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Scott Covert was born in Edison, New Jersey in 1954. At the age of fourteen he ran away from his home town, consequent to its vehement rejection of homosexuality. Covert eventually found his way to New York City, where he sought to pursue a career in the arts. In 1976, he began his studies at the San Francisco Art Institute, only to later drop out and try his hand at acting. For a short time, he took classes with the legendary auteurs, Jerzy Grotowski and Wendell Phillips.  Upon returning to New York in 1977, Covert became engaged with various Off-Broadway theater companies, such as La Mama Theater, And later, with friends Scott Wittman, Marc Shaiman and Andy Rees, started Playhouse 57 at Club 57 in 1979.  His regular theatrical repertoire included such dark pieces as The Bad Seed, The Trojan Women and Living Dolls.  Throughout this formative period, Covert was immersed in the ferment of downtown bohemian spheres and spent time with numerous legendary protagonists such as the writer and actress Cookie Mueller, as well as poet and artist Rene Ricard. Both Ricard and Mueller encouraged Covert and championed his work. 

In 1981, Covert decided to give up acting and returned to developing his largely self-taught art practice. In the early eighties, he began buying human skulls as material for his work. Cookie Mueller wrote about these early works in the Saturday Review and in her regular column for Details magazine.  Following the re-printing of Mueller’s writings in a South African magazine, Covertwas invited to show his art in a gallery in Cape Town in 1985.  After witnessing the inhumanity of institutionalized segregation, Covert conceived of a new body of work that would critically engage with racism. He chose to respond by paying tribute to eminent black individuals. Covert drove all over the U.S. to create grave stone rubbings of such accomplished African Americans as Frederick Douglass, Malcom X, and Harriet Tubman. When working with the headstone of Florence Ballard (1943-1976) - one of the founding members of the Supremes who is buried in the Detroit Memorial Park Cemetery - Covert began to add various colors and layering to the rubbings. It is this “Dead Supreme” that spawned Covert’s Monument Painting series.    

Since that artistic epiphany, Covert decided to consecrate his life and work to Ballard via the creation of his Monument Paintings.  Following this moment, he has spent the past three decades in a state of permanent pilgrimage.  Whether crisscrossing the country in his car, or taking the occasional journey to Europe, Covert is impelled by an obsessive devotion to seek out certain mortuary monuments, tombstones, and graves. From an early age, Covert was fascinated with cemeteries. He was specifically drawn to the mysterious historical narratives: names, dates, fragments of commemorative text, and all that seemed to be locked within each headstone. As his later work attests, Covert’s devotion to these memento mori have generated complex narratives in their own right.  

Using a surprisingly vibrant palette of oil sticks, Covert fastidiously collects and layers the impressions of a wide array of cultural figures’ names onto sheets of canvas.  In the resulting compositions—whether singular headstones or through the combinations of names—Covert does more than just pay homage to various luminaries. In his startling and poetic combination of proper names and their attendant life stories, he produces the poignant thrust of the Monument Painting series.  An antithesis of the facile take on celebrity culture that dominates much of contemporary art in this vein, Covert’s grave rubbings uncover uncomfortable, sometimes dark overlaps, imbricated in iconic personages and histories.  Canvases devoted to contemporary martyrs such as Marilyn Monroe, Nicole Brown Smith and Ron Goldman, act as visually seductive, poignant memorials. Whereas the more layered works—which combine, for example, the names of murder victims with members of the Manson family, or liberated African American slaves with Confederate soldiers—act like a rebus of time, memory and history. Other personalities, such as Frank Sinatra, are subjected to a serial repetition on the same canvas thus multiplying not only a measure of their cultural resonance, but also reminding us of the cruel inevitability of death. Covert follows this vast array of figures to their graves, only to generate immortal works that resonate with life.  

Alison M. Gingeras

Essay published in "Scott Covert: The Dead Supreme" by Heinzfeller Nileisist