New York

Eleonore Koch, Private pier, abandoned, 1974, tempera on canvas, 35 × 45 3/4".

Eleonore Koch, Private pier, abandoned, 1974, tempera on canvas, 35 × 45 3/4".

Eleonore Koch

Mendes Wood DM | New York

A German-born Brazilian who developed her signature aesthetic while living in London for two decades, Eleonore Koch (1926–2018) is a vibrant outlier in the global history of postwar painting. Her enigmatically spare, jewel-toned canvases conjure a cosmopolitan network of artistic kinship, a way of thinking about objects in space that owes something to the depopulated metaphysical vistas of Giorgio de Chirico and the lambent stillness of Giorgio Morandi—but also to a certain strain of British Pop art that wends its way from Patrick Caulfield and David Hockney to Michael Craig-Martin—all set against the broader background of midcentury Brazilian modernism. Yet, beyond any stylistic echo, it is a multidecade engagement with what De Chirico described as the “psychology of things” and a finely tuned sense of what the proto-Surrealist called the “tragic serenity” of certain psycho-geographic settings that most clearly set Koch’s practice apart.

Koch’s work was recently the subject of a pair of concurrent exhibitions, both organized by Brazilian curator Kiki Mazzucchelli, at Stuart Shave’s Modern Art in London and at Mendes Wood DM on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. For New Yorkers, the latter provided a modest, though very welcome, introduction to the artist’s uncannily beautiful and lamentably underappreciated paintings and drawings. Born in Berlin, Koch moved with her family to São Paulo when she was ten. In 1949, she went to study art in Paris; upon her return to Berlin two years later, she began working with celebrated painter Alfredo Volpi and started exhibiting, taking a series of day jobs to support herself. In 1968, Koch settled in London and would spend the next twenty years there before returning to Brazil, where she remained until her death. The ten pieces here—dated from before, during, and after her English sojourn—depict both the evolutions and the consistencies of her approach.

While Koch’s work bears some resemblance to Volpi’s, the most crucial thing she took from him would seem to have been the egg-tempera technique that would come to dominate her canvases and give them their quiet, effervescent radiance. The earliest painting on view, Park at nightfall, 1969, announces the potential both her material choices and her coloration and compositional strategies have for producing captivatingly unexpected effects. As is typically the case, the pictorial cast of characters is distilled to just a few inscrutably basic elements. The canvas is divided horizontally—the dark-green ground that fills the work’s bottom third hosts a pair of disembodied Neoclassical architectural elements, like rogue bits of a ruined manor house, while, above, a deep-cobalt horizon is interrupted by a black form whose hulkingly indistinct silhouette allows it to be read simultaneously as volume and absence. Koch’s special skill is to defamiliarize such quotidian markers—grass and sky, plinth and urn—by situating them within spatially uncertain settings. In Interior with white chair, 1977, she performs a similar kind of magic with an even greater economy of means, juxtaposing a pale-ivory wing-back chair that resembles a swallowtail moth transformed into a piece of sitting-room furniture with a bright-blue screen turned at an oddly foreshortened angle. Setting her austere ensemble against a wall brushed in variegated celadon and a purple-black floor, she summons a scene that’s neither here nor there, at once plainspokenly domestic and disorientingly otherworldly.

A trio of charcoal-on-paper drawings further demonstrate Koch’s flair for destabilizing simple scenarios via offbeat relational interactions. Shell, 1960, for example, stages an encounter between a small coiled pod and a vertical line, as if illustrating an episode from Edwin Abbott’s sci-fi fantasia Flatland (1884), while in the undated Chair, the titular object might be either resting on a grassy patch of lawn beside an intersection or set near the edge of a deep crevasse. But the true force of Koch’s singular imagination is given its fullest expression in her paintings, perhaps most exquisitely in Private pier, abandoned, 1974. The largest work in the show at nearly three feet high and four feet wide, it features a low-slung complex of posts and platforms, their surfaces elegantly simplified into an arrangement of flat brown shapes that creep in from its right edge. Jutting out onto a calm azure expanse of water, the array stretches toward a figure a little farther out—a solitary, solemn buoy hung with a red banner that suggests the cryptic ensign of some forgotten coastal enterprise.