Michael Kovner’s Paintings

by Donald Kuspit

We tend to contemplate Nature rather more as a given statement than we do the works of man, as we communicate with both of them in pre-verbal fashion by means of projective identification. We project ourselves into both experiences, but in the case of the man-made thing with which we have increased complicity, there is more projective identification. When the man-made, usually machine-made, object is uncouth, painfully removed from the image of wholeness, when it suggests fragmentation in the very glance that perceives it, the appropriate projective identification may tend to re-create what Bion has called „bizarre objects‟….[T]he major role of art is to rescue man-made objects from bizarredom on behalf of both the object and the self that have there combined, to make with a man-made object a re-integrated part-object [fragment] resonance and then a whole object that is self-sufficient, that shows itself independent of our projections as it receives them, repudiating their tendency to engulf it. Adrian Stokes, “The Invitation in Art”.(1)


We know that in Renoir‟s opinion the ugliness of buildings towards the end of the nineteenth century and the vulgarity of design in articles in common use were a far greater danger than wars. Adrian Stokes, “The Invitation in Art”:(2)

[T]he painter depicted landscape, and yet in doing so was not concerned with it but himself; it had become the pretext for human emotion, a symbol of human joy, simplicity, and piety. It had become art.…We know how ill we see things amongst which we live and that it is often necessary for someone to come from a distance to tell us what surrounds us. And so they had to remove things to a distance, that they might be able later to approach them with greater justice and calmly, with less familiarity, observing a reverend distance. For men only began to understand Nature when they no longer understood it; when they felt that it was the Other, indifferent towards men, without senses with which to apprehend us, then for the first time they stepped outside of Nature, alone, out of a lonely world.

Rilke, “Concerning Landscape”(3)

Cityscapes and landscapes—Michael Kovner paints both with equal vigor, and in equally great numbers. The difference between the city and the country—the man-made and the naturally given (however cultivated by man)—is the contradictory core of Kovner‟s art. It is a familiar difference, and an old difference, but it has become extreme in modernity, where the city and the country seem more at odds than ever, even as they ingeniously converge—in urban parks, with their pseudo-country space, and national parks, where nature is divided and conquered so that urban dwellers can visit it in safety, in search of the health they lost living in unhealthy, stressful cities. Indeed, the “therapeutic landscape” has been with us since Edmond and Jules de Goncourt declared “landscape…the victor in modern art”—already in 1855—and wrote of city dwellers “running to warm themselves in the rays of the sun outside the city, fleeing the stone prisons.”(4)

Are the urban buildings depicted by Kovner “stone prisons?” Yes and no—they are as closed and insular as prisons, but not as forbidding and ugly, for they are as radiant and intense with light and color as Kovner‟s nature, giving them a benign, even wholesome appearance without denying their off-putting, not to say alien, look. Beautified by Kovner‟s art, the architecturally non-descript, not to say banal urban buildings—vulgar in appearance and vulgar because they are inhabited by vulgar, commonplace, working class people (“vulgar” derives from the Latin vulgus, meaning the general public)—seem to glow with good health, however unhealthy they may be to live in, all the more so because they are the slums of an outdated industrial society. In Kovner‟s handling, they are no longer eye-sores, but aesthetic delights—Cubist constructions in Impressionistic atmosphere and light, executed with a certain Expressionistic flair. Thus the pleasure principle triumphs over the reality principle in Kovner‟s art. What seems like dead reality has been resurrected by an infusion of Kovner‟s biophiliac attitude to life. What looks static and inanimate has been animated by his projection of his vitality--even joie devivre--into it: the dull façade of the buildings becomes a screen on which he projects his moods, which never seem gloomy and despairing however sometimes subdued.

Kovner‟s positive outlook—literally and figuratively--resists the militantly indifferent buildings: buildings that embody the indifference and negativity that the philosopher Theodor Adorno argued are a hallmark of modernity. For Adorno, their most consummate, memorable “statement” is Auschwitz. It was a deathworld rather than a lifeworld, a city in which death was mass produced by indifferent human machines, a space of destruction far from the garden of paradise that Kovner‟s art turns the everyday world into. Kovner‟s impressionistic-expressionistic rendering of nature—his aesthetic love affair with nature, whether in the obvious form of Israel‟s Mediterranean landscape (Israel famously a desert that has been made to bloom, love of the land bringing it to life), or the less obvious form of New York‟s modern buildings (looking more dead than alive, inorganic rather than organic, so-called machines for living that are in fact death traps, mute and plain rather than expressively ornamented with symbolic images of life like traditional buildings)—can be understood as a reaction formation, as the psychoanalysts call it, against Auschwitz and the hatred and negation of the Jews, more broadly the hatred and negation of life, it represents. Whether in the primary form of the holy land, or the secondary form of the profane city “naturalized” and “blessed” by art—in effect “rehabilitating” the people imprisoned in its buildings--and however unconsciously, Kovner‟s nature is a defensively defiant response to anti-Semitism.

I am suggesting that Kovner‟s landscapes and cityscapes are haunted by the deathscape of Jewish suffering—that his artistic “flight to nature” and naturalization of the city (which is what Monet did with London by transforming it into a colorful landscape, as though blind to the crowds that made it a center of mass society)—have as their hidden background the Jewish experience of suffering unto death. Kovner‟s ahistorical nature has all the more presence because it is informed by the absence of Jewish suffering, the “negative history” still alive in the Jewish unconscious. An optimistic Jewish landscape—Israel‟s flourishing nature—seems to have replaced socially bred Jewish pessimism, but it has moved to New York—once a largely Jewish city—where it appears in the impersonal buildings, which remain faceless however personalized by Kovner‟s art. Nature is used to modify Society, but the buildings remain paradoxically anti-social.

The strong impression nature makes on Kovner suppresses the strong impression Auschwitz and what it symbolizes—the unrelenting and unprecedented barbarism and destructiveness of modern society, as the historian Eric Hobsbawm and others have said—has made on the Jewish psyche. The fact that Kovner repeatedly paints the round, soft shape of Mount Tabor, where Jesus supposedly made his famous “speech from the mountain,” and as such a comforting breast; and the harsher Gilboa Mount, where Saul and Jonathan killed themselves—they were mourned in “David‟s Elegy”—suggests the Jewish dialectic of loss and hope, the reality of suffering and the possibility of salvation, underpinning Kovner‟s art.

I am suggesting that Kovner establishes a kind of dialectic between society and nature, with art the middle-man—the aesthetic means of integrating them, finding something of each in the other and transferring it to the other. The city is latently the country and vice versa; Kovner suggests their subliminal relationship and interpenetration, which is what gives his art unconscious power. Thus nature takes on the attributes of the city, as Kovner‟s emphasis on the architecture of the landscape, and the naturally changing light in the city, indicate. He is a detached observer of raw nature, as well as of nature domesticated by man into farmland, and of the urban environment, with its fragments of nature--as in the pictures in which trees, with their limbs twisting as though they were expressionistic and tortured figures, stand in front of anonymous buildings, undramatic modernist constructions of fixed planes confronted and opposed by the hyper-dramatic, barren, “suffering” trees—but he is also emotionally engaged with nature, inhospitable or hospitable, inorganic or organic, and machine-made buildings, whether apartment buildings or office buildings.

The dialectic of cityscape and landscape is eloquently epitomized in Kovner‟s paintings of female nudes—the female body in an unadulterated state of nature, as it were, and as such a kind of landscape---in front of what is perhaps best called a buildingscape. The small nude reclines or sits in front of a large window, which is clearly a grid, looking at the large buildings beyond it. The intimate and the distant, the private and the public, the studio space and the larger space of the world, are brought together in the same picture even as they remain distinct. The nude, however much an exciting body, is a particular person, and the city, however much a social space, generalizes indifference, but, to me, the most telling part of the picture is the grid of the window that mediates between even as it divides them, suggesting they are in conflict. The grand grid of the studio window is echoed in the even grander grids of the facades of the buildings visible through the studio window: the ingenious relationship of the different levels of grid—the hierarchy of grids—spells out the conflict between society and nature, including human nature, that is the existential core of Kovner‟s art. The conflict may be aesthetically resolved—society and nature are harmonized on the formal surface of Kovner‟s art--but it remains conspicuously unresolved in the imagery, particularly the buildingscape images, for me exemplary, all the more so because the studio nude, whatever else she might mean, is a surrogate for Kovner. She contemplates the urban scene, as he does—she represents the detached curiosity of the studio perspective. Seen and filtering the world through the window of the studio is not the same as seeing it from the street, however many memories of street life inform Kovner‟s. cityscapes, suggesting that his work has a certain affinity with the New York Ashcan School.

The grid is a deceptively simple structure—a simple geometrical system of uniformly arranged repetitive modules, each finite and self-contained yet implicitly extending infinitely, suggesting multi-dimensional, uncontainable space however one-dimensional and self-contained themselves—but in Kovner‟s hands it becomes dialectically complex. The flat facade of the apartment building is a grid of modular windows set in a larger grid of modular bricks. The window modules are large, the brick modules are small, but there are more of the latter than of the former, increasing the underlying tension between them and making their difference emphatic. However similar in structure, they are hierarchically at odds. The bricks are red, the windows colorless, adding to the tension between them. The windows reflect little or nothing of the world outside them; the building seems to be completely closed to the world, even though the windows can be opened—but they aren‟t. I suggest that the window and brick grids that form the façade symbolize the closed, stifling system of society, while the grid of the studio window, through which the outside world can be viewed, symbolizes the open system of art—a system in which there is feedback from the lifeworld, symbolized by the “natural” nude.

The row after row of anonymous windows in the building‟s facade suggests the anonymous lives of the people who live in the apartments, lives as neatly and serially arranged and compartmentalized as the apartments in which they live. They are in effect prison cells, and the people who live in them are prisoners of society. They suggest the conformity that society demands--which the nonconformity of the artist resists, even as he acknowledges and incorporates it in his art, as Kovner does in his obsessive attention to the indifferent facades of his buildings. It is worth noting that there is nothing to mark the boundaries of the apartments inside the building on the windows that open to the outside. They repeat in an undifferentiated way suggesting there is no difference between the apartments and the people who live inside them. The look-alike windows and bricks suggest look-alike lives, and their homogeneous and inflexible arrangement suggests that there is no space for individuation—cognitive and emotional growth and flexibility--in the apartments behind them. Kovner‟s message is that one can only grow by becoming a participant observer of nature—even the microcosm of nature that is the female body. It is a piece of Mother Earth, giving life and nourishment to art the way she gives life and nourishment to nature. The mother‟s body is the first body to which we are attached, the way Kovner is attached to the ravishing landscape of his motherland: the female model also symbolizes her when he is in “exile” in New York. She has the fullness of life that Kovner‟s planar buildings lack: however imbued with life by his art—humanized by the aesthetic meaning he gives them--they remain Potemkin facades covering a human void. Are they concentration camps in principle if not in fact?

One last thing about the grid: it was a mechanism which artists traditionally used to frame the world—perceptually conquer it by dividing it into modular fragments. Dürer‟s famous print of a male artist “copying” a reclining female nude through the “lens” of a transparent grid composed of modular squares makes the point clearly. The grid is an instrument of mimesis. It is a way of systematically studying what seems unsystematically given. It is a means of finding coherence in what appears to be incoherent. Contained in a module every perceived detail of the object—be it a figure, a landscape, or an urban scene—becomes a hard fact. The grid is an instrument of positivistic observation: the object is analytically observed and systematically dissected. Its parts are “realized” in all their detailed particularity by being brought into sharp focus with the aid of the grid, in effect a microscope of modules. But Kovner‟s modernist studio window grid tends to blur together—“soften”--into an idealized whole the matter of fact details that the traditional grid isolated. The result is that his images finally seem more like inspired visions than perceptual studies. They have an aura of revelation, as though subtly transcending what they picture in the act of picturing it. They become uncanny, miraculous “realizations” of what is seen—spiritual epiphanies rather than descriptions of what is obvious to the patient eye, however descriptive they are. Perceptual differences are emotionally reconciled, suggesting that however much of a careful observer of external reality, Kovner is finally an aesthetic mystic.


(1)Adrian Stokes, “The Invitation in Art,” The Critical Writings of Adrian Stokes (London: Thames & Hudson, 1978), III, 286
(2) Ibid., 287
(3)Rainer Maria Rilke, “Concerning Landscape,” Selected Works (New York: New Directions, 1967), I (Prose), 3-4
(4)Edmond and Jules de Goncourt, “Painting at the Exposition of 1855,” The Art of All Nations 1850-73: The Emerging Role of Exhibitions and Critics, ed. Elizabeth Gilmore Holt (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981), 136. In a famous passage, still relevant today, the Goncourt brothers write: “It is when nature is condemned to death, when industry dismembers it, when iron roads plow it, when it is violated from one pole to another, when the city invades the field, when industry pens man in, when, at last, man remakes the earth like a bed, that the human spirit hastens towards nature, looks at it as it never has before, sees this eternal mother for the first time, conquers her through study, surprises her, ravishes her, transports her and fixes her living and flagrante delicto on pages and canvases with an unequaled veracity. Will landscapes become a resurrection, the Easter of the eyes?”