Focus as Physical Reality

by B. H. Friedman

Larry, Frank, Joe, Kenneth, Norman, Grace, Bill, Al, Morty, Mike, Alex, Johnny, Eleanor, Joan, Jon, Sam . . . The names are simple. I've purposely avoid the Marisols and the Tibors - however, within "the New York art world" (including not only painters and sculptors but critics, dealers, collectors, curators, and poets, composers, musicians, dancers, film makers - the works), these simple names have an absolute identity. In this world, from 1951 on. "Howie" has been one of the names.

That was when he came her from Providence (the Rhode Island School of Design) to make the scene - two scenes primarily, jazz and painting (jazz by then a second profession from which he could get some income and kicks; painting a career commitment). He sat in on trombone with Bird and Dizzy. He sat in on conversation at the Cedar Tavern with Bill and Jackson and Franz (studied, too, with Franz Kline after Kuniyoshi). And, high with what was happening - the cultural excitement in the air - through the fifties and into the early sixties he made cool sensitive drawing (mostly of jazz musicians and room interiors and big Abstract Expressionist paintings (exhibited in various group shows and most recently in a sone-man show at the Stable Gallery in 1962. Since then he has been working with what has been designated by Lawrence Alloway as "the photographic image." It is the recent work - both paintings and drawings, his best and most personal to date - which are being exhibited in a one-man show, organized by Same Hunter, at the Jewish Museum (to Oct. 31).

Howard Kanovitz, Nude Greek, 1965

As Alloway wrote in his introduction to "The Photographic Image" at the Guggenheim early in this year, it is clear that photography is as susceptible to personal use and interpretation as, say, classically-derived iconography. And yet there is in this label a suggestion of "found art" (in the sense that Lichtenstein, Warhol, etc. have found theirs in existing images) and correlatively, that of Pop )in the sense not only of using existing images but ones that are familiar, usually commercial). In Provincetown during the summer of 1961 Kanovitz was still using such images. He did a small painting of a telephone, as painfully pink as the "flesh color" in ads, working directly from the phone (i.e., not from a photograph), searching for new colors and forms. He did larger paintings based on newspaper photographs of athletes, jazz musicians, movie stars and other subject matter that appealed to him. Though working now from photographs - from found compositions, as it were - he continued his explanation of color and form., often breaking down a single color area (or black or white) in a photograph into new color areas and  new forms. Through the next year, he went to his family album and did paintings increasingly simplified, of himself, his parents, his wife Mary, their dog Milo and, beyond the album, to photographs he himself took to get exactly what he wanted: frozen moments, placements, gestures, a world closer to that of the New Novelists and New Wave film makers than to that of Pop Art. In these paintings there is, typically a poignant and mysterious sense of the isolation of figures (as objects) in space, a feeling not unlike what one gets from a Terborch or a Seurat. Indeed, Kanovitz had reworked through many of the problems of post-Renaissance art - from the recognition of the object in seventeenth century Dutch painting to its dissolution in Impressionism. Post Impressionism, Cubism, etc. His problem was how to bring back the reality of the object (again most frequently, the figure) without surrendering the richness of modern art. , its relativistic values, its visual ambiguities. By dealing with more and more complex groupings - found first, once more, in newspaper and magazine photographs; then rearranged from these; finally, staged for his own camera - he was able to fragment the physical relationships between objects (i.e., often social relationships) without violating the integrity of the objects themselves.

Nude Greek (shown in the 1965 Whitney Annual, painted the previous summer) is there; solidly., three dimensionally there. Though based on a black and white photograph (projected for essential outlines, onto canvas and tracing paper with a Besseler opaque projector) one feels the model's weight. With her feet planted on bedspread and carpet, her hands on hips, she is there as the object one looks at is there. She dominates the bright spread and pillows behind her. In this painting - and in the pencil studies for it, and in the odalisques using the same model - there is a simple foreground-background relationship.

However at about the same time and through the 1965-66 season in New York, the other, more complex image begins to emerge: models, people, objects, "photographs," if you will - but all in defiance of the photographic and of what we have been taught to accept as simple foreground-background relationships, negative and positive volumes, classical perspective, diminishing sightlines, etc. Kanovitz's new involvement is focus; focus as a physical reality (the adjusting of the lens of a camera or the squinting of an eye - sometimes Kanovitz even works with a magnifying glass or a jeweler's loupe) and as a psychological reality (what one wants to see).The point is that anything can bee seen, that vision is arbitrary. In his paintings, you are at a cocktail party or a reception or a dinner or a business conference or a Bar Mitzvah, and you see what you are (he is) looking for; the drink, the girl (perhaps a Greek nude - with clothes on), the food, the contract (even the dotted line), an ashtray, a hand, a cleavage, a bow tie . . . The eye (the I) makes its choices. A figure in the background is clearer, stronger than one in the foreground. The points of a handkerchief dominate a dinner jacket or a business suit. The buildings seen from the conference room window move in from across the street.

1965, The Artist's Parents

Howard Kanovitz, The New Yorkers I, 1965

These paintings and drawings have to do with life as it is lived now - and played now - in New York, in 1966. Kanovitz stages the performance, even if he begins, as in The New Yorkers, I, with a newspaper photograph: Richard Rodgers conferring with Stephen Sondheim and others. There's something about it that catches his eye - the composition itself, the sense of six figures concentrating on Rodgers. Or maybe on his ear. What are they thinking? What are they saying? How are they revealing themselves? Kanovitz had just done a painting of the view west from his studio window on Second Avenue. Is that what they're thinking? Seeing? They could be. That grew view out there could., to use Nathalie Sarraute's term, be the "sub-conversation."? Is it as gray as street noise? Mostly unspoken? He paints to find out, knowing that there is no answer. Rodgers may dominate the painting, with his right hand, too, like an echo. Yes, everything is visible. And yet one knows nothing - nothing but the presented mystery.

Kanovitz tries again. Maybe they weren't quite right - the people, the models, the objects in the photograph. True, he introduced his view - those buildings there, across the street. True, he introduced himself, with a hand as strong, though small, than Rodgers'. But are they the New Yorkers? Aren't the real New Yorkers the people he knows, the people he sees? Shouldn't the gesture e as real as they are in his own life? Frank is real, Alex is real, Same is real, Morty is real, Larry is real, Howie himself is real, I am real. Kanovitz does another version of the painting - it is spring 1966 now - directing each actor's pose in a series of separate preliminary photographic sessions, telling each who he is, what his attitude is in this meeting as "imaginary" as Landor's Conversations. He brings theater to painting as artist in their Happenings bring painting to theater. 

1966, The Spectators

1965, Second Avenue Still Life

Kanovitz said, "I did a second version of The New Yorkers because after the first I found that the more crystalline I made my figures, the more full, mysterious and transcendent of reality they  became. It is the opposite of Matisse's two versions of Luxe, Calme et Volupte, the first is tentative and probing. The second is the statement. It soars. I work with sitters somewhat like a film director. I do this, imposing a specific requirement on them, almost as fetish.. Rather that accept the subject's life as an apparent mystery, it is necessary in my terms to set up a physical circumstance from which the potential for revelation might flow."

The photographs are processed, cut out in silhouette, arranged, re-arranged, assembled in a photomontage, projected. Studies are made of various figures. One pose is substituted for another, one head or limb for another. Slowly the conference of New Yorkers takes shape - in outline first, then in areas of Liquitex color, then as a single flat surface of paint. presenting the imaginary conference. But "single flat surface" is an oversimplification - typically, what Kanovitz does is to paint flatly and imply volume. That is one of the ambiguities in his work; another is that only flesh is rendered volumerically. Some of these relationships were apparent to the sensitive viewer even in Kanovitz's abstract work. Here are two quotations from Irving Sandler's review of his 1962 Stable show: "Kanovitz transforms illusionistic interior-exterior spaces into unnatural private spaces by flattening the forms" . . . "The paintings become settings, like stage-sets, in which enigmatic, dramatic events can occur."

Well, The New Yorkers, II is finished, but it will demand other paintings on this and related themes -- other visual choices, other explorations of reality. We can assume that Kanovitz wil go on making paintings in which the typical (as invented) is more real than the specific (as found).

1966, The Accident