The artwork features text – names, dates of birth and death, along with doodles and pops of color. A prominent name like comedian Lenny Bruce or Jack Benny might jump out.
70-year-old Covert’s first solo presentation in the UK started this month. His artwork is extremely colorful tombstones, which he says “work like printing plates,” drawing on his influences in 20th-century abstraction, pop art, and celebrity deaths.
Covert has always been fascinated by death; Growing up, he wanted to be a funeral director. He had his first experience of death when he saw his grandfather in an open coffin at the age of eight. “It scared me – but my mother was very good at what death is – and used that time to teach me.”
It wasn’t an easy childhood in Edison, New Jersey. “It was a nightmare growing up gay there. I was tortured.” But New York City wasn’t far away, and Covert fled to the Big Apple at 15 “with some other misfits” and discovered a place that was much more accepting of the LGBTQ+ community.
He ended up dancing every night for the next 25 years and studied art at Indiana University, learned how to stretch canvases and began painting.
Covert became a staple of the East Village arts scene in the 1970s and ’80s, co-founding Playhouse 57 with drag performer Andy Rees at Club 57 – the underground hangout of Keith Haring, Jean-Michel Basquiat and Ann Magnuson.
Covert worked as an actor and drag queen for a number of years. “I was beautiful!” Covert says jokingly. He was more of a character with a bit of influence from Bette Davis. However, Covert’s love affair with the theater came to an end. “I hated it and never wanted to act again. I had a hard time remembering lines. I like being alone – you can’t get into trouble.”
With the AIDS crisis in New York, Covert lost many friends to the disease. But he decided to turn that horrible time into an artistic endeavor and began rubbing down famous tombstones.
The artist was introduced to the art of etching at an early age. At about the age of 11, Covert was taken from his school to do grave swabs as a class exercise. But it was only many years later that this became the reason for his life.
The life of an artist can be very isolating, so enjoying one’s company is important. In 1985, Covert decided to rub down the tombstone of Florence Ballard, a founding member of the Supremes. She had a tragic life and died of coronary thrombosis at just 32 years old.
From that first rubbing of the tombstone at Detroit Memorial Park Cemetery, Covert has never looked back. “The second color made it pop, and as I looked at it, I heard this little bell that Gertrude Stein writes about. I’ve been doing this ever since. That’s what you have to do.”
Covert has lived most of his life on the streets; he says he doesn’t live anywhere except with friends. Finding gravestones is his obsession. Before the advent of the internet, it was difficult to find out where someone was buried, so Covert called funeral homes. For tombs where people had died long ago, the artist spent time researching in the library.
With encouragement from his friends, Covert moved on to his next rub, blues singer Billie Holiday, located in Saint Raymond’s Cemetery in the Bronx, New York. The artist added Holliday’s etching to his first of Florence Ballard. There was also a rubbing down of Houdini’s grave in a Jewish cemetery near Cypress Hills in Queens.
In the 1980s, Covert moved to the famous Chelsea Hotel, where many literary artists stayed, including Dylan Thomas, Jack Kerouac and Quentin Crisp. Covert says he had his first studio here and used the hotel to store his canvases. However, he still keeps canvases in his car, some from 1996.
The tombstone works like a plate on a printing press, says Covert. “I never make rubdowns to use as a template. Every name on every work is taken directly from a stone. The plays are about being there and paying a visit.
In LA, with cemeteries full of movie stars, Covert developed his process. He typically works on 12 to 14 artworks at a time, and the groups have become increasingly engaged.
There are themes that revolve around the beautiful and the damned, like “Tragic Blondes,” “It’s so Hollywood,” he says. Groups include Marilyn Monroe, Candy Darling, Edie Sedgwick and Nancy Spungen.
Other groups include performers from The Wizard of Oz or major American composers. No grave is too far or too remote for Covert to travel there – he sees the journey there as part of the artistic process. Richard Burton’s tomb is in the tiny village of Céligny near Lake Geneva in Switzerland, while the furthest tomb Covert traveled to belonged to the Shah of Iran in Cairo.
Covert says he doesn’t keep written lists of the headstones he wants but keeps everything in his head. When out and about, he has an internal map with a route that leads to a list of tombs. He sounds like a very focused collector when talking about his next project. He is focused on making Europe next and is dying to visit Derek Jarman’s grave at the Old Romney Church in Kent.
Luckily, Covert likes to drive. “I can drive 14 hours straight,” he says. He has clocked up 188,000 miles in his car since 2015. “Travel is part of art.” His Instagram page, The Dead Supreme, is an incredible catalog of every headstone and place he’s visited.
With so much time spent in cemeteries, it’s a surprise to find out that Covert doesn’t believe in the afterlife, or even ghosts. As he says, “I’m not afraid of death. It makes life so much more interesting.”
Studio Voltaire, London, presents a major exhibition by the American artist, his first solo presentation outside the US, which runs until March 24, 2023.