Introduction by Dr. Peter Seltz
Frank Koči might have been called a Street Artist but this exceptionally creative artist was extremely more than that. In 1921 the 16-year old Frank Koči left his native Czechoslovakia, hoping to find better opportunities in America. He and his mother had been living close to poverty. His father was killed in Italy, fighting for the Austrian Empire in the Great War and they had been living on a meager pension. His mother was a very religious woman and an uncle was a preacher. Koči in his memoirs had much to say about religion: He had no use for it. "Religion is not only an opium, it' s insanity" and "Capitalist-Religious tyranny", "And nothing is more materialistic than the church and the fear of death that makes for plenty of jobs for the priesthood."
In his memoirs, written in a disjointed, often ungrammatical and unassuming homey style... he has much to say about his life and his thoughts. He was self-taught as a writer and as a painter. But he did know how to paint and how to write. This man was no naïf. In his memoirs he refers to the Greek philosophers, to Goethe and Nietzsche, to Kierkegaard and Dostoyevsky, to Descartes and Karel Capek, to Upton Sinclair and Theodore Dreiser, but all this came later in his life.
So he left his home and his memoirs are replete with connotative memories of his life in Pilsen and his farewells, his carefully planned trip to Cherbourg with a stop in Paris, which, he writes, "was just another Prague, only about three times larger, but I wanted to see the skyscrapers, not the sidewalk cafes, operas, museums and art galleries. At 16 1/2 I was already too sophisticated about arts and literature, dramas and polished military brass. My uncles had lead me into the orchards of literature very early." From Cherbourg came a long boat ride, the usual intrusive procedure at Ellis Island, a short glimpse of New York and on to a tramp schooner to New Orleans, where he was relieved of the little money brought with him; another long train ride to Texas where he was unwelcomed by his relatives, who sent him to a dairy farm, where, once more, he did not fare well. But there was the vision of Hollywood for the young man who was galvanized by images of Rudolph Valentino. Another long train ride to Los Angeles where he arrived in 1923 and found filthy lodgings in the company of rag pickers and derelicts, bootleggers, whores and dope peddlers. But there was the Salvation Army and the trumpets of Aimee Semple McPherson of the Four Square Gospels. Koči was hired as a night guard in the studios and managed to get into the art departments and to dab at pieces of wood with paints laying around, making his first paintings. He also appeared as a stunt man and an extra in The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), Ironsides (1926) and Charlie Chaplin's Gold Rush (1925). But life in Hollywood was not what he had envisaged and he joined the Merchant Marine and spent some thirty years at sea.
He tells us in his memoir that "after continuous rounds of profligacy, sin and meditation, I retired from manual labor and took up journalism, art and vicarious pleasures such as hating women and a priori mathematics." As for journalism, he opened a corner news stand where he sold his paintings as well as newspapers. Some of his pictures do show a disdain for women, but no more than for men. But there are many paintings in which we see a true delight in the people he painted--mostly done with both a wry sense of humor and at the same time a cynical attitude. His existence was hand to mouth and he took a room in the rat-infested Westchester Hotel on Third Street, which he describes as a "sagging edifice of horror, winding greasy steps, covered with ragged spittle, infested carpets and smelling.....those heroically determined to inhabit... are Beatniks crowding in, meditating, as they do in beer and sniffing absurdly about being lonesome." This rat-infested place on Third and Mission was located in the block next to the site now occupied by the luxurious St. Regis Hotel next to SFMOMA. Things have changed.
Later Koči moved to slightly better quarters on Columbus Avenue. He became known around North Beach, simply made his paintings, stayed away from the art scene at all times, but supported himself by selling his paintings himself for $5 to $15, depending on size. They were painted on any support he could get his hands on, boards, plasterboard, even on used jewelry trays. A few non-commercial galleries showed work they bought from him. He exhibited paintings at the Galerie de Quartier on Vallejo Street where he also worked for a short time. In 1962, he exhibited paintings at the Pomegranate Gallery on Columbus and from 1963-67 his work could be seen at Henry Lenoir's Vesuvio Cafe, a trove of bizarre junk and a meeting place for North Beach bohemians and beatniks. In 1969, Koči was included in an "Outsider Art" show at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art and in 1974 in the exhibition "Art Naïf", curated by Rolando Castellon at SFMOMA. Two years later Koči showed 150 pieces at John Behanna’s warehouse on Bluxome Street and people also came to see and buy his paintings at his annual birthday parties. In 1983, after he died, the Tattoo Artist Lyle Tuttle had a big sale of his work at his residence in North Beach. Koči was always full of sardonic humor in his speech as well as his paintings. Muldoon Elder, who had been collecting his work at the Vorpal Gallery since 1963 and continued to do so even without the gallery, told me that Koči enjoyed selling his paintings almost as much as creating them, thus when he offered a contract to Frank Koči, the artist replied with a big grin: "The only contract I'll sign is with my undertaker!" He was true to his word.
The Contemporary Arts Forum in Santa Barbara mounted an impressive exhibition called "Visions from the Left Coast: California Self-Taught Artists" in 1965, in which Koči was represented with a cynical painting of a general called, Another Medal, dated 1960-80. In 1995, the San Francisco Public Library celebrated his work and Audrey Darby gave a talk about him. In 2003, Christie's at its Paris location, sold three lots of Kočis at its auction.
During the years he lived and painted in North Beach and even since then, he has remained relatively unknown. In all the years I have been working here with my interest for artists who are not in the mainstream, I was unaware of Koči's paintings, which were known solely to a small coterie of collectors who hoarded his work. When Dr. Susan Landauer recently drew my attention to these paintings, I was pleased to see authentic painting.
Frank Koči must have painted more than 5,000 pieces; no one knows how many. They are scattered all over. Above all, he painted the denizens of North Beach, often walking in pairs; the men are likely to be in top hats, or we may see bare-breasted nuns in Sisters Superior (1962), which pictures a blonde nun and three little nuns at her side. What fun Koči must have had painting this picture! He also liked to paint women seen from behind and wrote, rather curiously, "When I came to this country 39 years ago, American males' infatuation was with women's behinds, the bigger the behind, the bigger the infatuation. However, in later years came the Communist -inspired adoration of the female bosom". (One has to wonder about the meaning of such an observation). Some of Koči's strongest paintings are close-up views of heads, such as Face it!, a mask of dark eyes, and red lips; a face staring at the viewer with fearful intensity.
Oil on Mahogany Panel by Frank Koči 9 1/16 in x 8 1/8 in 23 cm x 21 cm c. 1963
There is a wide range of subjects in his oeuvre. His paintings are small, closely cropped and are characterized by an intensity of feeling.
Koči must have been familiar with some of the masters of modern art, having seen their work at least in reproduction. In keeping with modernist tenets, he avoids perspective, keeping his space flat on its support. Among the painters who may have influenced his work, Georges Rouault, above all, comes to mind, the dark black outlines which the French master used in many of his paintings of poor people in their villages, the stained glass effect of many of his paintings and the sense of human suffering. We think of James Ensor's wild masks and his processions of people that find echoes in some of Koči's pictures. Some of his men, looking out under strange caps, make us think of Goya. There are Koči's grotesque faces that may relate to those in Emil Nolde's brilliantly colored oils. And George Grosz's bemedalled generals make a reappearance in Koči's paintings. The former critic of the San Francisco Chronicle, the late Thomas Albright, who was aware of Koči's work, correctly observed: "Koči's painting reflects the fact that Picasso and Expressionism have become wholly absorbed in our visual heritage, which is another way of saying that his painting is a compelling combination of naïveté and immense sophistication."
Combining naïveté and sophistication, Koči painted the mustaches on the Czech gentlemen he saw in his youth. He remembered one and wrote: "He was of our nationality, short, husky, pigeon footed, seedy in the prevailing fashion. He had a walrus mustache, a drooping thing, rather objectionable, bristles stained with smoke pipe gravy. Behind the unkempt edifice was a pair of beady eyes, shimmering in some lecherous fashion. They were scrutinizing us for moral debauchment. Of that we were never sure". We can see the artist wandering around North Beach, seeing and painting people encountering each other on the street or sitting behind bottles at the bar, street scenes crowded with people, topsy-turvy buildings, or, at times, a view of the City by the Bay, with Coit Tower and Golden Gate Bridge. There are paintings of the city done with linear scribbles, recalling Paul Klee. There are paintings of imaginary cities with tall buildings towering into the skies, which are often used as backgrounds of cartoon-like figures looking at the viewer. There are graffiti-like people whose conversations are scribbled on text balloons. And quite often we see dispirited and hungry men. The application of pigment is usually thin, the colors somber, but when the occasion called for it, Koči could use bright highlights as well as heavy impasto.
This is what he himself had to say: "The true artist feels along with his brushstroke, his soul is completely packaged in ice; he is not vague about his values, he treasures pain as an ingredient necessary for his creations, he lives with mice and men."
Frank Koči was more than a street artist.
Dr. Peter Seltz was the Professor of Art History and German Expressionism at U.C. Berkeley. He is now Professor Emeritus. He has been awarded two Fulbrights and the Order of Merit from the Federal Republic of Germany.