“The human condition”

The Letter, Henry Coupe, oil on linen, 10x16

The Letter, Henry Coupe, oil on linen, 10×16

Henry Coupe, one of the most recent new members at Viridian Artists, has finished his career as an artist, but I hope his reputation has only begun to gain momentum. All his life, he struggled with various degrees of vision impairment, and yet he lived for painting. He deserves a lot more attention than he got while he was actually creating art, and if I had the money to be a collector I’d be grabbing a room full of his canvases right now. His work, mostly very small, does exactly what much of my favorite painting invariably does: it calls my attention to the quality of the paint itself, purely as paint, while it evokes something that takes me away from the medium and into a dream. That polar struggle between the physical reality of a canvas and what it fools you into seeing is at the heart of why painting matters, for me–and Coupe also has a sense of color that’s both somberly beautiful, but somehow also conveys solitude, isolation and yearning. He studied in Utica with a student of Hans Hofmann, where he grew up and lived all his life, and his work shows not just his love of expressionists like Kirchner, but, like Hofmann,  a strong sense for simplifying areas of pure color, composed with an eye to the abstract pattern he assembles on the surface. His sense for color is akin to what Louisa Matthiasdottir–who studied directly with Hofmann–achieved in her brilliantly simplified scenes of Iceland, which are as colorfully intense as a Hodgkins canvas. Coupe’s color can be just as evocative as hers, but in ways it’s more elusive and mournful, submerged in an aura of darkness from which his figures always struggle to emerge.

I stopped in Utica to meet  his wife, Ann, a while ago and spent the afternoon with her, talking about Henry and visiting the Munson-Williams-Proctor Arts Institute to see the Robert Indiana show there, a museum where I studied art briefly when we lived in Utica in the 80s. She had dozens of Coupe’s paintings arranged like dominos on the floor of the living room and dining room in their home, and it was an amazing overview of his life. She told me of their fairy-tale marriage, an ideal relationship, in which neither had ever raised a voice to the other, both of them now still as in love as they were 66 years ago. Every day she has someone found ways to get to the nursing home where he resides now–I dropped her off on my visit. Neither of them have ever gotten a driver’s license, walking or taking public transportation whenever they needed to get anywhere. During my visit, she offered me some background on her husband, but not much, feeling as if she had to guard his privacy.

Like me, Coupe got his bachelor’s degree in the liberal arts, but not from an art school, graduating from Syracuse University’s Utica College in 1956. Before that, he’d taken classes in art with Oscar Weissbuch, the Hofmann student, at Munson-Williams-Proctor. Once he got out of college, he worked as an art teacher in Utica’s public schools until he retired in 1976. Throughout those years, he exhibited in a string of galleries in New York City and Pennsylvania, with one man shows widely-spaced throughout the 60s and 70s, including one in Florence, Italy. He continued to study painting at SUNY, New Paltz and SUNY, Oswego, and tnen at SUNY, Buffalo, and has continued to enter shows ever since. He’s shown his work at the Syracuse Museum of Fine Arts, the Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute, Hamilton College, the Chautauqua Institution, and the Smithsonian’s International Gallery.

Ann provided me a required artist statement Henry wrote in 2006, mostly in sentence fragments, probably indicating how difficult it was, given that he’s a very private person:

Congenital cataracts, an abortive operation at five left my left eye sightless, with severe asthma that delayed schooling for two years. In childhood, I copied N.C. Wyeth and Gustave Dore illustrations, thinking of becoming an illustrator. To receive individual attention, my parents enrolled me in the Country Day School, where my drawings were praised by the staff. Such encouragement bolstered my self-esteem.

From 1944-1948, I studied at Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute under Oscar Weissbuch. He introduced me to fine art and taught composition and, after doing hundreds of wash drawings, I advanced to oils. Before my graduation from Utica College of Syracuse University, the Utica art supervisor offered a teaching position in the public school system.

In 1973, my left eye was enucleated because of uveitis to prevent sympathetic opthalmia, and I continued teaching until 1976. I wondered if I would ever paint again. Having written and illustrated stories in childhood, I turned to writing. After having written three novels, a novella and short stories, all unpublished, I returned to painting in 1986, after a 13-year hiatus.

in 1999, I underwent successful extraction of senile and congenital cataracts in the remaining eye with implantation of a corrective lens. For the first time, I was able to see as others see. Each blade of grass, each leaf–each sunny day, was so intense that it took time to adjust to such overwhelming visual stimuli. Previously, paintings of people in interior- and landscape-settings were more representational and bright. Now, my approach is expressionistic with greater emphasis on the human condition. My recent work has been included in juried exhibitions in New York City, Philadelphia, and Chautauqua.

I am fortunate that, despite visual impairment, art has transformed and sustained me throughout my life.

2 Responses to ““The human condition””

  1. Katie O'Looney

    I came across your article today after googling my Uncle Henry. I gather Veridian will have a show in September. I will be in the isa and catch it. He was a great influence in my own life as a painter. Throughout my childhood sharing his library and critiquing my work for many years. We loved discussing philosophy as well as art. Thank you for the article. I didn’t have many opportunities to see him later in life after I’d moved to Europe (france, then Ireland) but I felt we had a very special relationship.

  2. dave dorsey

    Hi Katie, thank you. I have been intending to do another post to spread the word about the retrospective for Henry in September and I hope to attend. I wish I’d been able to get to know him earlier in his life. I would enjoy the company of someone who gave so much thought to art and philosophy. I’ll bet he treasured all of his friendships.