untitled gouache on board showing a cubist figure against a window (1939). While certainly striking enough, and smartly executed, these are almost textbook examples of early Cubism, offering virtually nothing distinctive. Though clearly influenced by Joan Miró and others, two untitled surrealist works from 1946 suggesting imaginary worlds are more original and complex, especially one in which a pair of airy, overlapping geometric forms in the lower foreground are carefully rendered in dashed lines.
Much more revelatory were four paintings that are part of a late body of Koppe’s work showcased in 1970 at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. These hard-edge, flattened abstractions, which leave Cubism in the rearview mirror, draw on Color Field painting (Kenneth Noland-like targets recur) and certain elements of Op art. They are bold, exuberantly colored works that still look fresh and exciting more than 40 years after their creation. One of these late paintings, Gyroscopic (1970), was actually not included here, but it provided the show with an aptly evocative title. Each of the four examples presented is a compelling work, especially the 60-by-72-inch Luminous (1970), in which horizontal, quasi-teardrop forms, some adorned with targets and color modulations suggesting light streaks, float with smaller rectangles on a bright orange background.
This exhibition was not large or comprehensive enough to allow for a complete reappraisal of Koppe’s career, but it certainly whetted the appetite to see more, especially his culminating, likely legacy-defining paintings.
Richard Koppe: Luminous, 1970, acrylic on canvas, 60 by 72 inches; at Corbett vs. Dempsey.