Detail by detail, we are drawn into John Koch's painting, done with such precision that we are seduced into believing that he has painted precisely what was before him. His painted world is, however, an artful balancing act of realism and artifice. His interiors are like theatrical backdrops, where his models, like actors, play their roles. The drama of Interlude is actually an entr'acte--a familiar subject in Koch's work--when artist and model are taking a break. In the background, seated on a sofa, looking off to the viewer's right--the painting's "stage left"--is the artist himself. Drink in hand, he gazes intently at a canvas in process.

In the middle-ground, dressed in a brilliant red robe, is his wife, a white-haired older woman, offering the seated young woman-clearly a model because she is not dressed-a cup of tea. The model, seen from the back, sits at the very edge of a day bed. Her dark brown skin is set off against the white sheet beneath her. Especially marked, is the contrast between her outstretched arm and the older woman's red robe. The essential detail-visually as well as symbolically-is the tea cup that is about to pass between them.

In this intimate world of the artist's studio--ten stories above the streets of New York--two women are engaged in an historic reversal: a young black model is being served by an older white woman. The significance of this moment is reinforced by a detail in the setting. What initially appears to be a bank of windows behind the couch is in fact a black-framed mirror. Reflected in this mirror are the canvas in process, the goose-necked lamp that his illuminating his palette, and a bulbous lamp on an unseen table.

Interlude is signed and dated on the painting's lower right: "Koch 1963." It was painted in the same year that Martin Luther King, Jr. presented his "I Have A Dream" speech that culminated the Civil Rghts "March on Washington."

Adapted from: Susan Dodge-Peters Daiss, "John Koch, Interlude (1963). In: Marjorie Searle, ed. Seeing America: Painting and Sculpture from the Collection of the Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester (Rochester, NY: Memorial Art Gallery) 2006, pp. 275-277.


An effective piece to discuss issues of race, ethnicity, and power, the painting requires attentive and careful observation of multiple details and interpretations of the relationship between the white male, the white female in the red robe, and the naked woman of colour. By withholding information about the painting's date, artist, and historical context, and asking viewers to look and interpret the visual details, the relationships between the three figures invokes multiple possibilities: perhaps the two women are both models for the artist (one has put a robe on), or the naked black women has some relationship to the older white male and the woman in the robe has a subservient role in the household. And between the two women, the central gesture of the older white woman serving tea to a younger black woman raises questions about whether she does so with pleasure or hostility. Because the eyes of the serving woman are downcast, it his difficult to interpret her expression.

Equally uncertain is the physical space depicted in the painting. Like the reversals in stereotypical servile roles between the black and white woman, the physical perspective is also reversed. The windows that look as if they are behind the figures are actually reflected in the mirror and are behind the black woman. The multiple reversals are disorientating because expectations and assumptions about the paintings story are undermined. Viewers must rethink their point of view. And looking is harder than it looks. The most obvious qualities of the nude--that she is a woman of colour and she is naked--often goes unnamed in discussions. This painting provides a focus for discussion and self-reflection on issues of race, gender, power, and difference.


Dated 1963

Primary Source

Susan Dodge-Peters Daiss. "John Koch, Interlude (1963)", In: Marjorie Searl, ed. Seeing America: Painting and Sculpture from the Collection of the Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester (Rochester, NY: Memorial Art Gallery) 2006, pp. 275-277.