Foss’s Beauty, Newly Channeled

Her portraits are lovely and penetrating
“My Mother’s Yellow Plate”

   Cornelia Foss has a new self-published book, “Cornelia Foss: Ten Years of Paintings and Drawings, 2003-2013,” that has more illustrations and heft than many volumes coming out of traditional presses.
The art book industry has always been a bit do-it-yourself. Color monographs and exhibition catalogs are expensive, and publishers typically charge the venue to produce them. So why not just take it upon yourself when you have sumptuous illustrations, an introduction by Barbara Novak, and an enlightening interview with William Benton?
   Dr. Novak is one of the pre-eminent and founding scholars of American art history. She has taught at Columbia University and Barnard College for decades and is now a professor emerita there. She calls Ms. Foss’s color “tonal, balanced, original, and exquisite,” her paintings “private and meditative. In Foss’s hands each subject has been passionately retrieved, studied, annotated, contemplated, and reinvented on terms that generously invite our swift and agile participation.”
   Mr. Benton is a writer and musician on the faculty of the master’s program at the School of Visual Arts, where he teaches art criticism and writing.
   In an essay, Ms. Foss speaks of her early practice, being singled out for her talent and sent to study with a painter who taught at the University of Indiana, where her father taught archaeology.
    She recalls the early influences of Pablo Picasso, Hans Holbein, Stuart Davis, Jacob van Ruisdael, and many classical Renaissance masters whose works she saw in churches and museums with her parents.
    It goes on to describe her mentors and how her approach differs from theirs, her relationship to Fairfield Porter and Willem de Kooning, and how she painted certain images — what she was thinking and what her goals were for them.
    As with someone late in life, she discusses her paintings of those dear to her who have since died. She painted her husband, Lukas Foss, in his last illness, “a human being who was rapidly vanishing before my eyes.” A portrait of Kenneth Koch, the poet, from a photograph was a race to the finish during his illness, but he died a week before it was completed.
    Ms. Foss’s showy floral depictions, typically done in and from the garden, seem to be what people immediately think of when imagining her paintings. However, her portraits are lovely and penetrating. They can map every crag in an aging face or sketch out a moment of childhood contentment from a sunny beach afternoon. Her interiors, still lifes, and animal portraits are colorful and light-filled or somber and drab, depending on her mood or perhaps the demeanor of the subject.
    There is a rich variety of images here, each allowing for an intimate view that does not replicate the experience of the painting itself but serves as a document of its being and its contribution to the history of painters who have successfully channeled the beauty of the South Fork through their own interpretations of it.
    The book is available through her Web site,, and is priced at $50.

Cornelia Foss was captured by the photographer Hans Namuth several times over the years. Hans Namuth