Harold Tovish

Addison Gallery of American Art; Howard Yezerski Gallery

Two concurrent exhibitions of Harold Tovish’s work showed this veteran artist still to be relevant and committed to change. The Addispn Gallery retrospective, the first comprehensive survey of Tovish’s art to be assembled since his 1968 exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum, contained over 100 works dating from 1948 through 1987, including sculpture, drawings, and prints. The Howard Yezerski Gallery housed a companion exhibition of 16 ink and charcoal works on paper, created in the last two years, and based on the theme of hands. Both shows emphasize the artist’s overwhelming concern with the human figure, and indicate that Tovish, at age 68, is now making his most stunning and original statements. Like Philip Guston in the ’70s, Tovish has developed in recent years into a social activist and expressionist master.

Tovish’s integrity as a draftsman is best indicated in the 1986–88 “Hand” series. These highly charged studies range from a powerful Käthe Kollwitz–inspired clenched charcoal fist (Hand Study, 1987) to a delicate ink self-portrait composed of Tovish’s own reconstructed vision of his hand (Hand Series #5, 1988). The latter shows the process by which the artist continues to analyze his own hand until he completely internalizes the image. In a subtle parody of Arcimboldo, Tovish creates a perplexed self-portrait out of strangely elongated and disjointed portions of his own hand. A gnarled finger combines with an ear, while other digits simultaneously embrace the skull and furrowed brow. Twisted segments of Tovish’s hand also translate into his signature beard with virtuoso energy and considerable wit.

Although Tovish has been consumed as a sculptor with the theme of a disembodied male head encased in a sphere since 1962, this disturbing image has finally come to fruition in the ’80s. Of the 67 sculptures here (created in a variety of media, including bronze, wood, terra-cotta, and Hydrocal), Institution, 1984, is the most dramatic and intriguing. A life-size replica of a starkly lit jail cell, it features a negroid male head imprisoned within an epoxy resin sphere and positioned on a prison bench. This prisoner is not only open to the viewer’s surveillance, but is also made subject to a video camera, which steadily watches him. Furthermore, the specially treated mirror-glass rear wall infinitely multiplies this moving meditation on individual imprisonment and its social implications.

Francine A. Koslow