Working with Howard Kanovitz
It was the fall of 1971 in Cologne, and Howard Kanovitz was the first American I had ever met. He was at the height of his career as a painter, and his star shone brightly in the Photorealist movement. Everything about him seemed foreign and mysterious to me, including his paintings.
I was a young art student, part of a small group of painters with Manfred Boecker and Wolfgang Niedecken. Our shared interest in Dada inspired us to name ourselves the “Gruppe Schizo.” Movements that used humor—from Fluxus to Pop to Concept art—were all-important to us. We took it all in. We called “Ready-Mades” “es fähdisch” in Kölsch Dialect. We admired and absorbed the works of Sigmar Polke, Gerhard Richter, and Josef Beuys, but instinctively knew we needed to branch out from there. For me, this meant radically changing my environment, getting away to explore new places and seeing what would develop.
At the very same time, Howard Kanovitz was looking for a studio assistant in Cologne. Naturally, I was curious and jumped at the opportunity to work with him. It turned into a three-year working relationship.
Howard had left New York with his wife Mary and young daughter Cleo in 1972 to spend a year in Cologne, painting and teaching while participating in the Documenta V exhibition in Kassel. The teaching position never materialized, and his stay lasted only about seven or eight months. The family found a penthouse apartment by the Rhine not far from the Severinsbrücke. Howard bought his first Mercedes and proudly drove it around Cologne, then later took it back to NY with him.
I helped him set up a studio in a large windowless basement with just a skylight on Roonstraße, not far from Galerie Thelen on Lindenstraße, where his work was shown regularly. Howard Kanovitz was a 9-to-5 guy and worked five days a week. I noticed how deliberately he orchestrated his process, which was highly analytical and detail-oriented. Things had to be a certain way and there were no compromises. This appealed to me.
We purchased an air compressor, had lights installed, plastered some walls, and made some working tables. A lot of his equipment, materials, brushes, and paints had come from New York. He rarely used regular paintbrushes; a series of different size airbrushes did the job.
I was eager to know more about what painting could be and quickly learned to work with these new tools. Initially my job was to cut stencils out of wax paper, which Howard would then use to apply acrylic spray paint to canvas.
Currywurst was absolutely new to him and we regularly lunched at a nearby Turkish fast food place. I remember him being surprised by the lack of the “to-go” business concept that’s so familiar for a New Yorker; its absence was a great mystery to him. “Someone could make a fortune bringing it to Germany,” he remarked.
To start a new painting he would first project photographic images from either a slide or an overhead projector onto the wall. He would create and adjust the composition, at times using several layered projections. The images were then transferred to tracing paper using pencils, carefully outlining color variations with dotted lines. These were called “working drawings.” They had a deliberate, almost-architectural feel and appearance.
At that stage Howard wasn’t interested in rendering recognizable images. It was all about separating color values from one another. When they were ready, the drawings were transferred to a prepared canvas using graphite carbon paper. Sometimes he used several different drawings on the same canvas, combining and adjusting them as he saw fit. Registration marks at the corners allowed for multiple uses when lines were lost during the painting process.
Some stencils were raised to 1/8th of an inch above the canvas using cardboard to allow for a softer edge when the spray paint was applied. Softer detail gradations were done freehand, using the smallest airbrushes. A motor mounted on top of the air compressor’s tank would occasionally kick in to fill the tank with air.
Paint colors were usually mixed ahead of time, using opaque and transparent mixtures of acrylics. Howard kept a gray scale handily premixed, consisting of about ten to twelve tones from black to white. Burnt umber warmed up the grays and took the edge off the solid black. All of the paints were premixed in glass jars on his painting table.
Before a surface was ready to be painted on, three or more layers of sprayed gesso (with a light sanding in between) were applied to the raw linen canvases. The final paintings received a matte acrylic varnish at the end. Howard liked his colors to blend on the canvas, just like in a photo projection.
I always favored the paintings shown at Documenta V in Kassel along with the ones we worked on together in Cologne, which depicted his studio walls, tools and casual objects (plugs, projections, paper, tape, shadows, etc.) These items carried the essence of his process, blurring the line between realistic documentation and visual poetry.
We spent the winter of 1973 in London. The Kanovitz family rented an apartment on Marloes Road in Kensington. Howard and I commuted to a studio in Chiswick, where he embarked on a series of paintings that were all approximately eight-feet tall. His idea was to create an installation consisting of these many unrelated yet adjoined paintings. The project was never completed and the paintings (including “North Light,” “The magazine Women believe In (aka Journal),” “Roses”, ”Portal,” and “Chair Shadow”) ended up in various collections instead.
In late winter 1973, I went back to Cologne. We continued working in New York the following fall for another year. I lived at Howard’s studio on Second Avenue and St. Marks Place, and decided to stay in New York after our close association ended during the summer of 1974 to pursue my own painting. I found a loft in the same building as Howard’s, which I kept for nearly forty years. We remained friends until his death in 2009. I still live and work in New York City today.
I think Sam Hunter put it best:
“Howard Kanovitz is perhaps the most poetic of the group of New Realists who began to forge novel expressive truths from the camera’s photographic image in the Sixties. Kanovitz makes us acutely aware of the artistic process, the miracle of vision, and mercurial nature of our seemingly familiar world.”