Michael Kovner’s N.Y. State Of Mind

With an exhibit, a graphic novel and a play, the Israeli landscape painter is on a roll.

02/12/2013
Jewish Week Book Critic
Photo Galleria: 

One of the joys of walking around New York City is looking up suddenly and finding yourself eye-to-eye with a beautiful building that perhaps you hadn’t noticed before, or hadn’t seen in the perfect light now bathing it. Israeli painter Michael Kovner’s urban streetscapes are full of that vibrancy and serendipity.

His exhibition, “Exteriors,” at the Laurie M. Tisch Gallery at the JCC in Manhattan, features large-scale paintings of New York building facades, sometimes across several canvases that fit together like a puzzle.

“I’m not a New Yorker, but I’m not really a stranger,” Michael Kovner tells The Jewish Week in an interview at the gallery. New York speaks to him in ways that other cities don’t. He is drawn to the tensions and rhythms of this city; he even likes the sounds of the subway. And he likes using the strong colors, deep reds and oranges, of this landscape.

“For me red is very important. Red is a symbol, not only of life, for the feeling in life, but for the strongest emotion,” Kovner says. Since 2001, he has been spending most of his year in Israel and usually the summer in New York, where he shares a studio in Bushwick, Brooklyn. In Israel, he has painted building facades as well, but he is best known for his landscape paintings of mountains, deserts and valleys that are done with a lighter palette.

February has been Kovner’s month in New York. In addition to the exhibit of his paintings, his first graphic novel, “Ezekiel’s Story,” was just published here and a multimedia theater piece adapted from the book was presented last week at the JCC in Manhattan.

All three projects are alive with beauty and sensitivity, and all relate to his biography. “Ezekiel’s Story,” though, takes place in Vilna, the Lithuanian forests, Jerusalem and San Francisco, far from New York streets. 

Born in 1948 on Kibbutz Ein Hahoresh, Kovner began drawing as a child and says he was “deeply attracted to the physical beauty of the world and wanted to give expression to that love through painting.” Later, he came to New York to study at the New York Studio School, with painter Philip Guston.

Kovner is the son of resistance fighter, partisan, poet and historian Abba Kovner, who was born in Sebastopol, Russia, and raised in Vilna. The senior Kovner studied art at the University of Vilna, and, as a young man interested in the Zionist movement, was prepared to move to the Land of Israel. But the outbreak of World War II changed his plans. Under the German occupation of Vilna, he remained in the city, first hidden by nuns in a convent and then in the ghetto. He helped organize an armed revolt in the ghetto, urging Jews not “to go like sheep to the slaughter.” He then continued to fight as a leader of partisan groups in the forests. In 1945 he went to Israel, where his Hebrew poetry had been published since 1943. He went on to write many books of poetry and in 1970 was awarded the Israel prize. He died in 1987, just before he turned 70.

“Ezekiel’s Story” is an “amalgam of the real and imagined,” Michael Kovner explains. It features some of Abba Kovner’s poetry and is in part his story, but not entirely. It’s the story of a conflict between a father and son, a connection between a grandfather and grandson, and the lingering effects of the Shoah and the consequences of decisions made a lifetime ago. It’s also about the issue of being in Israel or not being is Israel. Ezekiel is 75 and living alone, during the first Gulf War in 1991; his past is revealed in dreams and nightmares and “documented” at the back of the book in historical footnotes.

Kovner’s pages are dynamic, filled with striking paintings, not necessarily arranged in panels as in other graphic novels. He codes the pages in color, marking whether the sequences are dreams or flashbacks, or whether they take place inside or outside; some pages are splashed with light and others are much darker. The experience of reading is to be drawn into the images.

“In the graphic novel I attempt a posthumous dialogue with my father, a dialogue that was regrettably incomplete during our lives,” Michael Kovner says. He shows sides of the private man that few people knew, and he leaves out his mother, also a partisan, who died one year ago. Kovner never imagined that he would create a graphic novel, but at age 60, about 20 years after his father’s death, he wanted to express something that was troubling him. He’s admits to not being a writer, but with the help of his son, a film director, he taught himself how to write a story line. He also taught himself photoshop, to turn his paintings into computer graphics. As a result, Kovner’s graphic novel is more painterly than most, conveying much with color, expression, gesture and minimal narrative.

Kovner turned to a friend, the filmmaker and musician Josh Waletzky, for help with Yiddish — in the graphic novel, in the dream sequences, people speak Yiddish. Waletzky, in his 1986 film, “Partisans of Vilna,” written with Aviva Kempner, interviewed Abba Kovner at length, and Kovner served as a historical consultant for that film. Waletzky is serving in a similar role, historical and cultural consultant for the play, which is adapted from the book. It’s very important to Kovner that the graphic novel and the play be very accurate historically.

In fact, it was through Waletzky that the play came to be: He was doing some translation for Kovner, and his partner Jenny Levison, a playwright who is now director of performing arts at The JCC in Manhattan, read the manuscript and was inspired to think about a theater piece.

“What made me so interested in putting it on stage,” Levison says, “is that I knew those images were so powerful. I felt that we would get those to tell at least half of the story.”

The production featured professional actors reading their lines from scripts on music stands, with images from the book projected onto a screen behind them. At a piano, Ronnie Reshef played original music created for this piece. There are difficult conversations about the war in Israel, and Ezekiel’s son Amos’ decision to live abroad. The play opens in San Francisco, where he is living, and then shifts to Jerusalem, where Amos’ daughter and their son visit Ezekiel. The play (and the graphic novel) articulate and show Israel’s complicated situation from many dimensions.

Michael Barakiva, the director, was born in Israel, the son of an Israeli father who fought in the War of Independence and an Armenian mother, who sympathized with the Palestinians. The family left Israel when he was 6 and he grew up mostly in New York. He met Kovner via e-mail, and they had a great exchange about the theatre piece before they met in New York.

Barakiva, who worked as an amanuensis, or typist, for the late playwright Wendy Wasserstein, explains that most new plays fit into very convenient formats, with actors talking on a stage. But with the graphics, “this is not like any other theatrical experience.”

“Ronnie Reshef’s music really captures the spirit and essence. This is a play with music, not a musical — the songs happen in moments where the characters reveal something of their private selves to the audience,” Barakiva says.

Now, they are looking for a theater interested in taking the piece to production.

After the production, Kovner, who was seeing it for the first time, said that it touched his heart very much — that “it was different from what he had in mind, but not completely different.”

He mentions Ezekiel’s strong will to live, even after he lost everything, which echoes his father Abba Kovner’s deep engagement with life, expressed in his last book of poems, “Sloan Kettering.”

Michael Kovner’s own life-affirming outook, expressed in his painting, is not dissimilar. His next project in Israel is to revisit kibbutz life and landscape, to travel from kibbutz to kibbutz and paint the courtyards and trees. Next summer, he’ll be back in New York.

“Exteriors” is on view at the JCC in Manhattan, 334 Amsterdam Ave. at 76th St., through Feb. 28. (646) 505-4444. Jccmanhattan.org.

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