Audrey Darby & The Frank Koči Project
Long before Michael Moore focused on the inequities of our society, Frank Koči (1904-1983) highlighted the injustices and hypocrisy in America through his art. Both in his journals and in his paintings, Koči reflected on the alienation and estrangement of mid-century America. Koči was an outsider artist, a primitive artist of the 20th century. He was a participant and a close observer of the North Beach Beat Art and Literary Scene in San Francisco in the 1960's. He left a great treasure of important artwork and unpublished writings that cast light on the Beat Era.
About four years ago, I began to be concerned that, with the aging of the Koči collectors, Koči's work would be lost to the general public and a generation of younger art lovers would not be able to see his paintings. Because Koči was such a renegade and would not sign with a gallery, I felt his artwork owned privately would be relegated to the dust heap as the owners died and passed these paintings on to their children.
I began my quest. I started documenting the work of Koči by taking photographs of his paintings. I felt it was important that there be some kind of record of the paintings that he had done. One collector led to another and my mission became like a big mystery hunt. Some of the images of the paintings that I have came to me by accident; just knowing people. One person would lead to another and the search continues. And things would appear out of the blue connected to Koči. I have photographs of more than 500 of Koči's paintings. I soon began to be known as the Koči "go to" person.
When I found out that a 16mm movie had been made of Koči, I attempted to find it and then have it reproduced in modern day format. Ben Abromovice, a Koči collector and film student at NYU, made the movie. After more than forty years, he was able to locate the movie and had it transferred to DVD format for me. The daughter of a friend who had graduated from filmmaking at Duke University, Margaux Joffe, then shot interviews with Koci aficionados who had been involved with Koči when he lived in San Francisco. Most Koči collectors' have more than one of his paintings.
I also discovered that two journals existed. Although Koči was born in Czechoslovakia, the journals were written in English. I had these journals transcribed by Christine Gipson Sudenius, the wife of the owner of the Gallerie du Quartier where Koči first showed his paintings in San Franciscos' North Beach area. These journals talk about Koči's feelings about artists, hats, ladies, the military, moustaches, politics, processions, religion, the rich and poor, San Francisco, specters with white faces, and his outlook on life; all represented in his paintings.
Koči's Private Journals
With all of this information, the journals, the film, and the artworks, I then began to try to secure a show for Koči. I gave a presentation at the San Francisco Public Library in August of 2007.
At this time, the work of Koči remains unknown to all but his private collectors. I am hopeful that with the showcasing of his artwork, film and his journals will lead to a new generation of art lovers who will appreciate Koči's work.
Audrey Darby, The Frank Koči Project, Founder & Director
A MUSTARD JAR IN THE CUPBOARD
"A tale without love is like meat without mustard, a tasteless dish." Anatole France
If you think that jar is of a yellow color much like mustard itself and that the thin lettering on the jar is of a deep red tone, then it is most likely that you will come back to tell your friend holding the barren hotdog in his hand that you are sorry but there is no mustard in the cupboard. But in actual fact, right in front of your eyes there still sits a big bright red jar with bold white letters spelling out the word MUSTARD that you didn’t see or at least that didn’t register with you.
Why didn’t you see it?
The answer is simple but the implications are immense. We only see what we are looking for, what we already have in mind. We only recognize what we already know. “What about surprises?” you say, “And isn’t a surprise a recognition of something that we were not looking for?” Good point, but later I’ll show you how, ultimately, a surprise is always connected to something that we already know and thus we can eventually see it even though we didn’t foresee it.
Artist hate it when they hear you say that their painting that you happen to be looking at reminds you of the paintings of Chagall, or of Picasso or of Moholy-Nagy or of the art of anyone else that you’ve seen before instead of the actual thing itself. But you can’t seem to help yourself and you still blurt it out. Why? Because you only see what you already know and this way you think you are telling the artist that you see his painting. But of course you don’t, or at least not yet. What you are seeing is old images that were previously stamped on your brain.
So the question arises as to how we can truly see a painting or grasp an idea that is completely new to us? When, walking down San Francisco’s Upper Grant Street in nineteen sixty-three, I first saw a painting of the funky old Czechoslovakian artist, Frank Koči, [that’s a haček over the “c” that tells you it should be pronounced with a CHUH sound] I liked it a little, but I thought to myself, “Hmmm, like the paintings of George Rouault only cruder and more ragged; yes, washed-over Rouault [pronounced ROO-OOH], that’s all it is.” But every day on my way to work, there it was, looking back at me and every day it became a little less like the work of Rouault and more and more like the imaginative, bitingly honest, original, and truly unique art of Frank Koči.
Over the next twenty years we would hang out and play chess together and in between those games I purchased over three hundred and fifty of his paintings but steadfastly refused to sell any of them unless Koči would sign an exclusive contract with me so if someone wanted to own one, I would just send him over to see Frank Koči who had told me right from the start and with a big, mischievous grin on his face that he enjoyed peddling them almost as much as he liked creating them and that the only contract that he would ever sign “would be with his undertaker.”
Muldoon M. Elder (Artist, Poet, Art Dealer, Filmmaker and Friend of Koči)
Private Koči Exhibit Frank Koči Birthday Party
"I met Koči shortly after I graduated from nursing school in 1959. I was introduced by my mother's friend, Don Jones, who was a Koči collector. Koči had several "birthday parties" a year in his south of Market , "down in the heels" hotel room. The small room was cluttered with painting supplies, the walls covered with his paintings, and some paintings done by someone else in his family. He had a hot plate, a girlfriend, and a little dog (which may have belonged to his girlfriend). Even though the "open house" was scheduled for all day and into the evening/night, most collectors tried to be there for the whole time, in order to check out each other and to better bargain with Koči over price. Koči would determine what he thought one could pay, and would hold out for a higher price with those he thought could afford it. He knew I had no money, so he usually sold me paintings for around $25.00."
Valerie Stilson (Daughter Of Lorraine Stilson - Koči Collector)
"I remember Koči at his new apartment on Clementina Street just a few blocks from his old room at the Westchester Hotel on Third Street in San Francisco. It initially was a spotless studio apartment with kitchen, bath and a balcony, high up enough to get light and bird's eye views of the surrounding buildings.
When the old Westchester Hotel's doom was sealed for demolition to make way for a new downtown area surrounding Yerba Buena Center, the city gave options for the dispossessed to resettle in the general area. Koči was one of the first to sign up and receive keys to a studio apartment in this brand new elevator apartment building.
He almost immediately turned the space into his art studio, setting up an area to paint at, and another area for his new Chihuahua puppy.
It didn't take long for the place to get broken in, "Koči style." It soon was a combination artist studo, the old run down Westchester Hotel and camping out..
Koči welcomed visitors to his new "civilized" space, enjoying the intercom like a new toy, that ushered visitors up to his "eagle's nest" studio.
Not too long after moving in, it was Koči's birthday and he decided to invite everyone that he liked and even some collectors he didn't like over for that special occasion. Koči never drank alcohol as far as I knew, but that didn't spoil the festive up-beat evening that transpired with a steady stream of friends and collectors paying their respects; some even buying Koči's latest paintings. While I was there, a small entourage entered his studio, separate from those visiters coming and going. Koči was at the door holding his puppy; greeting all of the visitors.
Two of the men were speaking on portable radios. This was well before the the cell phone era. In the center of this group was then San Francisco District Attorney, Joe Freitas, who was also an avid Koči fan and collector. The group stayed for about ten minutes after the DA picked out a few recent Koci paintings for his collection. After the business was concluded the group left as quietly and quickly as they had entered. Koči agreed to hold the DA's selection to be picked up and paid for at another time. There were other luminaries at Koči's birthday bash but none more memorable than the District Attorney and his men. (Perhaps he would be the next mayor if things went right. Unfortunately they didn't and he lived out his life in Paris with a new wife and all his Koči paintings).
His paintings were so personal that he fought against others profiting from their sales."
Jerry Emanuel (Artist and Friend Of Koči)
Ben Abromovice and Frank Koči
"It was a chilly-damp, dark evening in SF. Kimberley and I were driving down Bush Street. For some reason near the corner of Bush and Taylor the window of an atelier caught our attention. We said in unison --"it's a Koči!" There, sitting in the window of this art shop, was a painted piece of wood that was without a doubt a Koči. I parked and went back to the shop and spoke to the owner. He had fantastic original "high end" (of the market) works all around. I asked about different pieces (very, very, pricey) and finally got around to "that thing in the window" referring to the (approx.) 6" x 15" piece of painted wood in the window. "Oh, that thing", (his word). Some crazy artist in North Beach did it. Some lady gave it to me on consignment. She wants $800 for it." I thanked him and left. Three days later, it was not in the window."
Ben Abromovice (16 MM Documentary Filmmaker About Koči And Koči Collector)
"Frank Koči was a charming Czech with wit that flowed relentlessly from his innards like vitriol. He spun a tale for every painting he sold, of social injustice, and incongruities. His rustic, almost countrified manner was a facade for a uniquely sophisticated intelligence. He was well read, having digested some of the basics of Schopenhauer, Kant, Voltainre, Bertrand Russell, etc., as well as being a daily newspaper addict, keeping abreast of world and local affairs."
C.M. Ware (Artist)
Lyle Tuttle and Frank Koči Lyle Tuttle
"A Koči quote: 'Painting gives me a great enjoyment. Because I love painting them and I love selling them. Nobody's putting me under contract and have half my fun.'"
Lyle Tuttle (Collector Of More Than 150 Koči Paintings and Drawings)
"He was a quiet, aware man."
Donald Jones (Photographer And Collector Of More Than 150 Koči Paintings)
"I just remember him coming over many Sunday afternoons to my parent's flat on Russian Hill and my dad and him playing chess quite intensively. After my parents divorced, he still came up for dinner as you might remember my mother loved to cook and he was happy to have a nice meal made for him. I remember visiting him in the tower that he moved into (after the leaving the hotel) and seeing his Chihuahua dogs that were very yappy. I remember meeting Gloria (his girlfriend) and her wearing those orange fishnet stockings that were so popular in the late '60's. I remember his stories about coming from Czechoslovakia at 17 years old and working as a milker/dairy hand (at which point he would show his thumbs -massive like muscles on them)."
Kirsten Gipson (Daughter of Ed and Jane Gipson, Owner Of Galerie Du Quartier, Koči's First Exhibit)
"He was my Hollywood star!"
Sisi Luopajarvi (Collector and Friend of Koči)
"Frank Koči was one of the last of a dying breed, the working class intellectual. Before he was an artist, Koči was a stevedore and a merchant marine who could quote Schopenhauer and Kant. And he was probably the funniest person I have ever met. His jokes, told in an amusing Czech accent, were always disguised as personal stories and only when he got to the punch line did you realize he had been pulling your leg. And he never missed an opportunity to poke fun at himself. Koči told the story of his first very first one-man show and the woman who entered the opening, exclaiming, "Oh my god!" and ran all the way across the room only to pick up an astray and ask "Where did you get this?" Or the time Koči brought his portfolio to an upscale gallery on Sutter St. As the gallery owner was flipping through the pages, Koči told him, "This is not my best work." According to Frank, the owner responded, "I've seen your best work and it's the worst I've ever seen." A man who studied philosophy and art history, Koči also got a kick out of mainstream American television--shows like "Gillian's Island" and "The Rockford Files" (which he called "Rockford's Piles"). Koči lives on through his art, but those of us who were lucky enough to know Frank still miss the man."
David Domoniconi (Collector, Author, Gallery Owner and son of Frank Koči's Girlfriend, Gloria)
"I was driving home to Marin after working at SF General and was on lower Polk St. and the traffic was very slow. I noticed a painting in the window of a thrift shop and said...'It's a Koči.'" I went into the thrift shop and noticed that there was a small piece of the painting that was unfinished (the woman's bare breast). I bought the painting for less than $35, maximum. I took it to Koči's hotel where he filled in the painting and charged me around $25. I was too shy to ask him why he never finished the painting."
Audrey Darby (Founder, Director and Author)