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Essays

Graveside with Scott Covert: Painter of the dead

By Scott Covert
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Scott Covert in Calvary Cemetery, Queens, New York. Photo: Christian Patterson

My first funeral was my grandfather’s. I was eight. It was 1962. To get to the service, we had to drive more than a thousand miles, from suburban New Jersey to Michigan. There my grandfather lay, in a dark-brown wooden casket, dressed in his best navy-blue suit. He was dead, but he looked good, handsome, like he was just sleeping.

I wasn’t sad that I wasn’t going to see him again—he was in heaven. I had a little brown teddy bear that I loved, and I put it inside the coffin. They carried him away to the church for the hocus-pocus, Catholic-style. They all spoke in Latin, the language God understood. Then the funeral procession drove to the cemetery—it was my first time in a limousine. At the grave site, a concrete vault lined the deep hole, and we lowered him into it and covered him with dirt. He would be there forever. He was safe in sacred ground. I don’t do cenotaphs.

In sixth grade, they took us to the cemetery to make grave rubbings as a class exercise, I guess because that was a thing back then, a continuation of a tradition that had started at least as far back as the Victorians, who were just obsessed with death. And when you used the French word to describe it—‘frottage’—it all sounded so sophisticated and high-minded.

Edison, New Jersey, is 30 miles—45 minutes—outside of Manhattan. It was a community created for the Eisenhower era, World War II veterans starting families. That’s where I come from, where Thomas invented the light bulb. It was a nightmare to grow up gay there. I was tortured. With a couple other misfits, I started taking the bus into New York City. I was 15. I knew I could meet a boyfriend in the city, even before I left the Port Authority! I knew how to dance, and I went dancing every night for the next 25 years—it was the best education in the world. I did a lot of other things during that time. I went to Indiana University for two semesters, taking only studio courses, where I learned how to stretch a canvas and to do something on it with paint. Studio classes were also great because there were no final exams, and they never interfered with your evening activities. Next, I did almost a whole semester at the San Francisco Art Institute, where I decided that what I really wanted to be was a stage actor. I took a workshop with Jerzy Grotowski and became obsessed with the stage and everything that happened on it.

When I came back to New York, I immediately got a job on Broadway—as an usher, the first male usher in Local B183. I worked ‘Evita’ with Patti LuPone for a year and a half and watched every performance, more than 300 of them—I would do things like that. I saw Angela Lansbury and Len Cariou do ‘Sweeney Todd’ 75 times, and I was in the audience for their very last performance, high on LSD, sitting in the seventh row right behind Allegra Kent, the famous ballerina. Rock Hudson was there, too. The night I worked ‘Equus’, Anthony Perkins took the night off. It was announced that his understudy would be Richard Burton. The audience roared.

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Covert (far left) with members of the band Youth Against Death, New York, 1977 (from left: Nancy Ferrara, Frank Holliday and Natalya Maystrenko). Courtesy Frank Holliday. Photo: Katherine Dumas.

Next came Club 57, in the basement of a church at 57 St. Marks, between First and Second avenues. A whole lot of dancing went on down there. We were the spoiled children of the Greatest Generation. It was so American and so much fun. I was in a fake post-punk band, Youth Against Death, along with Frank Holliday, Nancy Ferrara, Natalya Maystrenko and Kathy Dumas on camera—we did flyers and interviews, never picked up an instrument. At that time, Andy Rees was running the club, after Ann Magnuson had retired from management. For two years, I was on stage constantly—Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman’s musical ‘Livin’ Dolls; Boing-Boing’ (a riff on the French farce ‘Boeing-Boeing’), dinner theater with peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches served to the audience in airplane vomit bags; ‘The Bad Seed,’ directed by Andy Rees, in which I played Rhoda Penmark, the pretty little girl with the best penmanship. For several months, I was doing three different plays four nights a week. I’d done it. I’d found out about performing on the stage, and then I never wanted to do it again. I learned something very important about myself: I hated working with other people.

I bought a baker’s dozen of human skulls from North Carolina Pharmaceuticals and painted and gold-leafed them. Patrick Fox put them in a group show at his Anderson Theater Gallery on Second Avenue in 1983 with George Condo, Greer Lankton and Robert Hawkins. My friend Cookie Mueller wrote about them, and I got a little attention. In 1985 I decided to do a rubbing of the gravestone of Florence Ballard, one of the founding members of the Supremes. She’s the dead Supreme—the tragic one, kicked out of the group in 1967, alcoholic, flat broke and gone by the age of 32. I had been in love with the Supremes since they sang ‘When the Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes’ on ‘Ed Sullivan.’ All those English boys were great, but I loved the girls from Detroit. I called up Michael Musto and asked him if he knew where Florence was buried. He said, ‘No.’ Then I asked him if he thought making a grave drawing was a good idea and he said, ‘Maybe.’

‘The second color made it pop, and when I looked at it, I heard that little bell that Gertrude Stein writes about. I’ve been doing it ever since.’

There I was: standing in the Detroit Memorial Park Cemetery in Warren, Michigan, 13 Mile Road. Florence had been married when she died, and the stone said ‘Florence Glenda Chapman, June 30, 1943–February 22, 1976.’ A brass marker lay flat on the ground. I placed a sheet of paper on it, wiped my crayon across the paper to capture the name and dates. The paper shifted. I didn’t want it to become muddled so I took another crayon, a different color, to finish it. The second color made it pop, and when I looked at it, I heard that little bell that Gertrude Stein writes about. I’ve been doing it ever since.

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‘Screaming with Laughter #4’, 2014–19

Before the internet, before it was easy to Google where somebody is buried—or whether they are buried at all, not cremated or dumped in the ocean—the absolute best way to find out was to call funeral homes. I’d see the obituary for a well-known person. I’d find out where the service was, and I’d call up the funeral home. I used to do this from a friend’s house, because I didn’t really live anywhere. (I still don’t really live anywhere, except with friends, and on the road, in my car.) I used to make my friend laugh because I’d tell funeral homes that I was Liza Minnelli’s assistant—assistant with a ‘z.’ For graves where the death had taken place long ago, I would go to the library. I used to spend a lot of time in libraries. I enjoyed it. I still do. I love the whole process between brushstrokes.

I brought the Ballard drawings back to New York and showed them to Cookie. She said, ‘Quit the acting, hon. This is what you should do.’ Next I went to Billie Holiday’s grave, taking the subway up to Saint Raymond’s Cemetery in the Bronx. And on one of the drawings I decided to add Billie to Florence on the same piece of paper, to put them together, and I said to myself, ‘Oh. This is good. This is starting to go somewhere.’ The third grave I went to see was Houdini’s, in a Jewish cemetery near Cypress Hills in Queens, and of course, not far away, in the Cypress Hills cemetery, lies Mae West herself. She was in a mausoleum that was locked at the time because people were smoking crack in there, but eventually I was able to get in and get her on a drawing. It just kept going from there, drawings and paintings, hundreds of them now.

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Scott Covert, Mellifluous Construction #1 (detail), 1996–present © Scott Covert
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Scott Covert, Jonestown Victims Going with the Egyptian Flow, 2000 © Scott Covert

The grave pieces were going pretty well when I got really into drugs. Everybody was into drugs. And everybody started dying of AIDS. I was going to die, too. Every morning I’d wake up and look at myself and wonder when I was going to see the purple sores. So what do you do? You do drugs because you’re going to die anyway.

I moved into the Chelsea Hotel in the late ’80s, and that’s when I started working with canvas, doing paintings, because I had a place to keep all of them while they were underway. A studio for the first time! I keep canvases going for years, piled up now in the back of my car, adding names to them. The critic Edit DeAk used to call them my folded paintings because I kept them folded with the painted side facing out—a kind of filing system so that when I opened the trunk, I could find the one I needed.

I never make rubbings to use as a template. Every name on every work is a direct rubbing from a stone. The gravestone functions like the plate for a printing press. The pieces are about being there, making the visit. Each mark of color on the canvas represents a lifetime. I had a friend in Paris who was selling the paintings there for a while. One time she sent me 70 grand—I make a few chunks like that from time to time, ‘big pieces of cake’ I call them. I always use the money to travel. I moved to Paris for a while, stayed in London. When I found out that I was still HIV-negative in 1996, I thought it was finally time to get sober. Stanley Bard, who owned the Chelsea, paid me to move out, and I went to L.A. for a while. There, with cemeteries chock full of movie stars and other notables, I was really able to develop my process—Rene Ricard had always told me, ‘It’s easy, Scott. Just make a painting so beautiful and entertaining that someone rich will want to buy it and hang it on their wall.’

I usually have 12 or 14 pieces going at once, some of them underway for years. I have paintings in my car right now that I started back in 1996. The groupings have become more and more involved. Sometimes I do straightforward pieces that go into both the beautiful and the tragic: the major cast members from ‘The Wizard of Oz;’ all six of the Three Stooges; great American composers; Negro Leagues baseball players; all the victims of the Manson family; the four students who were killed at Kent State; the victims of the murders from ‘In Cold Blood;’ tragic blondes—Marilyn Monroe, Candy Darling, Edie Sedgwick, Nancy Spungen of ‘Sid and Nancy’ fame.

Sometimes, it will be just a single name on the canvas, because they seem to want to be alone: Gore Vidal, Noel Coward, Andy Warhol, Frank Sinatra. Sometimes I layer things in strange ways, pieces that are not for everyone: I have paintings I call ‘Screaming With Laughter,’ which pair famous comedians with famous murder victims, like Milton Berle and Nicole Brown Simpson, on the same canvas with lots and lots of others. I don’t keep written lists of the people I want or how I’m going to layer them. I just read and watch movies and TV and pay attention and keep it all in my head.

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I’ve been to some very remote graves, an insane journey just to reach a tombstone. Richard Burton, for example. He’s buried in Céligny, Switzerland, near Lake Geneva. It’s a tiny village. When you ask how to find the grave, it goes something like this: ‘Go to that corner. Make a right.

When you come to a road, make a left. You’re going to pass the cemetery. That’s the new cemetery. Keep on going down the graveled road, until you hear bees. When you see the beehives, there will be a path at your right. Go down that path. When you hear the brook, make a left. Then you’ll be there.’ It has maybe only 20 graves. You stand there knowing that Elizabeth Taylor stood there, too.

The furthest I’ve ever traveled was to get the Shah of Iran, in a mosque in Cairo. In America, some graves require epic drives. The composer Virgil Thomson, who lived in the Chelsea Hotel forever, is buried in Saline County, Missouri, near where he was raised. Google Maps put me through hell getting there. Helen Gurley Brown is in the northwest corner of Arkansas—can you imagine? The ‘Cosmopolitan’ girl went back home.

When I’m in my car and I’m in a location, I always know what is going to be in my periphery. Right now, for example, I want to do a quick run back to Cole Porter in Peru, Indiana. On the way, I want to get to Paul Lynde in Ohio because I have a painting I need him on again. I can make my way across Ohio to get him and then swing down to Columbus and get James Thurber. And maybe on the way, I’ll stop in Dayton and get the great poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, and at another cemetery there, I can also get Agnes Moorehead. Dayton is really a goldmine. The Wright Brothers are there, too. Or else, instead of heading east, I go south in Indiana and get John Dillinger and Frances Farmer in Indianapolis.

I’m a great long-distance driver. I can go 14 hours straight, pull over at a rest stop for a few hours of sleep and keep going. You can’t believe how much of this country I’ve seen.

Sometimes, people break your heart. Christine Jorgensen, for example, the first person widely known to have undergone a sex change, in the 1950s, was cremated and her ashes were scattered in the Pacific. No grave to find. Paul Newman, my favorite movie star ever—cremated, no grave. Barbara Stanwyck, same thing—cremated with nothing to show for it. It’s funny—some famous people seem to decide that when they’re gone, they’re gone. There’s no use in having people go look at their name on a rock somewhere. And even when there’s a stone, you can’t be sure you’ll always be able to get to it. I went back to Oscar Wilde’s grave in Père Lachaise in Paris a few years ago, and they’d put a glass barrier over it, apparently because too many people were kissing it. It felt as if he’d died all over again, for good this time. I was devastated.

People wonder if I believe in life after death, in ghosts. But I don’t. I don’t really believe in a singular consciousness. I guess I’m more Jewish that way. But once, when I was doing Wyatt Earp’s grave south of San Francisco with a friend of mine, something strange happened. He was behind the grave holding the canvas for me, and I was doing Earp on the front. A couple of graves away, I saw someone out of the corner of my eye, standing there watching us. I wasn’t going to stop, because once I’m working on a piece, I don’t interrupt myself for anyone or anything. When I finished, I turned and no one was there. My friend saw him, too, this figure, who just disappeared when we looked for him. Who knows what it was? As for me, I’m not afraid of death. It makes life so much more interesting.

Covert is an artist based in New York but found more often on the road. A collaborator with Off-Broadway theater companies in the late ’70s, he was a founding member of Playhouse 57 at the storied Club 57 in the East Village, alongside friends Scott Wittman, Marc Shaiman and Andy Rees. Since the mid-1980s, his work has revolved around the Monument Paintings, based on intensely colored memento mori rubbings of gravestones, the first of which was ‘The Dead Supreme’, after his love of Florence Ballard (1943–76), a founding member of the Supremes.