Leon Kossoff Hardcover – 1 Oct 1996
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Leon Kossoff is well-known in Great Britain, less so here in the States. And that's unfortunate. For he is a superb painter, one of the greats. While his painting may only seem like muddy globs of paint on a board, and his subject matter is ordinary, Kossoff's great skill, like his friend and former art schoolmate, Frank Auerbach, is in revealing what their teacher, David Bomberg, called the "spirit in the mass." That process, for both painters, does not arrive easy. They struggle, painting and scraping, over and over. But from those thick applications of paint, they reveal something original, and in their own way. In doing so Leon Kossoff makes those ordinary places and people he depicts transforming.
The retrospective (of paintings only) by the Tate for which this is the catalog, is one of the few given him, despite a general recognition of his talent. Despite that limitation, the book is sufficiently rich in drawings illustrating the text sections as to give the reader a reasonably sound basis for understanding their relationship to the painting. The essays are quite good in their use of visual representations to provide a clearer understanding of the underlying principles of Kossoff's approach. I was quite happy with them. The plates themselves are about as good a representation as one can get in a printed text of such paint enriched surface. Study with my 5", x2 magnifying glass, gave me a very good sense of what the work was like, although only an approximation of the reality. Unfortunately, contrary to the situation with Auerbach (whose work was exhibited fairly often by his dealer Marlborough in their NYC gallery), the American who finds himself drawn to Kossoff finds a lesser opportunity to study the works themselves. I was quite happy to find one of his large paintings of his brother, Chaim, adorning the walls of the Metropolitan Museums gallery which also included one of Alex Katz's many Ada paintings, Warhol's Mao, and a variety of Chuck Close's large photo-based works. This gave me a good chance to enrich my study of the catalogue's plates. (Amusingly, Chaim was replaced in time by one of Frank Auerbach's portraits. Perhaps they reserved the area for British figurative artists since it was right next to one by Lucien Freud of his bulky entertainment model of the 1980's.)
While there are other catalogues and books available on Kossoff, this one, I believe, is best able to provide a broad perspective on his work. The one with a nice but short essay by Sylvester covers only a limited period. For anyone interested in contemporary figurative art, British art, or excellent art, this book will be a fruitful source of enlightenment and pleasure