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Friday, September 12, 2014

Howard Kanovitz

Mazola and Ronzoni, 1969, Howard Kanovitz--changes.
Life is about change. In a broad sense, we could say that the very definition of life itself is change. It's the one constant in life, "till death do us depart." When we cease to change, whether figuratively or literally, we die. If death is the ultimate absolute, then we could easily say change is just one step behind it. Strangely though, art is about stopping change, freezing an image, or with motion pictures, an episode from life. For centuries, art, like nearly all religions, had to do with mitigating death--images, painted and carved in such a manner that a life would not pass off like a drifting cloud, but would be remembered, indeed worshipped and idolized, for all times (or so long as the artwork remained visible and understood). Yet the interesting irony in all this is that the creator of such art--the artist gifted with halting change--is very much prone to changing. In fact, he or she wouldn't be much of an artist if their first painting could be confused with their final painting.
4 AM Eastern Time, 1956, Howard Kanovitz--an early morning jam session,
an oxymoronic, abstract, narrative painting.

Real Self, 2007, Howard Kanovitz
Few artists exemplify this element of personal evolution as much as Howard Kanovitz. He was born in 1929 and died in 2009, a lifespan of eighty years, a working career of fifty years. A lot happened during his eighty years. Almost as much happened during his fifty years applying pigments to canvas. He saw the rise of Abstract Expressionism after WW II and the advent of digital art in the first decade of the 21st-century. Moreover, it's one thing to simply observe these changes, and quite another to participate in, even promulgate some of them. Kanovitz first exhibited his abstract works in 1953, having his first one-man show in 1962. He was a studio assistant to Franz Kline. You can't get much more abstract than that. Even as he painted for exhibition in the prevailing style of the time, his private works and commissions seldom departed far from the figural or varying degrees of realism. One might call hims a "closet realist."
The Opening, 1967, Howard Kanovitz.
The reality of memory, recalling vividly only the people, not the setting.
In 1963, following the death of his father, while going over family photographs, Kanovitz had something of a cathartic moment, as he came to realize the the nature of representational art and the complex relationships between subjectivity, meaning, and memory. He began using photographs as source material, either appropriated from the media or taken himself. Even a quick comparison of Kanovitz's 1956 4 AM Eastern Time with his 1969 Mazola and Ronzoni (top) quickly illustrates the scope and impact of this realization in his work. Kanovitz held in his hands the key to this change. From that point on, his work came to be photo-driven, at a time when photos were considered something of a "crutch" when used by painters. (I know, I began painting about this time using photos exclusively as source material.) Like myself, some of Kanovitz's photos were from the media, others he took himself. Kanovitz sudden turn toward photo-realism began as a personal insight, but together with fellow Americans Chuck Close and Richard Estees, along with European artists, Gerhard Richter, Sigmar Polke, Malcolm Morley, and Franz Gertsch, they formed a movement, culminating in 1972 with Harald Szeemann’s groundbreaking international art exposition documenta V, held in Kassel, Germany. Together, they became the pre-eminent exponents of this new photo based painting. Kanovitz also represented the U.S. in documenta VI, in 1977.

Journal, 1972, Howard Kanovitz, (the eyes are Mia Farrow's).
Windmill Antilles, 1980s, Howard Kanovitz
The changes didn't stop with Kanovitz's 180 degree shift from abstraction to Photorealism. Even from the beginning, Kanovitz was probably the least devoted to the hyper-realism which came to exemplify the movement. The three main elements of Kanovitz's work, content, meaning, and memory, continued to create an almost "chemical" reaction as they mingled in the artist's mind and found time-stopping permanence on canvas. His work during the 1980s often juxtaposes a melding of reality and memory within the same canvas as seen in his Windmill Antilles (left) along with others, often depicting what appear to be breakfast daydreams, causing the eyes to wander much as the mind often does. Very often, unexpected influences creep into Kanovitz's word, such as his affinity for the work of Matisse and Kokoschka.

Taxi Bay, 1990s, Howard Kanovitz. Stuck in traffic becomes a moment stopped in time.
Way to London, 1990, Howard Kanovitz
During the 1990s, Kanovitz's interests turned to portals--doors and windows. His Taxi Bay (above) explores the a moment when change seems to stop. Yet, in fact, the boat changes position, the taxi driver's mood deteriorates, the passenger watches the second hand on his or her watch creep around, again and again and again. The car window is the portal though which change is seen but not felt. Kanovitz's Way to London, a series dating from around 1990, delves into the increasing rapidity of change as one passes through a door, and participates in life, rather than simply peering at it through a window.

The New York Gallery, Salon 94, earlier this year (2014) presented
"Transition Game," which pulls together the work of Howard Kanovitz,
Richard Avedon, Lorna Simpson, and Lucien Smith.
Late in life, as the centuries changed and a whole new millenium began, Kanovitz continued to change, his style, his content, even his media, as he began painting sports figures in action then mounting the canvas on lifesize plywood cutouts (above). His chosen sport was basketball, one in which change occurs perhaps more rapidly than any other human endeavor. One minute you're winning by two points, then just seconds later, you've lost by five ponts. As he grew older, Kanovitz began using an airbrush in creating his work, causing them to grow softer in appearance, loosing the harshness which usually accompanies Photorealist paintings, but his devotion to the photos, their representational reality, meanings, and the litany of memories they engender, never wained.

Skyline, 2006, Howard Kanovitz. Long a devotee of the grid in his work, shortly before his death Kanovitz began creating airbrushed mosaics based upon multiple photos.


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