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Harold Tovish, 86; sculptor was ambitious for excellence

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Globe Staff / March 16, 2008

Harold Tovish looked around his studio 23 years ago and surveyed his latest incarnation as a sculptor: images of entrapment captured by mirrors that let viewers gaze into infinite reflections.

"Some people think I've got it made," he told the Globe that day in 1985. "I've been happily married to the same woman for 38 years, our kids are wonderful, our new studios have plenty of space, we're doing all right financially, and yet - and yet, I'm haunted by these dark images."

Moving steadily from one approach to another, Mr. Tovish established himself as one of the most important and diverse artists in Boston for more than 40 years as he taught at the Museum of Fine Arts and Boston University. Famous for exacting standards, he refused to complete most sculptures he began. And he finished nothing at all after the 1996 death of his wife, Marianna Pineda, a sculptor whose opinion he valued above all others.

A year ago, Mr. Tovish left Boston, his home for a half-century, to live in Albuquerque near one of his daughters. On Jan. 4, at 86, he died of complications of a stroke while living in the Montebello on Academy retirement home.

"He wasn't afraid to die at all; he said he was ready at any time," said his daughter, Margo Morado of Albuquerque. "He was never afraid of death. He dealt with it a lot in his work. Being an atheist, he didn't have any fears of retribution."

His father, a Russian refugee, died when Mr. Tovish was a child in New York City. Destitute during the Depression, Mr. Tovish's mother placed his older sisters in foster care and sent him to the Hebrew Orphan Asylum.

The Dickensian existence was leavened by visits from artists working for federal Works Progress Administration, who taught lessons.

"The revelation that changed my life took place in WPA art school when I was about 16," he told the Globe in 1968. "As I finished my first piece of sculpture, I knew what I wanted to do."

Awarded a scholarship, he studied at Columbia University, where Pineda walked into the sculpture studio one day. Dazzled, he hesitated to ask her out, only to find she spent Saturday nights washing her hair, Morado said, because other potential suitors were equally nervous.

They married in 1946, a few weeks after he returned from Europe, where the US Army sent him in World War II. They celebrated their 50th anniversary a short time before she died.

Mr. Tovish left Columbia and taught briefly, then moved to Europe, where he and Pineda studied in Paris. By the mid-1950s, they were in Florence with their children.

"I grew up at his elbow, in Florence, going around to all the churches and museums," said his son, Aaron of Klosterneuburg, Austria. "The two of them were fanatical about absorbing everything they could. Practically every village we went into or any reasonable-sized town, we would have to go into the church and check out the crucifix and the frescoes."

In 1957 they moved to Boston, where Mr. Tovish taught at the Museum School of the Museum of Fine Arts, then at MIT, then at Boston University. And he sculpted, often for nobody's eyes save his own and his wife's.

"He wasn't ambitious for fame so much as ambitious for excellence," said his daughter Nina of Washington, D.C. "One consequence is that he didn't leave behind a great body of work. He threw out 99 percent of everything he made. He held himself to an extremely high standard and was ruthless about it, with himself above all. He was very, very picky about what he would put his name to."

Lew Cohen, an artist in Virginia who studied with Mr. Tovish, wrote in an e-mail that there is "little doubt in my mind that Harold Tovish was one of the important American sculptors of his generation. It is not a stretch to believe that his work and contribution will go beyond that and be more important as time passes."

In 1988, Globe critic Robert Taylor wrote that Mr. Tovish's 40-year retrospective at the Addison Gallery "indicates the scope of a sculptor who has been unjustly scanted."

Five years later, critic Nancy Stapen wrote in the Globe that, at 72, Mr. Tovish "continues to surprise" and that his latest sculptures "show an ingenious mind still yielding inventive work."

"Tovish's career has ranged from the affecting figures of his youth to cool works exploring the relation of humans to technology," Stapen wrote.

Aaron Tovish said that "more than a lot of sculptors, he really went through a lot of phases."

"He was daring," his son continued. "When he had an idea, sometimes he knew people would have trouble with it: It was either too grim or too provocative or too weird. But I guess he thought that was part of the artist's sensibility to lay these things out."

For Mr. Tovish, creation was an exploration of the self, and he often was most comfortable inside his studio.

"You don't go looking for art outside," he told the Globe in 1968. "It's inside. An artist is looking for an opening for himself."

Hardly somber, though, he amused friends with his quick mind. A ravenous reader, he was politically active and leaned significantly to the left, spending time with tax resisters and marching in protests during the Vietnam War.

"He had that kind of New York kibitzing humor," said Louis Kampf, a former professor at MIT and a longtime friend. "He'd drive waitresses crazy because they didn't really get it, but I got it. He was just a funny guy, wonderfully generous."

Mr. Tovish's work has been shown at the Museum of Fine Arts, the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City, and museums across the country. But when his wife died of cancer, he no longer could finish new sculptures.

"She was the core of his emotional life," Nina said.

"He told me the reason he stopped working was that it was only my mother's responses that mattered to him," Morado said. "It's not that he didn't respect other people, but it didn't have the same meaning to him on that deep level."

Before he died, "he made it quite clear that he wanted everything that wasn't finished destroyed, and we honored that," she said.

"He felt that art should be evocative and ambiguous, that the people looking at it should have to supply their own thoughts," his son said. "I mentioned to someone that his work was like reading poetry. You keep coming back and rereading it and finding more meanings with each return. Somehow that description got back to him, and he liked it."

In addition to his two daughters and son, Mr. Tovish leaves a granddaughter.

A service will be held in the spring.

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