Kanovitz Through the Lens and the Canvas

"Hamptons Drive-In" by Harold Kanovitz.
“Hamptons Drive-In” by Harold Kanovitz.

By Michelle Trauring

“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.” – Sam Hunter

The man was meticulous. Straightforward, disciplined, methodical and precise. He found himself inspired by jazz and the south of France, and he was proud of his Jewish heritage.

That much Lana Jokel can say. But when it comes to Howard Kanovitz’s artistic process, she leaves it to her films.

“His work is hard to explain, especially his later works,” she said. “And I was fascinated with what he was doing.”

Jokel first met Kanovitz through artist Larry Rivers, who was introduced to her by Andy Warhol, she explained. It was the 1970s and the East End artists colony was going strong — Kanovitz relatively new on the scene.

The abstract expressionist was on the brink of moving into photorealism and creating one of his more famous paintings, “Hamptons Drive-In” — now on view at the Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill, which will screen the eponymous 30-minute documentary by Jokel, as well as her 2007 film, “Camera and Mirror—Painting Through the Lens: Howard Kanovitz,” with a 28-minute runtime, on Saturday night.

Filmmaker Lana Jokel. Jonathan Morse photo

“The ‘Hamptons Drive-In’ painting is really an iconic piece, and we always were hoping it would go to the right place. And it did now,” Jokel said. “He used his camera to shoot home movies of him making the painting, and going around the Hamptons, and asked me to edit it and put it together, so I did. Technically, it’s very raw, but the content is very interesting, in terms of history. This is from 1972 — 40-odd years ago. It’s actually very funny, you can see his sense of humor.”

Kanovitz was a pillar of every dinner table, full of stories and “wonderful remarks about art,” Jokel said. He was quirky, knowledgeable and, while he could be “fastidious and frugal,” he was the most loyal of friends, she said.

When she turned her camera on him in 2007 for “Camera and Mirror,” he was a complete natural and always himself, she said. He had no problem articulating his thoughts about art — at that time, he was projecting photographic images onto canvases before painting over and rearranging them — and music.

“He also plays saxophone and would talk about how much he loved jazz and felt jazz was, in some way, instrumental in inspiring the work he does,” she said. “The fact that jazz is all over the place and, when he was doing his latest paintings, he was also free to move them around, so to speak.

“He would play with Rivers in their band — the East 13th Street Band — and they used to play at events in the Hamptons: birthdays, bar mitzvahs, weddings,” she continued. “They were characters. He was very close to Larry, so when Larry died, that was very hard.”

Kanovitz would split his time between the East End and the south of France with his wife, Carolyn Oldenbusch, until 2009, when he died of complications following heart surgery. He was 79 years old.

“Many of us felt really sad, because it was quite sudden. We almost felt like it wasn’t fair because his work hadn’t been so appreciated in the United States at that point yet. It was more in Germany and France,” Jokel said. “Right after that, Carolyn tried very hard to bring him back on the map in the Hamptons, and she did. People are more aware of him, as they should be.”

“Hamptons Drive-In” and “Camera and Mirror—Painting Through the Lens: Howard Kanovitz” will screen on Friday, November 24, at 6 p.m. at the Parrish Art Museum, located at 279 Montauk Highway in Water Mill, in collaboration with the Hamptons Take 2 Film Festival and in conjunction with the current exhibition, “From Lens to Eye to Hand: Photorealism 1969 to Today.”

 A conversation will filmmaker Lana Jokel, Rainer Gross and Kanovitz’s widow, Carolyn Oldenbusch, will follow. Tickets are $20 and $5 for members, children and students. For more information, please call (631) 283-2118 or visit parrishart.org.