Richard Koppe was among the handful of early Chicago modern painters who studied under German Bauhaus master László Moholy-Nagy. After attending the St. Paul School of Art in Minnesota, Koppe arrived in Chicago in 1937 to attend " The New Bauhaus," the legitimate successor to the German Bauhaus. At this time while working under Nagy, Archipenko and Kepes, Koppe developed his own brand of sophisticated abstraction.
Koppe was one of the few abstract painters to work for the WPA art program in Chicago. During the 1940's, his work was widely exhibited in American museums including the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Art Institute of Chicago. After W.W. II, he joined the faculty of the famous Institute of Design where he became head of the art department in 1949. From 1963 until his death, Koppe was a professor of painting at the University of Illinois Chicago.
Koppe received wide exposure during his lifetime. He was the subject of a 1961 retrospective at the Institute of Design (ID), over the course of his career he had exhibited over thirty one person shows, and was featured in more than one hundred group exhibitions, some of which traveled internationally. He established an archive of his works at Syracuse University, New York, in 1965. Koppe is frequently included in publications on the Bauhaus. He also prepared several unpublished articles about the Chicago Bauhaus that are on deposit at the UIC Library. He committed suicide in 1973.
Koppe was a painter, draftsman, printmaker, sculptor, muralist, designer and educator, assuming all these various roles with equal ease and accomplishment. It is highly unusual to find an artist like Koppe, who can sustain his momentum of a search for form through several media. Not only has he done this but he has made the transition from one medium to another seem natural and inevitable.
In Beach Forms like most of Koppes work there isa strong sense of space. This space is almost always finite, created by the interweaving and interlocking of lines and attenuated forms. But in this piece there is an openness which depicts the space behind the central figures as being infinite. The figures in the foreground mimic fish and fisherman rendered with a whimsical touch. In many paintings the space becomes complex. This is true even, or possibly especially, when the subject treated is the human figure or head. Koppe delights in probing within the external form to create a space structure which leaves the external form intact. It is interesting to find figures emerging within figures, and heads within heads, in the investigation and creation of space within forms.
Koppe achieves most of these spatial qualities in his ink drawings where line alone is used. When he turns to paint, his use of color and tone augment the linear structure, adding emotive overtones to what the drawings state in line alone. One penetration of the canvas becomes a brooding cave, another a light filled alcove. Cleanly executed and meticulously presented, these paintings show his training and interest in Design. One of Koppe's best known works of this period was a huge mural with sculptural elements for the Well of the Sea Restaurant at the Hotel Sherman in Chicago. His style evolved in the 1960's into a more geometric abstraction, featuring large circular or elliptical targetlike forms.