A letter from Philip Guston
Coloring Israel in her golden year
Excerpts from the "Michael Kovner 1985-1995"
by Michael Sgan-Cohen
Closing the First Quarter of a Century
"Mr. Michael Kovner is one of the most outstanding painters of the younger generation I have met... " I believe he possesses a rare and instinctive capacity for the imagery, color, and structure in his painting. More, that his vigorous strength and plastic energy is what strikes me as being unique."
(A Letter from Philip Guston, 1975)
Michael Kovner's current show recapitulates, with significant additions, the two very different approaches to local landscape painting he adopted between 1979-81: broad, almost monochrome desertscapes, viewed from a low perspective; and cropped, frontal depictions of sun-washed buildings in sweet Oriental colours, in which the models for the earlier "Houses in Gaza" series have now been replaced by comparable buildings in the old Baka quarter of Jerusalem.
In his previous, beautifully-rendered paintings, Kovner's goals have been purely formal (posing and solving questions of colour, form and texture), but his most recent canvas (the first of a series upon which the artist is still working), indicates that a social dimension is being added to his work.
For this particular canvas, the pictorial components of which are still quite awkwardly linked, Kovner set up his easel on the rooftop of a Jerusalem hotel so that his area of vision incorporates not only a traditional view of the Jerusalem hills with its broad vista of open scrub-land dotted with ancient stone dwellings, but also the ugly buildings of the modern city. Extra detail, real and imaginary, inserted into the picture - sunbathers stretched out on a local roof, a fancy balustrade with the statue of a nude youth, classical stone pillars decorating an ornamental pool - appear to symbolize the decadent nature of our contemporary "dolce vita."
(The Jerusalem Post, September, 1989)
Utilizing Modernist mannerisms of the 1980s (learned in part from his
teachers, the late Philip Guston and Mercedes Matter at the New York School
of Painting), Michael Kovner's expansive landscapes also emulate the patient and precise
observational painting prescribed by Van Eyck and other Flemish masters
of the 15th century.
Unlike the impressionists, Kovner disregards colour as light. He directly
paints the deep valleys, terraces and dangerous escarpments of the Judean
Hills and Northern Negev with rough contouring and a boisterous handling
of colour. His imagery is true only to itself, divorced from associative
content or style with which the observer might become emotionally or romantically
involved. Both mass (solid matter) and shadow (atmospheric light) are always
reduced to tactile pigment and not permitted to become manifestations of
illusionistic trickery. Kovner's naturalistic method of painting is partnered
by his total disregard for formal composition. Like a random candid photograph,
Kovner's landscapes seem to begin at one edge of the canvas and stop at
the opposite one without any logical reason. Had the subject been moved
right or left by any dimension the painterly statement would remain as
fixed and as meaningful.
Kovner's confrontation with nature is not plein air painting.
The results reflect the materialistic ambiance of surfaces, the solidity
of earth, stone and vegetation. Even Kovner's skies are painted as opaque
walls of blue and lavender devoid of the atmospheric puffiness of "coloured"
Kovner is an individualist, a painter's painter, who can zoom in on closely cropped building facades fronted by gyrating trees and treat them with the same energy and charismatic style he achieves in the major landscapes.
(The Jerusalem Post Magazine, March, 1988)
In Eretz-Land, an exhibition of paintings and etchings currently on display
at the Joseph Slifka Center for Jewish Life at Yale, artistMichael Kovner
studies connection: connection to self, to the past, to nature, to tradition
- and the pain of not connecting.
Kovner's canvases are vibrant, if unnerving, depictions of contemporary
Israeli life. His subjects, whether half-naked young women contemplating
their own reflections or fishermen caught floating aimlessly in the shadow
of a gigantic bird, struggle to find their place in the so-called Holy
Kovner's oils whisper of modern Israel's own mortal paradox. Just as
Kovner creates a pristine landscape - the shore of a lush river valley,
or an aerial view of the mountains - destruction is looming. A dull orange
glow advances from the background, or fire erupts from a distant mountaintop,
always a somber reminder of the danger of complacency. Kovner envisions
a classical Israel (his landscapes draw very heavily from early Impressionist
techniques of brushstroke and color) but as our eyes gaze over the rustic
hills rolling down his canvas, a fluorescent orange or blue automobile,
a telephone pole, or stark spatterings of red and yellow interrupt the
serenity. In addition to the many landscapes, the display houses two striking
interiors featuring young girls. Each a virtual manifesto on the complexities
of female sexuality, the two paintings address issues of self-hate, narcissism,
and the pain of feeling awkward and over-exposed, yet longing to be looked
at. Eretz-Land is on display at the Joseph Slifka Center for Jewish Life at Yale, 80 Wall St., New Haven until June, 15.
Coloring Israel in her golden year
Kovner Exhibit at the DCJCC
Special to WJW
Like his native land, prominent Israel artist Michael Kovner will turn
50 next month. As a resident of Jerusalem, he spreads his fine strokes
and captures the magical lightning and nuances of beautiful Holy Land landscapes.
These works, which make up the exhibition Eretz: Landscapes of Israel,
are currently hanging at the Ann Loeb Bronfman Gallery of the District
of Columbia Jewish Community Center through May 3. The exhibition is cosponsored
by the Cultural Affairs Department at the Embassy of Israel as part of
the community's celebration of Israel's golden anniversary.
The talented artist reflects on having his landscapes shown at this
juncture of Israeli history. He recalls how his generation "believed in
the future, and the sky was open in terms of the environment and the hopes
of the nation. We are the generation born in Israel with a lot of expectations
Born on Kibbutz Ein Haroseh, he is the son of two courageous Holocaust
resistance fighters. Kovner's father, Israeli poet Abba Kovner, wrote the
first declaration calling for Jewish resistance against the Nazis. This
manifesto was adapted by the Jewish underground organization, which was
formed in the Vilna Ghetto on a New Year's Eve meeting in 1941.
Abba Kovner, an active left-wing Zionist, had realized early the malicious
intentions of the Third Reich when the Nazis invaded Lithuania during the
fall of 1941. He was one of the commanders and later became the head o
the Vilna Jewish underground.
One of Abba Kovner's fighters was a courageous fellow Zionist, Polish-born
Vitke Kempner (no relation to this writer), who carried out numerous armed
actions, including the clandestine bombing of a German train outside the
ghetto. Once the ghetto was liquidated, she and Kovner retreated to the
woods, where they fought alongside Russian partisans. Upon liberation,
the couple settled in Israel. While Kovner developed a literary reputation
as a fine poet and the creative mind behind the Diaspora Museum, Kempner
became a child psychologist.
Michael Kovner started painting when he was 4 years old. By 5, he was
painting figures. His father, whose youthful paintings had been destroyed
during the war, encouraged his son's talents. The poet also bought the
materials and helped his son to stretch canvases. At 15, when he became
the prodigy of former kibbutznik Yokhan Simon, Kovner reminisces how this
"wonderful old guy asked me to come to his studio and study with him for
two years. He knew my father…."
Like other Israelis, Kovner deferred academia to pursue his military
training from 1967 to1970. He was assigned to a special training unit which
included two other men - Benjamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak, today Israel's
prime minister and the head of the opposition Labor Party, respectively.
Following his army service, Kovner went to America for a vacation. After
visiting New York City, he decided to return to study art. "It was better
for me to start in New York than in Israel because I was exposed to good
artists like Phillip Guston and art historian Meyer Schapiro, " he says.
Kovner worked as a security guard at the consulate and lived in Greenwich
Village from 1972 to 1975.
He studied at the Studio School with Guston and developed a strong
friendship with the American artist. Guston's warm personality and the
way he saw art was very influential on his Israeli protege. Kovner recalls
"the way he saw art was very deep and had roots in life. He taught me that
Kafka said the word is the frozen lake and an artist should break the frozen
Kovner explains how "the school was very concentrated on the abstract
art of Hans Hoffman and [Willem] de Kooning." He traveled to Spain, Italy
and southern France on a trip back to Israel. He decided not to paint abstract
"after seeing the great art in these countries". I felt that I should find
my way but not in abstract art." The artist returned to his homeland at
a time that "everyone believed in conceptual art. But I had already made
two general decisions - not to do either conceptual or abstract art."
Instead Kovner pursued landscapes and portraits. He "fell in love with
desert scenes," which he painted in 1978 and 1979.His second exhibit consisted
of house facades of the Gaza Strip. He was fascinated with "the way the
Arabs use color," especially in Gaza. "They showed such a vivid imagination.
One Arab artist told me 'it's the first time I saw the beauty in our houses.'
Meanwhile, Kovner had moved to Jerusalem in 1976 with his kibbutz-born
wife,Mimi, a graphic artist who wanted to move there after studying in
the ancientcity. They had two sons and settled in the old neighborhood
of Baka. In 1990,their 13-year-old son was wounded and three others killed
by an Arab man whohad been on a rampage with a knife. The son recovered
and "is still verytolerant."
When the boys were younger, Kovner observed them playing with their
Lego toys. He became fascinated by their love of the colorful toys and
painted an entire series on the toys. "They reminded me of de Chirico with
his mannequins. Your own children put all their imagination to their dolls."
He also did figurative works. Including a series of subjects that showed
females at the stage between being a woman and a girl.
Then Kovner went back to desert and landscape scenes. "I started to
paint the land of Jerusalem, but I was afraid to do it because of all the
connotation about the being of touristy paintings. Jerusalem is usually
a kitsch subject. But I was so impressed by the hills and the different
perspectives of my city. They reminded me of Cezanne's works. Mt. Zion
looks like his Mt. Victor."
Kovner continues, "The shapes are so interesting. Jerusalem is a city
on the hill… which make a very interesting perspective and view. I also
like the meeting between the desert and the green east of Jerusalem." Kovner
is quite adept in capturing the "amazing" light in Jerusalem. "It is very
clean, soft and unique. One can only work in the morning and afternoon,
because the air is so clear and the light is so bright." He prefers to
work outdoors in an open studio.
His series between 1976 and 1980 was centered on east Jerusalem, but
after the intifada he moved westward. Kovner reflects how "the subject
of Jerusalem becomes too heavy in my heart and feeling. I had to go away
because of the trouble and tension and the feelings between people." He
is presently fascinated with the Ashdod harbor and the way the boats are
Although he grew up on a non-religious kibbutz, Kovner has decided
to return to his Jewish roots. He has studied with Rabbi David Hartman
and has joined a group in Jerusalem that studies Judaism once a week.
The group celebrates holidays together and has seminars on Jewish cultural issues. "We want to make Judaism a kind of culture which is interested in justice."
Excerpts from the "Michael Kovner 1985-1995"
by Michael Sgan-Cohen
My contemplation of Michael Kovner's work and my conversations with him reveal that his work is directed by a deep commitment to the culture and language of painting, together with a clear and honest existential search. This is a courageous search for real experience, direct and sensitive, without fear of that which is good and beautiful. His desire to unify these two elements, and, indeed, his very belief in their experience, are ambitious in no small degree and constitute a high level of unbiased thought, particularly against the backdrop of the contemporary art scene which is going in different directions and even includes practitioners who have declared, 'Painting is dead!' It is, therefore, important to try to arrive at a proper evaluation of both the size of the challenge which Michael Kovner has undertaken and the honesty of his intentions.
The desire to create in a manner which connects Titan, Poussin, van Gogh, Cezanne, Matisse and American painting (the abstract, Pop Art and figurative painting), is indeed a difficult undertaking which only few Israeli painters took upon themselves. In addition, not many have dared to touch the exciting and primary materials of life and join them together in an exalted aspiration. Kovner aspires to return the eye to its rightful place in the center of the stage, and through it to touch the heart. He has the perspective and he is even conscious of the difficulty involved in the relationship between the size of the ambition and his ability to achieve it. This is the risk he is taking, but it is just this tension which creates expressive art of a very special kind. Following Kovner's art, especially during the last ten years, is an adventure filled with the human emotion which is so lacking in our lives, the emotion through which Kovner expresses his faith that in addition to all the pain and suffering, life is a grace which should be blessed every day.
|Closing the First Quarter of a Century
by Gil Goldfine
It would be difficult to find a declaration that clarifies Michael Kovner's oeuvre more than Harold Rosenberg's statement that "Art lives by contradictiong its immediate past". After each period of his painterly life Kovner has looked back with a critical eye and, depending on what he observed, moved energetically ahead by challenging his own "immediate past" and by not embracing the work of others as his standard.
For more than two decades Kovner has immersed himself in a study of his milieu: Kibbutz Ein Hachoresh, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Bet Shean and New York. He has used his brush and palette to create visual assessments of the physical world he confronted driven by an emotional pulse that often raced in "passionate" time. Through various life experiences that have ignited spark after spark, he has explored the manifold conflicts inherent in abstract and representational painting; the desert as a chromatic carpet; Arab culture by way of architecture; Jerusalem, the schizophrenic capital cloaked in natural and political garb; society via playtime; family and the woman as a portrait; the lake as a mirror of time and place. And more recently, New York, an escapist capital that has granted him breathing time and an injection of the pictorial stuff needed to move forward.
The Al Aksa Intifada, beginning in October 2000, has been raging for well over a year. It has been and, according to political pundits, will continue for months to come, a tim of stress and political uncertainty and dominated by a fear for one's own mortality the harbinger of death lies concealed around every corner. For both the individual and the larger community, getting through the simplest tasks leads to the inevitable doubt and concern for this troubled region.
In defiance of the situation and with his usual reticence, Kovner has clearly created some of his strongest paintings to date during the past year. Notably, his Bet Shean canvases are courageous personal statements that transcend the representational peculiarities of the landscape. The physical descriptions of noble trees and immutable lakes, mountains and variegated valleys are the natural foundations upon which Kovner propels art into life and proclaims that this is my land, my history, my future and most important, this is my internal as well as external landscape.
Kovner is convinced that art lacking integrity and candor is destined to fall into surface banality. To sustain this belief he adopted long ago a code of action that required him to investigate and explore the true nature of subject matter before embarking on voyage to transform its physical attributes into an artistic dimension. As a consequence, Kovner's canvases rarely acquired a sense of spontaneous perception. Time and place were never treated as ambient factors but elements that required his utmost attention and reflection. Today, like yesterday and undoubtedly tomorrow, Kovner's determination to drink from the source will continue to provide him the spiritual nourishment that has established him as one of the Israel's pre-eminent figurative painters