Interview with Michael Kovner

4, December 2010 · interviews

On December 30, 2010 (19:00 – 21:00), Michael Kovner, a well known Israeli landscape painter, will open an exhibition at the Tel Aviv Binat Gallery. We have met Michael at his Jerusalem studio.

Video: Lena and Leonid Zeiger

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Text of video-interview (translation from Hebrew)

You have painted Israel’s landscape for many years. You mentioned on other interviews that the landscape comes from some sort of inner experience, you talked about a strong emotion that connects you to the place you paint. In recent years, part of your work is done in New York. As oppose to Israel’s landscape, this is an urban landscape, sometimes a frontal look towards a high-rise building, often without seeing the horizon. What is the context of that change, and is it a conscious decision?

Well, first of all, the decision to paint in New York was coincidental. Yan (Rauchwerger), who is a friend and a painter, had a studio in New York and he lived there for three years. When he decided to come back to Israel he wanted to keep the studio and suggested several other artists to share the studio with him, so that each will have it for three months every year. When I saw the studio I was especially taken by the window – there is a huge window there, and that is really what convinced me to try it.

It turned out, it is now the tenth year that I paint in New York, two months every year, and each time I ask myself – why do I do it, or do I really need it, and each year when I`m there, the answer comes from the work itself.
In general, it is very common for artists and writers to travel to another place for their writing. It’s easier to focus, there are no problems to disturb your work. I paint from seven in the morning to seven in the evening, seven days a week, it’s a lot. It’s hard to describe the sort of energy that is released from such an intensive work.

I think I was not able to do it in Paris or in any other place, I don’t paint just any landscape. There is something in New York, in those buildings, the roughness, the colors, the rhythm of the city, that moves me. It wouldn’t have happened in Rome or Paris… there’s no other city that I would feel about it in the same way.

It also liberates another side in me. When you paint landscape, it needs to be fairly close to the local colors. I’m not a very realistic painter in terms of color, but still, when you paint the desert it needs to be in a certain color scheme, or when you paint in the Galilee, you need to be tuned to the colors and the nuances in the colors of the view, you cannot impose it in a completely artificial way.

In New York, however, you have a façade, let’s say of brown bricks – you can make it red, orange, brown, almost any shade within the warm colors can fit, in terms of your relation to the place and what it says about it. It doesn’t matter that much if it’s brown like this brown, or a more reddish brown, or just red. The expression here is very strong and clear. It is not Paris, the colors here are not pastel, and this is what I like – that they are bold, harsh, and the contrasts are strong, and not subtle.

I like to paint facades. Long time ago I painted in Gaza “Arab Houses”(Arabic Facades). The façade allows you a great deal of freedom, in terms of color, because the minute you don’t have to deal with perspective, you released yourself from the burden of near and far issues, light and shade and their influence on color, and the movement within the painting which is backward and forward. In my landscapes as well, I often break that perspective, of a single vanishing point, in order to achieve greater freedom in terms of color and movement. In New York, I give more room to color and to movement to “play” within the painting.

So is it more abstract then? Despite the fact that it is the same landscape, you say it allows you more freedom because it leads you towards the abstract?

I think all my paintings are abstract to some extent. I don’t consider myself a realistic painter, and also not an abstract painter. I think I live between the two worlds. Some paintings, like “haystacks” or “boat at sea”, are more abstract, where others like “Judah desert” or “The Negev” are more realistic because of the plastic nature of the view. If you take it too much to the abstract, you lose the plasticity of the view, but in New York there is no such risk. In a way, yes, they are very abstract. The rhythm of the windows has an autonomous force, and the color composition has an equal status, for example where the windows are blue and the façade is red, and all of a sudden one of the windows is black – there, you have a color composition that stands on each own, connected and disconnected from reality.

I had a studio in Long Island City, and now in Brooklyn, people who know those places will recognize them, but in many aspects they are completely abstract. I have a painting of a large building that almost fills the entire space of the painting, with windows, it is divided to nine units, the painting, in sort of an interaction between shades of brown. One brown is more blue, another is more orange, the whole painting is about relations between the brown colors and how they communicate with one another and with the whole complex. It is very abstract, but people who live in New York will still recognize them as the Projects. They are well known in New York, so there is also a local element to it, it’s clear that it’s New York and not San Francisco or any other city. The colors, the pattern, the inner rhythm of the paintings – this is more important to me than portraying a specific place.

How would you describe the contemporary Israeli art?

I am not that familiar with contemporary Israeli art. I go to exhibitions here and there, over all it looks to me the same kind of art that is being done all over the world today, the same as I see in Chelsea or in the East Village. It seems very cosmopolitan. In the past it used to be more conceptualism, the “Want of Matter”, painting on plywood, all those ideas that Rafi Lavie represented, but today not any more.

So you’re saying that there is no such thing as a “contemporary Israeli painting”, no specific features that describes it?

Maybe there isn’t. Maybe it is completely international, completely detached from the place. For example, there is something that defines an Israeli film, you notice immediately that it is an Israeli film. Even visually – the flatness, the faded colors and so on. But contemporary Israeli art has nothing of sort.

Last question – what is your place in Israeli contemporary art, and do you consider yourself a contemporary artist at all?

Look, I`m not a young man, some might even say old. When I was younger this subject was constantly in my mind. There was a lot of conceptualism going on back then, and a general attitude of “being part of the world” and not being “provincial” – because what I represented is provincial, right? Painting the land, landscape, methods like Cezanne, that was considered provincial. You’re not moving ahead, supposedly, you’re not the pioneer of the avant-garde. But today there is no avant-garde, it’s a different world today. I don’t feel that I want or need to be “relevant”. I am who I am. I`m not a young artist who has to deal with the question of who he is within this world, what’s his position. I’m a veteran artist, so whatever I chose to do – I already did, and how it affected the culture here, or not affected, I`m not going to become a different person all of a sudden. It’s like marrying a 25 year old woman, it just doesn’t feel right, You know? Because I am who I am – I hope that I keep reviving my work, that I`m not just automatically repeat the same things I did, and if there will be a place for it in the world – that’s good enough for me.

In general, I think that landscape paintings will have a important place in Israeli culture, much more than today. In the year 2050 there are going to be 18 million people here, between the Jordan river and the sea, so I don’t think that we’ll have much landscape left. It is hard to imagine the amount of people who are going to live on this tiny piece of land. So the longing for landscape, for the land, will be strong. It is a serious thing, the longing of the man to the landscape. The fact that it taken lightly here, it’s one of our problems here, of Israeli culture which tends to despise the values of the previous generation. The things that were done in the past are held as stupid and what is being done now is exceptionally important.

The same thing goes for landscape paintings – it was attributed to the Israeli romanticism, painters who wanted to portray the country as some sort of utopian creation…and true, it used to be like that, but landscape belongs to a great emotion in man towards nature and towards the world, it is not a small thing that art criticism can just delete. The art criticism believes that it can, but it (the emotion) is much stronger then it thinks.

There are very few good landscape painters here, maybe even very few in the whole world. I mean really good, not amateurs, and I think you cannot ignore this experience, this emotion that man has. The less landscape we’ll have, the stronger this longing is going to be. Man will not become alienated, on the contrary, he will only feel the need stronger, it will intensify his emotion towards the place and the landscape. The impressionist movement, for example, broke out because Haussmann destroyed Paris and they felt suffocated by the industrial world. So they went outside, to the country, it was actually a protest movement against the urbanization of their time. We see them as classicists, but they went to paint the view as an antithesis to what was happening in the industrial world. Don’t forget – it was during the industrial revolution.

So I think that the emotion towards landscape will not disappear, and since my paintings express Israeli landscapes in a strong and significant manner, with a lot of emotion, I think they will find their place. And if they don’t – they don’t. In my opinion, it is a mistake for anyone to try and determine how he’ll be remembered in the face of history. I think it is a huge mistake. A person and a painter should do whatever he believes in. As Chazal said: “ things that you put your blood and soul in them stay, and the rest weaken”.

Biography of Michael Kovner

Michael Kovner’s site


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