Leon Kossoff: Looking at life with a loaded brush

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During his decades as an artist, British painter Leon Kossoff (1926-2019) produced 510 known oil paintings. This can be said because they were all found and published in a catalog raisonné just released by Modern Art Press (London).

A catalog raisonné is a Herculean effort of research, detective work, devotion and perception. This one, assembled over eight years by a small team led by Andrea Rose, art historian and specialist in British painting, conveys the usual breathtaking accumulation of information: images of each painting, its exhibition history and its bibliography and the list of its successive owners. (called a provenance). An added bonus is the vividness of Rose’s annotations on the paintings, which are peppered with striking observations from various art historians, curators and critics, artists, the artist himself and others. One of Kossoff’s two small paintings based on Titian’s gruesome “Apollo Flaying Marsyas”, for example, comes with an insightful appreciation from David Bowie, who once owned it.

The publication of a catalog raisonné is a major event, and that of Kossoff is celebrated by the exhibition “Leon Kossoff: a life in painting”, a title shared by three small, carefully thought-out surveys in the main galleries of the artist: Mitchell-Innes & Nash in New York, Annely Juda Fine Art in London and LA Louvre in Los Angeles. A union catalog reproduces the works in all three, which is admirable. He also calls the combined exhibitions “the largest, most comprehensive exhibition” of Kossoff’s paintings ever held in a commercial gallery, which seems like empty boasting.

Today, Kossoff is among the most accomplished painters of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. He was unfairly overshadowed by fellow Britons like Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud, thanks in part to their colorful personal lives. But it can pass.

Kossoff’s greatness lies in the extreme way in which he pits the two fundamental realities of painting – the actual paint surface and the image depicted – against each other. First there is the surprisingly heavy, even off-putting, impasto of his oil paint, which sometimes seems more flowing than conventionally applied with a brush (even large ones), and which gives his surfaces an almost topographical dimension. Then there is the reality of his images, initially awash in paint, which eventually finds its way to readability through a process that slows down and excitingly prolongs the act of looking.

The painter’s subjects fall into two main groups. There are self-portraits as well as portraits of friends and family and paintings of nude models – all done during long sessions in his studio. Then there is everything outside, namely London and its thrilling life. This is what he captured in paintings of construction sites; pedestrians passing well-known buildings or entering subway stations, as well as trains running along the tracks. These began with many drawings made on location, from which he painted in the studio.

Mitchell-Innes & Nash’s 13 paintings cover three decades and most of his subjects. They begin with the great “Seated Nude No. 1” (1963) – a Rubenian woman sinking into a dark armchair – full of the first signs of her vision. Other highlights include a 1992 rendition of Nicholas Hawksmoor’s English Baroque masterpiece, Christ Church, Spitalfields in the East End, protectively towering over people crowding the pavement; a powerful seated portrait of his father; a tumultuous demolition scene; and two passing trains seen from above, through the trees.

The great thing about Kossoff’s paintings is the ultimate precision of their depictions, in both psychic and physical senses. All his subjects appear as complex presences, living parts of the living world – whether human, architectural or natural – brought to life by his thick, silently vibrating surfaces. It is telling that the only still life in the entire catalog raisonné dates from the early 1950s, when Kossoff was just getting started. Even his paintings based on the Old Masters are usually multi-figure compositions to which he adds his own particular sense of tumult. This is exemplified in this superb spectacle by the slender bodies and brushwork of his copy of a Poussin. He had little interest in stillness.

Leon Kossoff: A Life in Painting

Through March 5 at Mitchell-Innes & Nash, 534 West 26th Street, Manhattan; 212-744-7400, miandn.com.

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