Leon Kossoff lived and work his whole life in London. In the 1980s, however, a surge of recognition in the United States marked the burgeoning of his international reputation.
Kossoff’s (1926–2019) first New York solo exhibition was held in March 1983 at Hirschl & Adler’s gallery on Madison Avenue. Though it included some of the defining works from earlier in his career, two new paintings must have dominated the hang: School Building, Willesden, Spring, executed sometime in spring 1981, and School Building, Willesden, Winter, completed in December of the same year. The former was illustrated on the front cover of the exhibition catalogue.
An elective affinity might be discovered between these marks in Kossoff’s works and the surface of Van Gogh’s painting Rain (1889, Philadelphia Museum of Art). Though Walter Sickert disliked Van Gogh as a painter, he conceded of one picture that ‘the landscape of rain does really rain with furia’. Unlike Sickert, Kossoff deeply admired Van Gogh and this perhaps tells in the unintended streaks. They suited his purpose, even if they were not ‘meant’.
Many of Kossoff’s paintings followed from years of experience drawing a particular subject. He executed his first charcoal study of the Willesden school building no later than 1979 – a full two years before he put paint to board. Writing to David Sylvester in 1995, he explained the process.
My paintings from the subjects outside the studio have always begun with exciting visual encounters. Yet though the first impact is compelling it sometimes takes me a year or two before I become involved. I might begin with a sketchbook of tentative drawings – sometimes my ideas never develop past this stage. A year or so later I might start drawing more ambitiously and visit the site more frequently.