As painter and photographer, and as an arts administrator, the artist John Covert made significant contributions to the development of American modernism. Covert was an active participant at the salon-like gatherings famously held at the apartment of preeminent modern art patrons Walter and Louise Arensberg (Covert and Walter were first cousins), at 33 W. 67th Street, where, in the late 1910s, New York Dada largely transpired. The recently acquired works in this exhibition descend directly from the Arensberg family. Most importantly, they shed light on the critical role of photography as a medium and an inspiration in New York Dada.
Before he created figurative works, still lifes, and abstract compositions, Covert produced over 200 known photographs. Most common are multiple studies of a single figure in the artist’s studio, often in preparation for a painting—two such oils are featured in the exhibition. Covert also photographed wooden dolls and related toys as studies.
The photographs suggest Covert’s keen interest in the expressive possibilities of the human figure. Where other artists divested the figure of her human identity, Covert suggests a liberated sense of self in his photographs of nudes. Unlike works by Alfred Stieglitz, for example, none of the prints crop out body parts, and, in each work, there is plenty of elbowroom.
Covert’s photographs are not insulated by classical allusions. He depicts women in less heroic activities such as dancing, smiling, and sleeping. The figures also relate to the New York Dada interest in puns and codes, which Covert also explored in later drawings and are on view in the Photography Gallery.
IMAGES Study #1 for “I Am That I Am,” ca. 1920, John Covert (American, 1882–1960), gelatin silver print. Adolph D. and Wilkins C. Williams Fund. Gift of Mrs. Thelma Cudlipp Whitman, by exchange; Gift of John C. and Florence S. Goddin, by exchange, 2020.89
Untitled [Nude Woman Reclining with Eyes Shut], 1916–23, John Covert (American, 1882–1960), gelatin silver print. Adolph D. and Wilkins C. Williams Fund. Gift of Mrs. Thelma Cudlipp Whitman, by exchange; Gift of John C. and Florence S. Goddin, by exchange, 2020.89