Richard Sloat
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Journal of the Print World, Winter 1999
"Robert Conover 1920-1998: A Poet of Prints"
by Richard Sloat

Two days before he died, Robert Conover was at the New School working on his etchings. He died on October 5, 1998 after having taught painting, drawing and printmaking at the New School for forty years. Almost as long, he taught at the Brooklyn Museum Art School, where he had studied with Max Beckman. He studied, also, with George Grosz and Reginald Marsh at The Art Students League, but his grounding in art was from the Philadelphia Museum School, and the Barnes Foundation, of which he spoke most affectionately. An early influence, at the age of fourteen, was a teacher who had studied with Joseph Pennell; perhaps this is where Robert Conover's love of the urban landscape, a lifetime fascination, originated.

In the 1950's and 1960's Robert Conover was a second generation abstract expressionist, whose main medium was woodcut. These elegant architectonic abstractions, in both black and white and in color, are vaguely reminiscent of Franz Kline's gestural abstractions. Yet Conover's propensity for the citiscape is seen in titles such as Doorway of 1952, or Building of 1957. these much-admired prints were exhibited in group exhibitions at The Museum of Modern Art, The Metropolitan Museum, The Whitney Museum and The Art Institute of Chicago among numerous other venues. Robert Conover's list of museums who have collected these elegant woodcuts as well as his later etchings is equally if not more impressive.

It was in the 1970's that Robert Conover began his series of urban landscape etchings; after years of modernist abstract woodcuts Conover became one of the finest classical line etchers of the contemporary city scene. He focused on these for the last twenty or so years of his life. Whereas his abstract work pointed toward the architectural, his citiscapes, especially the deteriorating piers and buildings, clearly have concerns with the abstract. These works, which at first glance seem extremely traditional, to my eyes, are the most radical of all Robert Conover's work. The use of classical vision obscures the fact that he created his own unique genre, which I call Urban Vanitas.

Vanitas works are usually still lifes, containing a human skull, meant to portray the ephemeral nature of existence. This is the sense of life one receives when viewing the tragic beauty and poetry of Robert Conover's abandoned, deteriorating, and demolished structures. Works such as Demolition of Riviera Theater, Pier 58 After Fire or Abandoned Hospital Roosevelt Island view the dying city. Where else is this urban vanitas motif found? I can only think of the fascination with Roman ruins of Piranesi, et al., but these ruins are not viewed as vanitas, they are seen as the record of a glorious ancient civilization. Conover's ruins are of glorious structures; they, however, are of his own era and have died in his time. His is essentially the same fin de siecle view of the Post-Modernists, but rather than their hip cynicism he expresses an austere stoicism; here life and death, beauty and deterioration, co-mingle.

Another motif of Conover's citiscape etchings are scenes of once-majestic buildings, neglected and time-worn, yet still maintaining a faded glory. They have the somber quality of the vanitas prints, the poetry remains, but tragedy is not here, for these prints maintain an earthy vitality of life. Robert Conover loved old movie houses, the Times Square theater district was often depicted, as well as buildings such as the Old Lord and Taylor Store, or Newark City Hall. Amazingly, with the new interest in the downtown areas, almost all of these structures have been renovated, spruced up, or torn down. This may be for the better, yet we can be thankful that Robert Conover captured the down-at-the-heels dignity and the somber beauty of these places for us all.

In a small memorial show at the New School, Bob Conover was referred to as "beloved teacher". I think beloved is a good description. Bob had a light about him, speaking slowly without wasting words; conversations with him were memorable and rewarding. His fellow artists honored him by electing him to the National Academy of Design. In his later years, to the general art world, Robert Conover was not well known, his work was not hip or decorative and he was far from being a self-promoter. He remained a very fine artist, a printmaker's printmaker, master of his medium. Those who understand art to its depths, who appreciate woodcut and etching, on viewing Robert Conover's prints will know his was a deep and poetic vision.

Robert Conover's work can be seen at The Old Print Shop, NYC and at Susan Teller Gallery, NYC.

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