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 John R. Covert  (1882 - 1960)

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Lived/Active: Pennsylvania      Known for: non ob, mod figure, assemblage

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Ad Code: 3
John R Covert
from Auction House Records.
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
A cousin of collector Walter Arensberg, where members of the Dada Movement convened, John Covert became an artist as a young man, a steel worker for many years to support himself, and then an artist again towards the end of his life.

He later recalled that as a young artist, he was virtually blind to modernist art. However, he became a founder and director of the Society of Independent Artists, a group rebelling against academic art. But to support himself financially, he had a long, successful career in the steel industry in Pittsburgh and then retired and returned to New York, beginning to paint again privately in 1949.

At age 30, he had gone to Paris where he remained for three years but never knew a modern artist nor saw a modern art show. In Paris, he painted nudes and portraits in the academic manor and exhibited at the Salon.

He also had studied in Munich for four years on German-art scholarships and then in 1915, returned to the United States, settling in Connecticut. There he discovered in trying to paint the landscape that his paintings were not traditional in style, a revelation that launched him as a modernist painter. Living with the Arensbergs, he met Alfred Stieglitz and Marcel Duchamp and was inspired in a new type of creativity.

In his later years in New York, he lived rather hermit-like in a large room in a small Manhattan hotel.
John Covert (1882-1960) is best known today for a handful of paintings and collage-constructions he produced in the late 1910s and early 1920s, when he was an active participant in the Arensberg circle. Under the leadership of Walter Arensberg (Covert's first cousin), Marcel Duchamp, Francis Picabia, Man Ray, Charles Sheeler and other artist intellectuals of the day gathered at Arensberg's apartment in New York City.

During Covert's Arensberg circle years, he produced a group of works that have on occasion found their way into discussions of early American modernism. With paintings such as "Hydro Cell," the artist brought sexual and biological subjects to the picture plane. Throughout the artist's work, meaning is embedded in disguised imagery, coded language and double-entendre.

Covert also contributed to American modernism through his writings and administrative efforts. In 1917, one of his paintings accompanied Carl Van Vechten's short story in Duchamp's magazine, "Rongwrong." Around 1919, armed with the belief that artistsas opposed to curators and dealerscould best tell the story of modern art and encourage its disciples, Covert assisted Duchamp and the artist Katherine Dreier in establishing the Societe Anonyme.

Finally, in 1921, the artist aided Walter Arensberg in the production of his book, "The Cryptography of Dante," a deciphering of the hidden meanings of the acrostics, abbreviations and anagrams allegedly scattered throughout the "Inferno."

In 1923, after a solo exhibition at the de Zayas Gallery in 1920, and several exhibitions at the Societe Anonyme, Covert abruptly closed his New York studio. He began full-time work as a customer service representative and salesman for the Vesuvius Crucible Company, owned by another cousin. This is where, according to modern histories of American art, the John Covert story stops. Since then, critics and historians have been mourning the loss and enlisting Covert as an example of the abandoned American modernist artist after World War I.

Yet, the nature of this loss may have been misstated by recent commentators. Covert did not cease his artistic production after 1923, as is often assumed. In the 1920s and 1930s, he painted several landscapes and portraits. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, friends and various visitors to Covert's apartment, including Duchamp, art historian George Heard Hamilton, and critic James Thrall Soby, reported that the artist had resumed sketching and paintings. Moreover, in several dozen post-1923 daybook entries, Covert produced images bearing close formal and thematic affinity to the paintings and collages he executed before 1923.

Covert's verbal and visual wit is abundantly present in his 1923 painting, "Two of Ten Commandents." The title is not a typographical or spelling error. As art historian Gwendolyn Owens was the first to observe, the title word's "missing 'm' is formed by the legs of the two bodies." It is of little surprise that Covert, who was known to load his images with subtle and not-so-subtle cryptographic signs, positioned models in several figural compositions after letters (compare the x form in "Untitled: Woman with Crossed Arms." The actual "commandments" the models may symbolize remain unclear.

Covert recorded a corpus of photographs of eleven now lost or destroyed paintings and collages, raising questions regarding his usually overlooked photographic practice. Covert owned an Auto Graflex Junior camera, with which he took several hundred photographs over his lifetime. The prints can be divided into four recurring themes. Most common were multiple studies of a single model, typically transforming the figure into a compositional device. A second type depicts one or two figures, always female and usually nude, which often function as painting studies. Artworks flanked by random objects, and occasionally by models, is the third type. Finally, Covert photographed wooden dolls and related toys, also as studies for paintings.

Linking these admittedly broad categories is an interest in the human figure, a pictorial problem he repeatedly explored in several media, but perhaps nowhere as relentlessly as in his photographs. Neither his paintings nor his photographs of the female nude, however, were exhibited during his lifetime. American photographers had certainly exhibited nude subjects by the mid-1910s, when Covert embraced the medium, but the prints took bold steps in presenting women in ways that would not become accepted until a decade later.

Covert appears not to have made any such distinction between figuration and abstraction. He produced both types of work simultaneously, embedding each with disguised symbolism and formal incongruities.

In conjunction with his employment at Vesuvius, Covert began keeping daybooks, methodically recording business and personal expenses. He would keep these diary-like journals for the rest of his life. The daybooks also demonstrate his ongoing exploration of puns and codes long after he left the circles in which he developed these interests. Numerous entries record the purchase of art supplies, while others contain paintings. With trains, portrait studies and other imagery, several sheets may be considered works of art in their own right.

An early artwork, on the back of which Covert inscribed in large black text, "The Fugitive," illuminates both his early paintings and the later daybooks. The painting depicts a dynamically contorted female figure in a cave or chasm formed of turquoise, pumpkin and purple. "The Fugitive" may be interpreted in biographical terms.

It was in 1923, shortly after painting this canvas, that Covert closed his studio, gave away or destroyed several of his artworks, and quickly began the peripatetic existence of a salesman. As if on the run, or perhaps simply absorbed in other activities (excessive drinking and the meticulous keeping of daybooks), Covert was notoriously difficult to reach at his home at the Piccadilly Hotel in New York, and rarely returned letters or phone calls. As if summoned by a voice or vision, the woman in the painting looks back to, but does not enter, the rocky, cave-like abstractionnot unlike Covertwho, upon leaving the Arensberg circle, intersected with, but never again fully engaged, the social milieu of American modernism.

Source: Leo G. Mazow, "American Art Review", April 2003

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