As I look at Chaim Koppelman’s “Cherry Tomatoes” in this memorial exhibition, I think of his lessons on pastels in the Art of Drawing class, which I am very grateful to have attended. In these classes, Mr. Koppelman often would ask us to study Eli Siegel’s question about truth and imagination from Is Beauty a Making One of Opposites:
IS every painting a mingling of mind justly receptive of what is before it, and of mind freely and honorably showing what it is through what mind meets?—is every painting, therefore, a oneness of what is seen as item and what is seen as possibility, of fact and appearance, the ordinary and the strange?—and are objective and subjective made one in a painting?
     Chaim Koppelman wanted us to be serious about the power of the art imagination. We loved his classes in the art of the still life. We were learning to see the wonder of the everyday, and to see that we could use the art imagination to know ourselves, to see ourselves as objects. I had used imagination to make myself comfortable and take the life out of things. He would ask us to go to our refrigerators, sometimes to our trash cans, to find objects to bring to the next class.
      Mr. Koppelman would remind us of how long it had taken in the history of art for an object such as this box of cherry tomatoes to be taken seriously as a subject for a painting. Here it is with Renaissance gorgeousness in dramatic perspective. The tapering sides of the box go to a vanishing point deep below the surface. They tell us the cherry tomatoes are safely inside while putting the box into motion and giving it a sense of adventure.
     The box is in a pool of light with a bright center, right next to the darkest part of the painting. There is a powerful shadow that goes horizontally across the top.
It has light within it and its outer edges go into space. 
     Mr. Koppelman loved the tremendous possibilities of pastels, which let you draw and color at the same time, relate technique and feeling, logic and emotion. Pastels let you make sharp edges and blend, as we want both to stand out as individuals and join with others. The stroke defining the edge of the box is definitely individual as it asserts itself as different from the tomatoes, but then blends subtly into the green of the box.  The airy surface that the box sits on is a composition of warm and cool color, layered, pastel strokes forming a surface, signing the space repeatedly in a surprising and beautiful way. Mr. Koppelman did say in one class that Eli Siegel called the presence of space in a painting a sign of sincerity, like the presence of music in poetry.
     Mr. Koppelman’s classes in the still life were always fresh. He would speak about the still object having the possibility of life. He might ask us to draw the space around our objects first, to have them breathe, or ask us, had we yet become the tomato?
     Look at how alive these cherry tomatoes are. While definitely sitting in the box, behaving themselves, they are individuals, lively, even jostling each other a little. As item in ordinary life, one cherry tomato can seem so much like another. We can think of them as having one single color. But each tomato within this box is in a slightly different light, and each has different possibilities of color. Look how rich the color is in each one – a composition of not one red but many reds, browns, even touches of blue. How sparingly the vermilion is used but how bright the tomatoes are! This is changing a thing to make it more itself.
     Chaim Koppelman, our beloved teacher and friend, is with us. These tomatoes are a sign of that.
Show More...