New York

Harry Soviak

Pam Adler Gallery

As revealed in this special memorial exhibition, Harry Soviak’s approach to art was at once joyful and poignant. Educated at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in the late ’50s, Soviak displayed extraordinary sensitivity to materials throughout his career. This was apparent as early as the mid ’60s, in a group of collage constructions made of various combinations of string, paper,wood, feathers, and canvas. In Black Trapeze, 1964, Black Cloud, 1965, and Double Window Still Life, 1966, he explored certain Minimalist notions in the air during those years: the picture plane both as structure and as image—giving maximal expression to formalist ideas in objects already notable for their strong presence.

In the late ’60s and during the ’70s the presence of the image became a major issue for Soviak, and his conceptual concerns were given a fascinating visual twist, first in his many collages and later in watercolors. Flowers and, by the ’80s, vases were the dominant motifs. Hardly a sentimentalist, Soviak interpreted flowers in a sentient way, taking particular interest in the abstract aspects of their color and contour. He wanted to make viewers feel the life force of nature present in their blooms—in their special, but ephemeral, beauty. His vase images were even more complex, involving several layers of meaning in each composition. In the early ’80s Soviak evolved an iconic format, featuring frontally displayed vessels, which allowed him to bring out the figural and symbolic aspects of vases. The watercolor Turtle Back, 1980, is a particularly effective example; this is a dynamic composition of colored discs and geometric shapes which jiggle and jump across the solid black surface of the gently rounded vase, imparting a delicious sensation of movement. As the title indicates, the composition does bring to mind a turtle’s back—that is, a living creature. This, in turn, gives the vase a pleasingly animated quality At the same time, the vase recalls the decorative traditions of Constructivism, the kind of hard-edged ornamental abstraction that adorned fabric and stage design in the ’20s. References abound in the vases, and the titles often serve as associative triggers, clues to Soviak’s intentions. Pink Nude—After Matisse, 1981, and Heebie Jeebie, after Bernini, 1982, are two examples of his limited-edition vase sculptures in which the silhouette-thin volumes focus attention on the subtle interplay of shape, image, and idea—the humorous, sometimes gently ironic relationship between the work and the concept.

In the late watercolor collages on paper, like Exotic Garden, 1983, Circus, 1984, and Puppy Angel, 1984, and in the painted steel sculptures Antelope and Trophy, both 1984, the magical impact and metaphorical appeal of Soviak’s vision has a life-enhancing dimension. Soviak was one American artist who had the touch. From the late ’50s to his last paintings and sculptures he continued to excite the highest state of wonder in his viewers.

Ronny Cohen