New York

Howard Kanovitz

Howard Kanovitz’s current exhibition of paintings and drawings at the Jewish Museum shows how, among contemporary artists, an authentic engagement with the problems of figure painting is truly rare. Instead of confronting the psychological and pictorial complexities inherent in any artistic undertaking where the human figure is the focus of interest and effort, Kanovitz’s works are illustrational in both style and concept. The pictures are less figure paintings than group or single likenesses. The general arrangement has been determined by a photograph of the variety taken for a fee by “a professional” working at a medium-pretentious restaurant, or by a well-meaning but not very gifted acquaintance of the subjects. Several pictures of a nude Greek girl differ from this only in that they record the sitter’s awareness of “posing in the nude.” The drawings, some of them sequential images of the same group of people, have a similar dependence on informal photography.

Kanovitz’s representational system involves rendering the visible flesh portions with a certain amount of flaccid chiaroscuro, and then almost invariably to render garments as flat, relatively undifferentiated color areas. In the modeled portions there are frequently faint lines of dashes that define a tonal area: the suggestion is both one of number painting (picking up the arch corniness of the poses) and of topographical maps (I do so know this is supposed to be a three-dimensional form!). The flat forms become abstract shapes both through contrast with the modeled areas, and because their particulars have been determined solely by transposing the contour of the object in question from the surface of a photograph. No attempt whatever is made to exploit the expressive possibilities of this compositional raw material.

Backgrounds too are flat uniform color areas, set as planes parallel to the picture surface. This representational schema has long had a deserved popularity in the field of magazine and advertising illustration. From the standpoint of these media the advantages are obvious. Portraitlike facial renderings allow for a high degree of interpretive speculation as to the personality, character, and state of mind of the personages, rather as one may do about fellow occupants of a subway car, bus, elevator, etc. Also, the irregular flat garment shapes show that the artist claims some notion of abstract form (the faces demonstrate the converse, of course). And, significantly, the big flat background spaces allow lots of room for advertising copy or the opening paragraph of a story in, say, Esquire: “Here, sitting informally with some of the toughly younger creative people in the city, Jed Hackett resolved to make amends for the neglect he had shown them in the twenty-five years it had taken him to provide sufficiently for Elaine and the children. As he . . .”

Well, there is no copy as such in Kanovitz’s illustrations, but one is offered the possibilities of either making some up or even better, identifying the specific personages portrayed. Once these identifications have been effected, along with the now much more limited set of possibilities as to the nature of the situation depicted, the viewer can enjoy the pleasures of being “in on things” with all the self-congratulatory delight and hauteur of a supporter of Bourbon legitimacy spotting a royalist cypher worked in a sequin fan.

Most of the pictures are, then, rebuses, whose interest for the viewer depends quite a bit more on their iconography and interpretation, actual or suggested, than on any artistic qualities. In any case these latter are rudimentary. The drawings are totally ideated or so restricted by their imagistic origin in photographs that there is no “hand,” only a certain knowledgeability about current visual formulae. In the paintings the handling is characterless, but noodled with touches (e.g. the lines of dashes) meant to be idiosyncratic and hip (the Popness of subjects rendered flatly). Kanovitz’s color is not good, featuring an unhappy preponderance of ill-adjusted blues, maroons, and brown, and he has only one mix for flesh color. In fine the paintings may be categorized as circolo di Marcia Marcus, without her fantasy, wit, structural know-how, or group of friends.

––Dennis Adrian