Whenever I visit the studio of Thomas Kovachevich, I feel I am entering a laboratory where the latest experiments in chemistry or the natural sciences are underway. This is not so unusual, given that his dual careers as artist and medical doctor have evolved hand in hand since the early 1970s. I always enjoy my dialogues with Kovachevich because he is someone who can discuss painting as part of the continuum with all of life. His minimal sculptures and performance works are made to interact with the changing light, humidity and even atmospheric pressure of their environments, while his paintings pursue a radical investigation of form and process. His recent computer drawings I hold in the same esteem as those by David Hockney: a new graphic form, made with light and electronic color, animated by their own making. A selection of these computer drawings is included at the foot of this interview, numerous videos of Kovachevich’s beguiling performance works can be viewed on his Vimeo channel. Our conversation took place at his White Street studio in Manhattan, where he and his wife Elenor have lived since 1982. We sat in front of a dozen new paintings that will be shown in Kovachevich’s forthcoming exhibition.
New York CityCallicoon Fine Arts
February 2 – March 8, 2020
Raymond Foye (Rail): I want to begin with the very latest works in your studio, which you will be showing in New York in about a month’s time. What are the concerns you are engaged with at the moment?
Thomas Kovachevich: I am working on a variety of things, which is my method, but the main focus has been on painting. When I’m specifically asked for an explanation for these paintings, it almost feels like the question is so huge it’s like asking “What is the universe, how was it made, what is life,” and so on. It feels overwhelming. But it isn’t, because on a day-to-day basis it’s an activity that’s not so grand. Even though the inner space of a person’s mind is like the universe—it can be infinite. When you think of the number of cells and neural connections in our brains it feels like it could be something truly vast.
Rail: And we may be the only beings in the universe who are also reflecting on it. We don’t know that.
Kovachevich: This sounds weirdly pretentious but recently I’ve been reading Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species (1859). I had breakfast with a scientist friend of mine the other day, David Hirsh, he’s a molecular biologist, and geneticist. And he said, “I reread On the Origin of Species the other day, and it’s so readable, so great, when is the last time you read it?” So I realized it was probably time.
Rail: What I like about Darwin is how almost the entire system is based upon his direct perceptions, his powers of observation.
Kovachevich: Yes, I agree. What strikes me about evolution now—what I’ve been wondering about in the course of making this work—is our advances in artificial intelligence. And how we’re being warned by people like Stephen Hawking and others who are saying, “Hey be careful folks, this is going to be very dangerous”
Rail: Hawking said more than that. He said AI is going to be the end of humankind.
Kovachevich: Exactly, and here’s what’s curious to me about this question: Is this too a part of our evolution? Do we keep inventing and refining these machines that can then take care of themselves until we’re no longer needed? Is there some higher purpose that we have no idea about, that needs our help to create this thinking machine that we call AI? I really wonder, is this a part of our evolution? Let’s face it, homo sapiens are just incredible killers of each other and everything that’s alive, including the earth and themselves, and I have this curiosity about what this idea sounds like when I say it out loud—it still has this compelling mystery.
Rail: Now, how does this relate to these paintings?
Kovachevich: The paintings themselves are mysterious versions of my thinking, my personal evolution. As a painter you inevitably end up incorporating everything you’ve seen and heard and thought about, whenever you attempt to do something as strange as “make a painting.” So I look at them and I too wonder what exactly is going on.
Rail: I’m glad to hear you say that, because I’m troubled lately that abstraction has arrived at a place of proficiency—it is so formally refined as a language, and is deployed as such, it often no longer functions in the mysterious way it once did.
Kovachevich: One of the problems in painting is what to paint. I wanted to make a painting that didn’t have the normal symbols—even though these paintings are loaded with things we’re accustomed to viewing—aspects of botany for example. But they’re not anatomical renderings, they’re anatomical renderings of thoughts made visible. They may reference animals and plants, vegetation and flowers, but they’re also depictions of our neural transmitters, synaptic gaps, our nervous system, our cellular connections. It’s a fusion of so many things happening simultaneously, which is one of the things that keeps me engaged with them, and makes me feel like it’s a discipline worth exploring. That’s what I like about doing artwork in general: it’s like being an explorer without having to get out of your chair.
Rail: Every time I see you, you are reading the latest books on science, or the latest medical journals. I sense that you derive as much inspiration from this information as you do from art history.
Kovachevich: Probably true, however for me it seems more unconscious. An unconscious type of intelligence, but not unrelated from medicine and art. There’s something to be said about exploring the mind—the minds of others, and your own. I like to think the paintings are dialogues with myself, the past and the future simultaneously. These paintings are visual depictions of thoughts, of synaptic connections with biologic and physical systems. I “see” neurotransmitters, synaptic gaps, molecular consciousness of dreams, receptor proteins, viruses, bacteria, plants, animals, hallucinations, chemistry, life. They are self-portraits of inner dialogues, ones that never cease. And they are about art history, and other paintings. That said, the intellectual motivations behind art and the practical means of making it, are two very different things.
Rail: You have bodies of work, sculpture primarily, where you have been exploring a fairly consistent set of aesthetic concerns for many years now—since the 1970s in some cases. And then you have bodies of work, paintings primarily, that spring from much more recent concerns. Overall, the momentum behind your work seems very change-oriented. If I were forced to name a single subject matter behind all your work I would say it’s mutability. So much of your sculpture exists in its interactions with its environment: humidity, light, wind, etc., Your paintings, on the other hand, don’t so much react with these forces as depict them, albeit on an abstract level. The botanical allusions in these newest paintings bring them much closer to realistic depiction than you’ve arrived at, perhaps ever. Did that concern you at all?
Kovachevich: I accept your conclusion of mutability being a subject of my work. Perhaps I can offer a brief summary of how I came to do these paintings. I have made paintings for many years. Usually the subject of the painting was my own art. I used works that I had previously done as topics and models to re-explore, rediscover and reiterate with paint. A few years ago, inspired by my love of botany and biology, I began to paint small-scale “images” that I altered to accommodate an unspoken need to express a very personal range of thoughts and feelings I was having in response to my life. I had no interest in depicting anything that was anatomically correct. Being a child of the ’60s might these paintings be unconscious representations or flashbacks, I wondered? Or trauma, flight, depression, anxiety, pain? Or were they optimistic renderings of hope? They certainly made me feel good. For me, they were and are powerful elixirs for healing—my own. They have other-worldly aspects, surrealistic visions, dreams, inspired worlds of magic and mystery. Molecular consciousness, visions of synaptic connections with the world, the underworld and the universe. These are goals many of us had, and still do.
Rail: I too see all these topics as valid subject matter in painting, and I never cease to be amazed at how adaptable painting—particularly abstract painting—is when it comes to serving as a vehicle or receptacle for advanced ideas.
Kovachevich: I feel the same way. When I look at these paintings I see many things. I see art history, biology, neurology, the microscopic and the macroscopic. I see life, I feel happiness, and I am excited by possible connections unknown to me, revelations yet to be unmasked.
Rail: These are mental images, since true abstraction is in the mind. Maybe I’m harping on this abstraction thing too much, because in the end I also believe there is no fundamental difference between “realism” and “abstraction,” it’s about intention and handling and deployment.
Kovachevich: Straddling those two poles was very much part of my current purpose. I wanted to attempt a body of paintings that were abstractions, but that also have a very representative characteristic. When you look at these groups of works, they do look like botanical depictions, and botanical illustration has always been something I’ve been very attracted to, but never got to the point of doing some kind of “take” on it. And that’s another way to state what I’ve done—I’ve taken botanical illustrations and made them my own. There are infinite possible explanations and answers, and making paintings is one way to search for answers, and one way (among many other ways) to reveal “truth” or a profound feeling or an idea. I am making paintings, and what they mean or “are,” subjectively or objectively, may be very different to me and the viewer, and this is as it should be. A painting is as it is. It is itself. It is about painting.
Rail: One thing I’ve noticed in our conversations down through the years is that you are always testing and evaluating your thought in a very empirical way, which is curious because the works are entirely of your imagination. Have you ever given thought to how your science background might have made you more analytical in your approach to art?
Kovachevich: Because I practiced medicine for 30 years and keep in touch with a lot of scientists and physicians, one of the things that comes up a lot in conversation is, “What is art and how is it different from science?” One consideration is that artists are seeking a truth, but it’s a subjective truth. Scientists are also seeking a truth, but it’s objective. They’re evaluating gravity, or they’re evaluating a molecule, but then that definition gets confusing because so often a subjective insight has such power, objectively. It’s subjective but it’s objective as well. I don’t think we ever arrived at a satisfactory explanation. Something that’s easier to talk about for me is how art and medicine might be different or alike.
Rail: Well you’re in a good position to discuss that, so let’s get into it.
Kovachevich: They’re both lifetime projects—they’re both so vast, and they’re so interesting, you can spend a lifetime on either. I practiced medicine for 30 years, and I’ve been an artist for—my entire life, really. And I often found that the two activities were synergistic to each other. Early on I would be envious of artist friends who didn’t have day jobs and just spent all day, every day, in their studios. But then when I was able to spend entire days in my studio, maybe not a full week, but half the week, I discovered that I would get tired or frustrated, or I would get lonely in the studio: everything seemed so vague, maybe not a worthy pursuit for a person to spend their entire days doing.
Rail: Was it too solitary, or solipsistic? What was it?
Kovachevich: It was very solitary, it had a loneliness to it. I always liked working in my home, and hearing my children’s noises, which might drive some artists insane, but for me it was comforting. Even though I wanted to be alone in a room, I liked hearing the ambient chaos of family life. And then I would go to the office for the other half of the week, and it would be more concrete, even though the practice of medicine can be vague as well, actually. The interaction with one patient after another, problem solving all day long, was very stimulating. I realized that in the studio and in the office, even though the situations were completely different, I was trying to problem solve. In the studio I’d have an idea and then I would have to figure out how could I make that idea visible. And in the office, someone would come to me with a very serious problem, which required me to discover what this problem was: make a diagnosis in other words. And there’s a whole process that we’re taught in medical school, how to eliminate various possibilities. First you have to come up with a hypothesis on what could be wrong, and then, through laboratory and imaging, or from the time I first learned medicine, a physical examination—of thyroid nodules or lymph glands or abnormal sounds in the abdomen or the heart or lungs, etc. So this whole activity of problem solving exists in both realms. And then, in both realms, when you’ve solved the problem, there’s a euphoria that happens, and it’s just spectacular. There’s nothing like seeing an ill person become well. And it’s really fun to come up with an idea, and then actually come close to realizing your idea, what that idea could look like when made visible. That’s also thrilling and euphoric. So I guess you could say I chose two activities that could produce euphoria. [Laughs]
Rail: And are art and medicine, would you say, callings?
Kovachevich: Yes I would say that. I’m glad you asked me that. I never thought I could or would be an artist. On a personal level for me, art and medicine are very closely related. I was sick my whole life with a variety of problems, so from an early age I had a lot of encounters with doctors. Around the time I was in college I underwent a surgery—I was in the hospital for a month and then I was in a cast from my chest to my toe, lying flat for six months, which was an ordeal. At that time I had what I would call transference. I so fully related to the medical doctors who were treating me, I identified myself with them, wanted to be them. It made a lasting impression. At the same time, I did my first painting, lying in bed lying in this full body cast. So, unconsciously, these two things took on a relationship somewhere in my psyche. When I eventually returned to school after I recovered, I dropped my theater major, and maintained the social sciences because I had so many credits in it, and then took all the pre-med sciences—anatomy, biology, chemistry, and so on. And then I went to medical school. That’s how this whole trail I’m describing occurred. It was my illness that led me to medicine. And I loved medicine right away because it’s a fascinating subject that takes forever to learn and you never finish, and art is like that too. I love that these are two things you can just continually pursue, regardless of your age or disability.
Rail: But you chose medical school over art school.
Kovachevich: Yes, eventually I recovered and got into medical school, and in my second or third year of studies, a mutual friend introduced me to Tom Shannon. Tom was a student at the Art Institute of Chicago. He was 19 and we enjoyed each other's company right off. He was fully an artist, even then. I don’t think I’d ever met an artist and it had a transformative effect on me. On an impulse I asked him to paint a mural in my apartment—the wall was 20-25 feet long. He set to work, and each day I’d come back from the hospital or school, and we would hang out together and discuss his progress, and I became very enthralled with the whole process, him as a person and as an artist. Suddenly, I had an overwhelming impulse to see if I could do something like that myself. What was really incredible about Tom Shannon, besides being a completely brilliant, gregarious, and fun person to be with, was the open and generous spirit that he responded with when I said, “I’d like to try a painting myself.” He didn’t tell me to get lost. Very often, if you’re in another field, and then you say you want to do something in another person’s field, they don’t like it. And if you’re a doctor and say, Oh I think I’m going to be a painter too, they might say, “Why don’t you stick to what you know?” But contrary to that, he welcomed me in, he encouraged me, and then he started taking me around to museums and galleries, which I'd never done before. He took me to the Hyde Park Art Center, and we saw Karl Wirsum and a bunch of other Imagists, and my mind was blown by them.
Rail: At this point you realized that medicine could be your day job?
Kovachevich: Slowly I came to realize that it’s nice to have a day job that’s interesting, and this was a really interesting day job. The doctors, nurses, the patients, the daily challenges provided experiences that enhanced my thinking. I learned things about life, and sometimes death. Aesthetics creeped in too. Often I would see materials at the hospital that I was attracted to for aesthetic reasons, for example, the satin surgical tape, or a particular suture, or tubing. I would take them home and I would make something with them. I did that over and over again, which, surprisingly, resulted in my being shown at documenta 5 in 1972.
Rail: How did that come about?
Kovachevich: It came about through a few different people. Tom Shannon sent in slides of his work to the Chicago and Vicinity Invitational Art Show at the Art Institute of Chicago, and Sam Wagstaff was one of the jurors. Shannon did an incredible piece, which involved electronics, a light, plants, and a human heart. And it won first prize. Shannon became friends with Sam Wagstaff, and introduced me to Sam, who liked my work too. I was crazy about him. Very smart, a riot to spend time with and a good teacher. Sam liked taking me to museums, and I’m one of these people that’s willing to sit at other people’s feet. I think you’re supposed to do that, if you want to learn something from someone, you have to want to sit down and listen. Sam took to my work right away, and he brought about 40 small sculptures with him to New York and showed the work around, to Richard Tuttle, to Richard Bellamy, all sorts of people. And in response, Richard Tuttle sent me a piece that was similar to a work of mine that Sam showed him. He said in a letter, “Look what I did. I have no idea what to do with it, so I’m sending it to you.” In that way I became friends with Richard. We would go around to the galleries and museums too. I’d go to his studio and hear him out. And he too was a very intriguing, mysterious person, the kind of person I was not exposed to very often.
Rail: At this point was Richard Tuttle a bit of an influence on your work?
Kovachevich: Not really, I think I came to my work independent of him, but he was certainly a fellow traveler. That we could both take a piece of wire and tack it to the wall and go, “Oh my God!” and actually mean it… We had fun exclaiming over each other’s work. It was a pleasure, it was inspiring, and it gave me confidence. He was very helpful.
Rail: When was your first exhibition?
Kovachevich: Sam Wagstaff organized a group show in 1969 when he was the first contemporary curator at the Detroit Institute of Arts, and he invited me to exhibit my sculptures there. Sam also told Pierre Apraxine about my work, he was a curator of the Penthouse Gallery at the Museum of Modern Art, NY. Pierre showed a series of my small sculptures that were meant to be handled. That was Spring of 1971.
Rail: So you hit the ground running.
Kovachevich: I guess, but it seemed more like this was a normal kind of thing, little did I know. I appreciated it, although I kind of thought this happens to everyone. I did get a hint when at MoMA the installer gave me a bunch of very beautiful labels that had Henri Matisse’s name on them, and he said, “ I’m giving you the labels from the vitrines that I put your work in. You should be proud, you were the very next person to lie down on this surface.” I practically said, “Who’s Henri Matisse?” [Laughter] So I had one crazy thing like that after another occur. It was probably for the better that I was largely clueless. I was like the Peter Sellers character in Being There (1979), saying completely strange things because I had no idea what was going on, while everyone is thinking, “This guy is really profound.”
Rail: That’s funny. So eventually, how did your inclusion in documenta 5 (1972) come about?
Kovachevich: Harald Szeemann and Jean-Christophe Ammann were the two curators organizing documenta 5 in ’72. Richard Tuttle mentioned me to them, and Sam Wagstaff did too maybe, but Tuttle for sure. Szeemann and Ammann made a pilgrimage to Chicago to see me, which was pretty amazing. Now mind you, I have no idea who they are, I’ve never even heard of documenta, I have no idea what anything is. I know there is some kind of cachet today in saying you’re an outsider artist, but I was an authentic outsider. I didn’t go to art school, and the only things I knew I got from whoever I happened to be hanging around, whatever knowledge they would impart to me, because I was very busy studying medicine. I mean, I couldn’t be studying art history too. I just would pick up on things around me, and so documenta happened to me like that.
Rail: How did the studio visit go?
Kovachevich: I happened to be renting this gorgeous, minimalist, super elegant apartment from a psychopharmacology PhD student at the University of Chicago. Just prior to their visit I looked around at my apartment, and I realized this won’t do. So I took one room and threw books and papers everywhere, I really messed it up, and I stuck my work in the middle of the room. That seemed to satisfy them.
Rail: I want to ask you about the art scene in Chicago at the time, and particularly about Michael Hurson, who you were good friends with, and I know we’re both huge fans of his work. I think he’s a terribly important artist, and sadly he seems to be very much forgotten today. Your first exhibition in Chicago was a two person exhibition with Michael Hurson at the Museum of Contemporary Art in 1973—how did that come about?
Kovachevich: Michael Hurson really is important, and he was the sweetest dearest person as well. The poor guy was ill, he had a lot of mental health problems that didn't manifest until much later in his life. Back then he came off as a charming eccentric. The nice thing about Chicago was the artists were completely different from me. They were very friendly to me because I had nothing to do with the kind of work they did. There was no competition, they would just hang with me and be nice to me and likewise.
Rail: I first discovered Michael Hurson through an article in Arts magazine by Robert Pincus-Witten, and I was instantly fascinated with the work. Then when I was a student at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, I began to see his work around and I met people who knew him—he'd left Chicago at that point. He seemed to be an artist who understood what Warhol had done with the mechanical reproduction process, Pop and conceptualism, the sequential image—and brought these things to the next stage in his own work.
Kovachevich: He did do all that. The director of the MCA, Stephen Prokopoff, came up with the idea for a two-person show called Rooms and Shadows. Michael showed small-scale balsa wood renderings of actual rooms that had some private meaning to him. They were very realistic and magnificently crafted, very contrary to his other work. In my space, I painted in the shadows that were made by things in the gallery space such as a bench, or the shadow cast by a column, or a handrail or an exit sign, etc., Altered space was created by simply adding paint to a shadow. And by the way, that's where I met my wife Elenor. She worked in the museum education department. And we're still together, 47 years later.
I really loved my time with Michael Hurson. We spent a lot of time together and he would seem flighty and spacey but he would remember every single thing that we ever spoke about, even years later. Not long after the MCA show, Michael was in a group exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago, which was a rare honor for a living artist. Michael was maybe the most famous artist in Chicago at that time. I went to see the show, and as I was leaving I decided to stop in the gift shop, and there was Michael standing behind the counter, working the cash register. That taught me a lot about success in the art world.
Rail: You were fortunate to know Walter De Maria quite well, and that was quite a special aesthetic. What can you tell me about your introduction to Walter, some of the work he was making when you first met him?
Kovachevich: Tom Shannon and Walter De Maria were doing a project together. Tom invented a projection television which involved taking an ordinary TV, strapping a lens to the cathode ray tube, and projecting a really large television picture. Back then to see TV on the wall, was extraordinary. It had to be tinkered with, and he needed investors, and I was an investor, as was Walter. And Walter really invested his time, too. They would come to trade shows in Chicago. I had a large house and they would stay with me and we'd all hang out. Walter was another person who was incredible to hang around—if and only if you resigned yourself to him. If you sat at his feet and he would regale you from the beginning to the end over and over again, with the most fascinating things. It was wonderful. He turned me on to many ideas, many ways of thinking, he was very generous. We had so much fun.
Rail: Did you feel Walter's work embodied and reflected the richness of this very unique thought process?
Kovachevich: I did. I thought he was a very fastidious, very careful thinker. I didn't know how people perceived Walter when he and I were first hanging out, but soon it was obvious this was not just a regular artist. The Broken Kilometer (1979) is my favorite work. It just overwhelmed me. I couldn't believe the thinking, the rigor, the elegance of it. So among my favorite artists at the time I would include Walter, Dan Flavin, and Fred Sandback. Minimalism was the food I grew up on.
Rail: For me it’s still an unbeatable aesthetic.
Kovachevich: It is for me too. It’s true in science as well. Watson and Crick’s paper describing DNA is one page long. In one page with such clarity they were able to describe an idea that changed the world.
Rail: How does your sculpture function in relation to the paintings? How do you decide to make one or the other, or why make both, and how do you deal with them when it comes time to making an exhibition? Or is it all the same thinking?
Kovachevich: It is a sense of freedom I try to allow myself to have. Why be an artist if I can’t do as I please without censorship, including self-censorship? I’m exploring the world at large and my interior dialogues at the same time. With me you can get very confused, but if you get to know my work you start seeing, yes, that’s his. It’s a dialogue that’s made visual, so you start to see different things—different methods and tools are needed to best express what’s going on. For example, a small object may suit one idea and a computer drawing may suit another. Deciding which method to use really depends on what I am trying to reveal or elucidate: what’s my state of mind that day? In medicine when consulting with a patient, the decisions, methods and tools to use are decided by their problems, the circumstances, not my mood. I am a generalist both in medicine and art. Because I’m “wired” that way is an easy way to explain why.
Rail: So many things today are captive to the “specialist” mentality.
Kovachevich: To have a global understanding of things seems to have great value to me. Thus being a generalist in art and medicine suits me. I do not want to restrict what I learn and study. In the studio I decide what to do. In medicine the patient’s problem dictates my thinking and actions. Regarding your question about how I deal with all of this when it comes time to make an exhibition is not easy to answer. An exhibition can be a work of art itself. What’s in, what’s not, the space itself, etc. One thing that makes mounting a show a bit easier for me is that I have never wanted to revisit my past. I’ve wanted to remain in the present. Next month I’ll be showing recent paintings and one sculpture, but during this same working period I’ve done computer drawings, made small objects, did some paper installations, did table top installations etc. So what’s the answer? Reality provides some answers, time, space, energy, budget etc. I would like to do an exhibition that included everything I did during a specific time period. Next time.
Rail: These late paintings, they seem to me to be a lot about the relationship between humans and plants, which goes back thousands of years, and is very deep and profound, whereas today it has been reduced to something so trivial. We’ve lost so much in terms of folklore, and traditional knowledge. These paintings seem to be getting back to some form of enchantment where there’s inspired communication between science and art.
Kovachevich: That word, enchantment. I really like that word, because I seek it.