Koenig, John-Franklin (1924-2008)

  • By Deloris Tarzan Ament
  • Posted 6/23/2002
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 3833

Artist John-Franklin Koenig, a Seattle native who first experienced Europe during World War II through the cockpit of a tank, lived, worked, and studied in France after the war's end. Later a resident of both countries, he acquired (in 1985) the title "Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters" and won the prestigious Gold Medal of the City of Paris. His work is not as well known in America -- even in Seattle. This biography is reprinted from Deloris Tarzan Ament's Iridescent Light: The Emergence of Northwest Art (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2002). John-Franklin Koenig died in Seattle in January 2008.

Northwest Light, French Culture

Like many Northwest artists in the middle of the twentieth century, John-Franklin Koenig invented himself as an artist. Painter, photographer, writer, and traveler, he is equally wed to tradition and to innovation. He is Northwest, and he is French. He is more celebrated in France than in his native Seattle.

Yet the roots of his art are Northwest. Koenig says, "When my European friends come to the Northwest they say, 'Now we see where your work comes from.' Because here, we're bathed in gray and white and soft pink and blue and opal. Everything is shades of blue, blue, light and shadow" (Koenig Interview).

The Northwest art he knew before he left to live in France was composed of subtle colors, spare gestures, and thin washes. It was delicate and brooding; a matter of calligraphy and mist. Koenig resonated to those works. But in time, he resonated equally to the works of Georges Braque, Pablo Picasso, and Joan Miró, to which he had far greater access than most other Northwest artists of his generation.

A Wallingford Childhood

John-Franklin Koenig was born on October 24, 1924, in Seattle. His mother, who came from a French Huguenot family in Pennsylvania, had crossed the continent in 1915 to be a schoolteacher in Beaver, Washington. His German-Swiss father, reared on a Washington farm, was a physician in a lumber camp. John-Franklin grew up in the north Seattle neighborhood of Wallingford, within sight of the Cascade Mountains to the east and the Olympics to the west, and overlooking Lake Union. A prime reality of his childhood environment was the ever-changing texture of water. Its luminescence lent beauty to an area that was in other respects rugged.

"Growing up in Seattle, nature was a part of me. I loved being out on the white slopes with dark trees. I loved the way the snow stays above the timberline the year around on Mount Rainier" (Koenig Interview).

Europe from an Army Tank

Koenig was drafted into the army in 1943, midway through studies at the University of Washington. He served with the 11th Armored Division in Europe from 1943 to 1946, seeing the war from the cockpit of a tank. From fighting in Europe during World War II, he says, "I realized the fragility of life" (Koenig Interview).

He first saw France when his division rolled through Cherbourg. It was love at first sight. He felt more at home in culture-steeped French society than he had in the raw Northwest. When the war was over, he enrolled at the G.I. University at Biarritz while he awaited transport back to the United States. It was there that he first took a course in art, painting several pieces that were retained by the army as "soldier art."

When he was discharged from the military in late 1946, he took a long vacation in Mexico. Brilliant colors smoldering under a hot sun gave him a fresh view of the lyricism of vivid color. In Chapala, he painted his first mural. He dismisses it as "Nothing much; a linear decorative work in the dining room of an inn."

Back to School

When Koenig returned to Seattle, he enrolled at the University of Washington to become qualified as a French teacher. He also elected courses in architecture, ceramics, interior design, and art composition. He took a drawing class that he recalls as "very bad; it consisted of charcoal drawings of plaster casts, on newsprint."

In 1948, degree in hand, Koenig returned to Paris to study French literature at the Sorbonne under the G.I. Bill. Living in Paris was a dream come true for a boy who had grown up in the Northwest, a region still thought of as the ends of the earth, even by most Americans.

One of Koenig's first acquaintances was Jean-Robert Arnaud, who later recalled those early postwar years:

"From places and countries the world over flocked creators of all sorts to the city; painters, musicians, and poets indifferent to the still-severe food restrictions and to the rudimentary and seedy maids' rooms without heat or water. Everyone accustomed himself to this lack of comfort as well as he could. What was important was being in Paris and participating in all that was happening; to go to the museums and cafes, to meet other people" (Arnaud).

Settling In

Arnaud ran the Librairie Sélection, a small progressive bookstore on the Left Bank, on a street poetically named rue du Regard. "One day a tall, thin lanky young American with curly dark blond hair, dressed in blue jeans (uncommon at the time) and a black and red checkered jacket walked into the bookstore." It was Koenig, who soon became a close friend, and a favorite cook among Arnaud's friends. "A meat balls specialist, he knew how to make dull horsemeat succulent," Arnaud later recalled.

One day Koenig brought by some hand-drawn Christmas cards he was preparing to send out, and Arnaud asked him to leave them overnight. The next day, Arnaud hung them on the bookshelves. It was Koenig's first, informal exhibition. The year was 1948. Two years later, on a trip to Amsterdam, Koenig did his first abstract painting.

Coal Cellar Gallery

In April 1951, when the G.I. Bill ran out, Koenig remained in Paris to work at the bookshop. He and Arnaud moved the store to the Saint-Germain-des-Prés district. Together, they opened the Galerie Arnaud in the basement of a building on the rue du Four in the Sixth Arrondissement, in Saint-Germain-des-Prés. The space had once been a coal cellar. They painted the walls white.

The first exhibition was a group of spare, geometric abstract paintings by a young American G.I.-bill student, Jack Youngerman. One of the paintings sold to the Museum of Modern Art in New York. The second show was devoted to Ellsworth Kelly, who also was studyingin Paris on the G.I. bill. Until the gallery folded in 1976, it showcased the work of dozens of nonfigurative artists whose work was not generally appreciated until years later.

Lyrical, Musical, Spatial

Koenig's first serious solo exhibition was held at the Galerie Arnaud in 1952. Knowing nothing about painting, he exhibited small collages, priced at the French equivalents of $5 and $10. They were small oblong collages meant to be "read" from side to side rather than taken in at a single glance. Koenig regarded them as a form of asceticism. Patches of torn paper overwritten with visual notations, neatly spaced, floated over grounds of closely keyed color. "Collage is the best way to learn about composition, and to train the eye," Koenig maintains (Koenig Interview). He thinks of those early works in terms that are lyrical, musical, and spatial.

He followed with another collage show in 1953. Naturally enough, critics labeled him a collagist. Koenig was uncomfortable with the label. Within a few years, he was devoting himself exclusively to painting. His abstract expressionism was years ahead of the trend in Paris. His influences were international. During a 1954 trip to London, he saw the light-drenched mysticism of J. M. W. Turner, which bears resemblance to the art of the Pacific Northwest, but is rendered in brighter colors. Turner's paintings influenced Koenig's thinking about the densities that make up the illusion of emptiness in a painting -- an effect that he had pondered in Asian art.

"In my first gouaches I would limit myself to three colors; for instance, black, white, and chrome yellow," he said. "Or an earth color with black and white. Never anything like primary red" (Koenig Interview).

His next show, in 1955, was composed of paintings on canvas, based on torn, collaged shapes that were painted over. The ridged edges of paint slathered on with a palette knife echoed the edges of torn shapes.

Koenig Co-founds Ciamise

That same year, Koenig helped to co-found Cimaise, a periodical devoted to contemporary arts. Koenig served as the magazine's "secretary general" until 1959, and as its dance correspondent from 1965 to 1972. From the beginning, it was a major documentary of nonfigurative art, with reviews, interviews, and illustrations. It was for many years the only art magazine in the world dedicated to nonfigurative contemporary work.

Art writer Dore Ashton recalls Koenig as "a young painter from a young culture, making fresh, well-wrought paintings full of the exhilarating rebellion against pre-war idioms. In his work as an instigator of the vanguard review Cimaise, he labored tirelessly to infuse the international spirit in French cultural life" (Arnaud).

Finding His Style

In the late 1950s, Seattle art doyenne Joanna Eckstein visited Paris, accompanying an art exhibition mounted by the United States Information Agency. She bought one of Koenig's paintings, asking that he deliver it to her on his next trip to Seattle. Wesley Wehr visited Paris in 1956, and that year arranged for Koenig to have an exhibition at the Zoë Dusanne Gallery. After Wehr returned to Seattle, Koenig sent him two paintings, instructing him to keep one for himself and take the other to Otto Seligman to try to arrange a show. If Seligman declined, Wehr was to approach Dusanne. "Zoë pounced on it," Wehr recalls. Koenig returned to the Northwest bringing canvases for the show -- his first major Seattle exhibition -- riding the length of the West Coast by Greyhound, thanks to a $99 pass.

He had hitchhiked up from Mexico in 1946, and crossed the country twice, in 1947 and in 1948. But this trip was different. This time he saw things from the perspective of a European. "I saw the West again," he said in wonder. "Here was all this space and light you couldn't see in Europe. This contact with space and light was a huge turning point in my art. It was like being reborn. I found my style."

He was also deeply influenced by his first trip to Japan in 1960. He felt immediately at home. He loved the gardens, the architecture, the temples, the ceramics -- nearly every aspect of traditional Japanese life. "It was like being in home country," he said. "They treat nature as part of life. Emerson said the way a civilization treats nature shows the nature of the civilization" (Koenig Interview). He developed a style based on the plan of a Japanese garden, calling the pieces Koen, the Japanese word for "garden," as well as the first four letters of his name.

Koenig remained a resident of Paris for 40 years. He and Arnaud bought a tiny castle that was falling into ruin, which they devoted their energies to restoring. A French friend, Michel Ragon, recalls Koenig as "a meticulous gardener, collecting plants in the fields, making us drink hilarious tisanes, convinced they were the cure for all ills, preparing exquisite dishes with strange aromas" (Arnaud).

The Economics of Aesthetics

By the end of the 1970s, France was experiencing economic hard times. Koenig realized that he had more clients in Luxembourg, which has 1 percent of France's population, than he did in all of France. High French taxes were killing him. In 1980, he returned to Seattle, this time to live. He found a large house on 18th Avenue E, formerly home to a group of Hare Krishna followers. He bought it for $85,000, converting the top floor to an apartment, which he has rented for many years to Ruth Nomura, director of the Northwest Craft Center, at Seattle Center.

If he brought back French characteristics, they were to be seen in the raffish scarf he usually wore knotted around his neck in the manner of a French sailor, and in the reserved, mildly cynical tone of his conversation. He retained the appearance of a freckle-faced boy well into his sixties, with tightly curled dark hair and a mocking smile.

Seattle Style

From Seattle, Koenig organized a series of exhibitions of Northwest artists to tour France. The first was Northwest Art in Corporate Collections, in 1984. Seattle Style, a show of 12 artists, showed at Seattle's annual Bumbershoot Festival, and toured France in the late 1980s. Koenig says, "Both shows were imagined in an attempt to further the art of the Northwest at a time when the New York-oriented Seattle Art Museum and the Tacoma Art Museum were completely neglecting the art and artists of the region" (Koenig). His attempts to gain exhibitions for Northwest artists in Northwest museums became nothing short of a crusade -- the subject of bitter diatribes and letters to museum administrators.

By 1984, when he was 60, Koenig had an astonishing total of 103 solo shows to his credit, in cities throughout the world. None has been more special to him than the 1970 retrospective exhibition at the Seattle Art Museum, shortly before the death of museum founder Dr. Richard Fuller (1897-1976).

In 1985, when France began to recover economically, and painters from the 1950s were once again in vogue, Koenig returned to Paris. From then until the end of the century, he traveled back and forth between Seattle and Paris, where he maintains a small apartment. Since 1991, he has also had a small country retreat and studio: a cluster of eighteenth-century stone farm buildings in the village of Nancray-sur-Rimarde, some 100 kilometers south of Paris, close to the large forest of Orléans, at roughly the same latitude as Seattle, and thus subject to the same lingering sunsets.

An Act of Love

Inspired by the Bauhaus spirit in which artists were trained in multiple disciplines, he finds it rewarding to work in many media, having at various points in his career done photography, ceramics, printmaking, and textiles. "You have to keep yourself amused," he says. "Each medium jells things in a different way" (Koenig).

He works intuitively, using the natural light that bathes his studio in the morning, taking a break, and returning to the studio to work under artificial light in the evening. "I never leave a piece until I know what I want to do" (Koenig).

Koenig speaks of painting as "an act of love," saying, "The artist must be on the search for beauty and perfection in his own life through the work" (Koenig).

He prefers to work while listening to music, preferably jazz, allowing it to direct his brush and free him from thinking and painting intellectually. Against a field of warm color, he slashes a thick diagonal of paint, edges ragged, the rush of the brush or the palette knife visible in its track. Another opposing diagonal intersects the first, then a horizon line, which forms the geometric shape. The process is everywhere visible in the completed canvas. Thick impastos are essential parts of the structure of his compositions.

Like music, his paintings are built on motifs: the slashed triangle, the mandala, the circle, the square. This sparse geometric cosmos arises from random ground like order emerging from chaos. Writer Jake Seniuk, on the occasion of Koenig's 1999 exhibition in Port Angeles, pointed out that:

"[I]n Buddhist iconography the circle represents the universe, the square the solidity of the world, and the triangle the dynamics of human thought and action. Laid out in broad symmetries and built with sweeping gestures, these isles of geometry float upon an inky void. Spied from above, these are the forms of reason in a sea of dark ignorance" (Seniuk).


This biography of John-Franklin Koenig is reprinted from Deloris Tarzan Ament's Iridescent Light: The Emergence of Northwest Art (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2002).

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