The Hudson River Museum


Ellen Kozak Paintings: Reflections on a River

By Laura Vookles, Curator of Collections

During the summer, Ellen Kozak paints outdoors, starting a new painting each morning. At once jewel-like and monumental in feeling, these small paintings recall the oil sketches of Hudson River School artist Frederic Church and the lyrical works of early modern master Arthur Dove, while possessing a sensual power all their own. In them, the River landscape is ever changing and pulsates with energy and life. Seeing them, the viewer begins to understand Kozak’s connection to nature and her motivation for returning to paint the Hudson’s shores daily.

The intimate scale of Kozak’s art is partly determined by her desire to capture a scene quickly and finish the major work on a painting the same day she starts it. Working outdoors in this way, she embraces a visceral connection to the landscape that cannot be duplicated in an artist’s studio, where sketches, photographs or memory serve as shadowy reminders.

When Ellen Kozak begins a painting, she spends the first few minutes quickly recording as many of the visual “facts” of her subject as possible. As the composition develops, relationships between color, light and shape on the River are constantly changing; and the artwork takes on a life of its own. In completing the painting Kozak allows herself to respond to these new visual stimuli and to emotions the landscape may awaken. Her titles reflect these personal feelings, as well as historical and literary references, that individual moments on the River have recalled to her.

Kozak has spent the last decade painting directly from nature. Never losing site of her subject matter, she has evolved a unique style, moving from geometric abstraction to a more personal expressionism. Kozak is often inspired by poetry while painting the Hudson River, and the canvases of the Hudson River Primer series (1996-2001) are themselves poems of color and light. According to Kozak, It’s light became my subject, all of the painting was given to reflected light, the River’s surface, its tide, current, atmosphere, and color below the surface.

Painting is a physical and an intellectual experience for Kozak. This duality is fully expressed in her series Notations on a Landscape, which was inspired by Rainer Maria Rilke’s 1904 poem “Orpheus. Euridice. Hermes.” Invoking the Greek myth of Orpheus going to the underworld to bring back his wife, Rilke describes the landscape they traverse on their exodus and the state of mind of the travelers, as Orpheus, forbidden to look back, cannot resist and, thus, fails.

The poem’s setting reminded Kozak strongly of the more forbidding terrain of the Hudson River Valley; and, during the summer of 1994, the stanzas were constantly in her mind as she painted. While not directly narrative, the sequence of watercolors is a direct response to the spirit of the poem as well as the artist’s own surroundings. The series was published with the poem as an artist’s book, Orpheus. Eurydice. Hermes: Notations on a Landscape, in 1996.