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Website: Chestnuts Design

Interview with Bernard Cohen by Jonathan Parsons

October 2015

I met Bernard Cohen during the installation of his exhibition About Now: Paintings and Prints 2000-2015, which is currently on show at Flowers Gallery, Kingsland Road, London. The exhibition is accompanied by an extensive publication written by Ian McKay. Bernard and I reviewed the paintings in the gallery’s lower exhibition space before having lunch together. We later came back to the gallery to see the prints being installed in the upper exhibition space. The following are extracts from our conversation.

JP   In relation to the stained glass, is that something to do with the best way of realizing what you as an artist want to see when you look at the painting?

BC   It’s a combination of that and that it is an expression of light, which has always been my strongest preoccupation. It’s interesting, because I began with a passion for the colour of Sainte-Chappelle, and in recent times – whether it’s Sainte-Chappelle or somewhere in this country – I’m becoming more and more interested in the non-stained glass, just the plain glass, because it’s letting in the light totally. It’s always been for me a matter of light. I lived in Paris for two years and I was there almost weekly, if not daily, looking at Sainte-Chappelle.

JP   There are a couple of things about that that I find fascinating – particularly the idea that the non-coloured glass lets in light. It might be said that a painter’s job is manipulating light on the surface…

BC   Yes.

JP   …but the other thing is, of course, that stained glass has this incredible heavy structure, this network of leads…

BC   And that, too, was an influence on me always – and can been seen in the paintings in the gallery now – because I fell in love with the way that the lead did not necessarily conform to the image; it could go off to wherever the craftsman thought he could best hold it together.

JP   It’s a matter of engineering, of holding that surface taut and true?

BC   Yes, absolutely, so you have the surface and you have the image and they’re not necessarily the same thing.

JP   Do you have a planned set of tasks that you can do in a day?

BC   It more and more falls into, not what I can do in a day, but what I’d like to do in a day, and I never seem to be able to reach that point because I have a very bad fault in that I know what has to be done and I know the order in which it has to be done, but I can’t wait, so I start something else before I finish what I’ve been doing.

JP   You’re impatient to see the painting?

BC   Yes, it’s like I’m sixteen again, because I know that unless I finish the colour that I’m working on I won’t know if the next one’s going to be any use or not, or the shapes, or the forms or whatever it might be. Yes, I am impatient and, as I get older, it’s irritating me more and more.

JP   Painting is a long-term process, of course, and the thing that’s very interesting about your work is that it has a very strong temporal quality, so there’s evidence of many discrete moments, of sessions of processes and particular procedures, and of intense and concentrated looking.

BC   Yes and, for me, that all makes up the painting. It is not a question of an image, it’s the question of a process. This has been going on since the very early years – the question of a process that forms an image.

JP   There’s also a sense that there’s an ongoing reappraisal of what has gone before; of what you have already achieved in painting.

BC   Absolutely. Not just what has gone before in other paintings, but what has gone before in this painting I’m working on. One is vulnerable to one’s moods; one sees something very clearly and gets excited about it, but something happens in life that throws you, or something happens that reveals something else. I always spend far more time on starting a painting because the decision of what I’m going to do in the first week is, relatively speaking, more important than what happens throughout the rest of the time, because it determines where I am going to be going.

JP   So, I wonder if you have established patterns of starting, whether there’s some kind of routine to that, or whether it’s fresh every time?

BC   I draw a lot. At one time, back in the sixties, I would draw an enormous amount to get to the point where I would start the painting. I’m now much more likely to make notes during the painting – I’ve got stacks and stacks of sketchbooks and I’m much more interested in drawing during the process of painting.

JP   When you say drawing you mean stepping back from the action of painting itself and actually using graphic materials – you don’t mean drawing within the painting?

BC   No, I’m talking about exactly what you say.

JP   I wonder, then, if you consciously make a distinction between the nature of drawing and the nature of painting, because it seems to me that in the paintings, there are a lot of what we might call graphical elements – straight edges; boundaries between one colour and the next. Does drawing come into the painting?

BC   Well, you just distinguished between the two things. I think drawing has always been of major importance for me. I have to see something in my mind and drawing is the means of getting what I see down.

JP   One of the series of etchings and aquatints is collectively titled Things Seen. This suggests that you have used forms that you have previously observed or noticed in the visual field – in the rest of reality…

BC   Yes, I always have.

JP   …I was wondering whether it also referred to lived experience, or even to hallucinatory vision?

BC   Never hallucinatory, but lived experience, for sure. I showed white paintings twice in this country – once on the whole top floor of the Hayward Gallery – and that too was Things Seen. In between the first and second exhibition of white paintings we went to live in New Mexico for a year and it, in a sense, confirmed what I’d been involved with in that first exhibition of white paintings. Being in the desert you could see, in one sense, for a hundred miles. On the other hand, the light was so bright that nothing was truly, totally visible. And the conflict between those two things became very interesting for me. So the white paintings, for me, were always Things Seen – it was something you could see, but disappeared, came forward, went back and so on.

JP   Not being able to see in the bright light, and being able to see and understand what you’re looking at – is that at the boundary of what we understand vision to be; making sense of the enormity of visual sensation?

BC   Yes.

Red Centre, 1999, acrylic on linen, 183 x 244 cm / 72 x 96 in. (c) Bernard Cohen, Courtesy of Flowers Gallery London and New York

JP   I’m very interested in the fact that you’ve always eschewed the idea of composition, but at a deep structural level in a lot of the paintings, the grid occurs throughout and there’s this underpinning tightness of that structure. Do you attach any particular importance to overall schemes of division of the rectangle, because in many of the paintings, for example, there is a quartering and a division through both of the diagonals?

BC   They will always relate to what I’ve seen, what I’ve lived with. The most recent picture in the show has a doorway and it makes a division, but it’s an actual doorway…

Middle Distance 2015, acrylic on linen, 183 x 183 cm / 72 x 72 in. (c) Bernard Cohen, Courtesy of Flowers Gallery London and New York

JP   There’s a view into another room and you’ve got carpets and fox heads and raised dots…

BC   Yes, it’s not to do with the division of a flat surface – it’s to do with the dividing up of depth, which doesn’t work the same way, of course.

JP   Not at all. And there’s a very interesting relationship between the quite obvious material surfaces of the paintings and their delineations that suggest an illusion of depth, but there is no real illusion of depth.

BC   No, not an intended one.

JP   In How to Paint the Milky Way, for example, I can enter into the image of that painting and imagine the space through the doorway and then I’m caught up short by the surface, which pushes me away…

How to Paint the Milky Way 2014, acrylic on linen, 138 x 168.5 cm / 54 x 66 in. (c) Bernard Cohen, Courtesy of Flowers Gallery London and New York

BC   Because it’s on the surface, which is an essential set of relationships.

JP   I am interested in the idea of visual apprehension. Paint is the substance you employ: it’s the material, visceral fact, but it also creates a highly illusory effect in the sense that an image can ‘float free’ of its support: I can interpret those forms as being a space. Is there, for you, any pushing away, or separation from, the painted surface?

BC   I’m going to try to answer you in a roundabout way. Cubism was always the yardstick for me. I thought, and I still think, that Cubism was the real start of the twentieth century in painting. Not because it presented things differently, but it separated out the subject and the painting. That the painting was – in my eyes – the first time the painting-as-such became the important issue.

JP   The fact of the painting as a thing in itself?

BC   As a thing that could be worked on; could be interpreted; could be reinterpreted as a thing in itself. About the same time – it was the first time, because you could now interpret it as a thing – Kahnweiler was separated as a subject from his portrait. You can go right back into the history of painting and find exactly the same situation occurring and recurring. There’s a painting in Siena that’s said to be by Guido de Siena. I’m assured by a well-known art historian who’s written a book on the subject, John White, that there was no such thing as ‘Guido de Siena’ – it’s a general term applied to maybe a studio – but the painting is said to be by Guido and it’s of the Ecce Homo; of Christ with someone standing next to him and Christ has a rope on his arm. All the paintings on that subject, of that time, have Christ and the person next to him standing side by side. Suddenly, in that particular painting, Christ’s arm is overlapping the person’s on the other side. And, as Lawrence Gowing once said to me: ‘Just imagine – his assistants must have thought he’d gone stark raving mad. You don’t paint icons that way!’ Because depth was implied. The figure of Christ suddenly becomes a freestanding element that happens to overlap the person next to him. It’s the ‘stamped-out’ thing. So the whole question of the importance of the surface – of the layout of the forms – and the painting in itself suddenly lives alongside the subject and any interpretations of the meaning of what is being done. And that fascinates me – and has done for a long time – the notion that in various periods in history something happens that moves both in-depth into the subject and in-depth into the surface of the painting.

JP   When I read you talking about the ‘order within the disorder’ in your work, it made me think of the attempts that have been made to render a picture surface that is akin to experiencing the chaotic visual information of ‘nature-at-large’. I was thinking how Monet, for example, was trying to present a painting that delivers an optical sensation that – although it’s edited and artificial – was somehow equivalent to experiencing the overwhelming visual information of an illuminated landscape; of light; of countless leaves or blades of grass. Is there a relationship between your experience of everyday visual sensation and the kinds of visual effects that your paintings can produce?

Swarm, 2003, acrylic on linen, 183 x 244 cm / 72 x 96 in. (c) Bernard Cohen, Courtesy of Flowers Gallery London and New York

BC   My pictures don’t have a form at all until they lose it – in the sense that I can start off with very clear notions of a subject, or of the way something should be structured, but it only starts to come alive for me when it goes out of control. As I’m quoted as saying by Ian McKay in the book: About Now [published to coincide with the exhibition], until the ‘wayward’ enters into things, it doesn’t really add up to very much for me. Incidentally, I once gave a lecture for the Turner society at the Tate – while I was running the Slade – and there had been a great deal of talk at that time about Impressionism being the consequence of Turner. I said I thought this was not the case, for one very simple reason: you wouldn’t survive in the environment created by Turner – it would be sulphurous; it would poison you, but you’d love to live in the environment created by Monet – you’d be having apéritifs all the time, lots of fresh air and everything would be wonderful! And I think that is, for me, the big difference about the things I’ve just been saying – that for Monet it was essential that it was the joy of life that was painted. It was with Cubism that you were thrust back into the notion that, whatever enjoyment is coming out of this life, there is a picture to be painted as well.

JP   Yes, something beside that enjoyment and, also, as another facet of life.

BC   I saw the programme about Ted Hughes on television the other night. I suspect this was a problem he was dealing with as well – his journeys into the occult; trying to find some way of structuring something and, at the same time, going to a depth or a height of humanity that couldn’t be just dealt with by the structure.

JP   It makes me think of a symphony, because I think of the organisation of a large and complex painting as being a little bit like mustering all of the notes of a symphony. If you think of the Romantic period – Beethoven, for example – you’ve got remnants of the classical forms: the four-part structure; the sonata form and all the rest. There’s this overarching or underpinning scaffold, but then, within that, the depths and the heights can still be grasped for.

BC   Yes – I think that’s good. And then you come to the symphonies of Carl Nielsen. I remember a friend asking me once ‘What’s the most important symphony for you?’ Nielsen wrote a symphony – I think it is number 6 – that’s a joke from beginning to end; it’s just a joke: little noises on the clarinet and a drum banging and so on – but it’s very profound. Yes, I think the symphonic comparison is a good one.

JP   After the moment when a painting can become an object in its own right, making a painting becomes a matter of building something; something that you have to put together; a matter of construction…

BC   And the subject becomes crucial, then, because one way out of Cubism is Constructivism. We know about the history of Europe at that time and so the subject guiding the decisions of artists around then would have been political, or strictly non-political, or whatever. I often wonder, when I see Constructivist exhibitions that a younger generation flock to and say ‘this is home’, whether they know anything about the subject side of it at all? I go on being – I guess, from childhood – concerned about that dichotomy between subject and construction.

JP   You said when you alighted upon the method of using these silhouettes of identifiable motifs, these line drawings and cut-outs, that this was an important moment?

BC   Yes, but it came about for a couple of reasons; one of them physical, because something happened to me quite a long time ago where it was no longer possible to get what I wanted in the way that I had previously – for purely physical reasons. Secondly, I began to see things as signs much more. I went camping with my family to Siena for several years running and I knew the Pinacoteca [national museum] inside out. For me, it was a high point of creative thinking. You see, I have a problem in that I hate the word ‘art’; I hate it and what it has become.  I mean, I would never ever think about ‘art’ in my studio, so why should I ever think about it anywhere else? I never think about it when I go to look at the Rembrandts in the National Gallery. I can’t wait to see the Goya portraits, because Goya for me has always been like a tremendous high point – and Velázquez. No-one at the Slade – when I was a student – could say much about Velázquez and Goya, because in their earlier years the Spanish Civil War had taken place and they wouldn’t go to Franco’s Spain. So they talked a lot about realism – around the early fifties there was a huge drive for realism and Frank Auerbach, who’s now showing at Tate Britain, epitomizes that period. But no-one had ever seen the two major realist painters – never seen Goya and never seen Velázquez. They’d all sought to teach me on that basis. And my first trip, just as I left the Slade, was to go to Madrid.

JP   So, that must have been quite a revelation?

BC   I was blown sideways, because I love El Greco – and I thought that I was going there to look at El Greco – and Goya and Velázquez just took me apart. In fact, there are quite a lot of images in my current exhibition that come directly from Las Meninas. I never did know what to do with the girls posing in the front. But the canvas propped up against an easel and the doorway through appears in several of the paintings in the show. I’m always thinking about Las Meninas – I think it’s the most extraordinary painting in the world. It’s interesting because when I get to see it face to face – rarely, of course – it’s never doing anything to do with painting, it’s always to do with something else; it’s not to do with the royal family, it’s not to do with the Meninas, who are sitting there with the dog, it’s not to do with the dog – what’s it got to do with, what is it, what’s making the space of this painting?

Study 1, 2008, acrylic on linen, 101.5 x 126.5 / 40 x 40 in. (c) Bernard Cohen, Courtesy of Flowers Gallery London and New York

JP   That’s, I think, the key question, because it is the many spaces of the painting…

BC   Many spaces…

JP   …and your own body in front of that space…

BC   …yes, absolutely…

JP   …perhaps it’s to do with the relationship between your body and that space?

BC   …that’s right. The painting is a great container, and the paintings hanging on the walls are a great container, and the doorway with a staircase going up is a great container – you’re quite right. But what it’s actually made of defeats me.

JP   The precise identities of the motifs and pictorial elements in your work are often ambiguous for a casual observer. To what extent is it important that any ‘nameable’ content is accessible to others? Do you want people to read the signs?

BC   Well, of course! Of course one wants you to read the signs. But the signs don’t necessarily come at you in a rational or logical way, and I’m as concerned with what emerges from the juxtaposition of different forms as I am with the individual signs. The aeroplanes, for example, came about because, first of all, at Camberwell, we live underneath three flight paths coming from different directions and way above on a clear day there are these tiny dots that are flying in other directions. So the sky is full of planes the whole time, which I didn’t pay much attention to until I was looking for a way of breaking up the space I had – and looking for a form that would make its own kind of space. So, if there was a doorway, I didn’t want another piece of wood cutting into it; I wanted something cutting into it that articulated the space. I’ve used a lot of foxes’ heads in recent years – why they appeared to me I don’t know. I know that I was looking for a way of articulating the space.

JP   And they trace across almost the whole surface of some of the paintings, don’t they?

BC   Yes, and so it’s not simply the clarity of an image or the clarity of a form, it’s the clarity of a form being broken by other things.

Time Between, 2015, acrylic on linen, 138 x 168.5 cm / 54 x 66 in. (c) Bernard Cohen, Courtesy of Flowers Gallery London and New York

JP   And, of course, a clear sky is an undecidable distance away from us – we can’t really judge the space of those kinds of distances, so it flattens out.

BC   That goes back to the white paintings, you see, because, actually, the subject was the white – the forms on the white were ways of articulating it. In New Mexico I found it very difficult driving sometimes because, on a dead-straight road, I couldn’t see more than a hundred yards ahead because it was obliterated by the light. I quickly discovered that I needed a huge car and that I had to be like the Americans. I thought: ‘a Ford Mustang, that’s what I’m going to have!’ but, of course, a Ford Mustang’s as big as a teacup! You have to have a big car and you have to have a big vision with a big windscreen in front of you, and if you try to drive at a speed beyond your ability to see a hundred yards in front of you, you can get into difficulties.

JP   Both of those experiences – of seeing the distant aeroplanes, and of viewing the hundred-yard limit in the desert – they’re both akin to some notion of pictorial depth, to some notion of shallow space?

BC   Yes. I’m really not of a generation younger than myself for whom the whole thing would be in question – I don’t have anything in question. I have those things that have interested me since I was a kid. In the book [About Now] there’s a reproduction of a painting I did when I was a student at the Slade, called The Wasteland after T. S. Eliot. While I was working on that at home in 1952 I went to buy something or other at a place close to where we lived, which had second-hand stuff, and there was a Willow Pattern dish that I was fascinated by. I bought this dish and then I went and looked up what the Willow Pattern is about, and I made a connection while making the painting between the story behind the Willow Pattern plate and Eliot’s poem, because The Wasteland is, I seem to remember, a journey from darkness to light, from fear to ease. My painting went from right to left and the Willow Pattern plate was also going from right to left, and the two things superimposed absolutely for me, one on the other, and of course, it set me off looking at Chinese things. I think it always works that way, for me. I always hated dogma – I don’t have any kind of programme, you know. What I am trying to find, whatever I’m thinking, is that very extraordinary thing of where structure actually contains things; has a content. I think the human thing for me is that relationship between the structure and the content.

JP   Is that reflective of our necessity to understand the world around us?

BC   Yes, and the way human beings think.

JP   You exhibited with the first Kasmin Gallery in the 1960s and were involved with stretching canvases for some of the other gallery artists…

BC   Stretching canvases for Helen Frankenthaler and various people. And then, in the middle of it all, one day I had a call from Kasmin to say Alan Power, who was a collector in London in those days, has just bought the Barnett Newman painting called Uriel and “can you stretch it for him?” So I said, “We’ll need two, and I’ll ask my brother if he’ll help do it”. So, together we went to stretch it and Barney was there with his wife and he walked round with a monocle looking at what we were doing and he needed it beautifully stretched – it was rolled to come across from America – and at the end of the day, when we had it stretched up and we put it on a wall, I said to him: “Is it possible that you might be able to tell us a little bit about it?” So he sat us down, and in the most delightful way, told us the whole programme behind the painting. And none of it had to do with Modern Art. It had to do with why the world is Talmudic; why the world was created in these many days; and only at such-and-such a time was light created. And he went on for about half an hour, an hour, talking like that. Never once about issues to do with the art world – and I learnt a huge amount from that because his mind was where humanity’s mind was: Why do we do this? Why is it like this? The art world has always been to do with style, for me.

JP   So do you recognise any of the commentaries that grow out of the art world: the criticisms; the theories?

BC   No, no.

JP   None of that at all? Because there are a number of characteristics of your work, for example, a kind of shallow depth; an assemblage of signs – you’ve described some of your works as being like table-tops, as opposed to the gravitational idea of painting…

BC   I’m capable of doing a painting that makes a point of being gravitational, like the one you referred to with the doorway; carpet on the floor and so on – that’s gravitational. But you’ll see from a lot of the prints upstairs they’re printed ‘all ways up’ – there are a couple of prints there where I’ve actually taken the whole thing and just printed it again in a different colour on top. So, when I want them gravitational, they’ll be gravitational; when I don’t want them gravitational, they won’t be. That sounds arrogant, but it’s not, it’s …

JP   Well, it’s a function of a canvas or a framed image – it can pretend that there’s no gravity…

BC   I’ve always thought that the most beautiful thing there ever was, was a beautifully primed, stretched canvas. I once gave a demonstration when I was dressed in pinstripes, because I had been in a meeting in college and, running the Slade, I was in meetings with doctors and economists and scientists who were all talking to government and this that and the other. They all wore pinstripes or smart suits and I thought, well if I’m going to a committee where I’m asking for money, that’s the way I’ve got to dress. So, I’m there one day and someone says to me: “can you show me how to stretch a canvas and get it right?” So, there and then – quite a large canvas – I stretch it. I say: “but first of all you haven’t washed it,  I don’t wash it, I dip it and get the gunge out of it and let it dry off and then I stretch it – and I’ll show you now how to stretch it”. And when I’d finished, the student said: “Do you do that for every painting?” and I said: “Well, of course!” and she said: “I really wouldn’t have the patience.” And all I could think of saying was: “Well, I think you should do something else.” Because that, for me, has always been the most beautiful part of painting a picture: stretching it beautifully. I always put sailcloth behind the canvas so that it lives on its own, as it were, it doesn’t have dirt and it holds the shape of the stretcher. You stretch the sailcloth really tight over the stretcher and then when you stretch the canvas on it – it’s protected and it’s on a solid base…

JP   So you can work onto it quite heavily?

BC   Yes, or thinly. And then priming it and, in the days when I used oil paint, I would size it, obviously, and then I loved working with the primer and putting it on. And that – seeing the finished white canvas with nothing on it – for me was always the greatest thrill of all. My object, then, was to make the finished painting as interesting as the plain white canvas [laughs]. Does that make sense?

JP   It makes perfect sense. It is also a nice contrast between that idea of being very impatient and also the enormous patience that’s required to get the finished canvas looking as good as the blank…

BC   It always requires – everything requires – huge patience. I think, at one point in the book, Ian asks me about waiting; there’s the Beckett remark about waiting. And I said it’s exactly the same with painting: you have a vision that you want to see realised, or become something else, and you have to wait!

JP   I’ve got some further questions, but that seems to me to be a good place to come to rest. I don’t know if you …

BC   No, I’m happy. The best thing you can do is come to have a look at the pictures and the prints, because they may have got the prints uncovered by now…

JP   Well, that’s fantastic – thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me.

BC   A pleasure.

I would like to thank Matthew Flowers, Hannah Hughes and the staff at Flowers Gallery for their very kind assistance in organising my meeting with Bernard Cohen and for allowing me to preview his exhibition. I would also like to thank Saturation Point for inviting me to interview him. I particularly wish to thank Bernard Cohen for his warmth and generosity during our conversation, and for showing me his latest work.

The exhibition About Now: Paintings and Prints 2000-2015 continues until 21 November 2015

©Copyright Patrick Morrissey and Clive Hancock  All rights reserved.

JP  You have said that you don’t really have a concern for skill, but also that you want to make things as well and as clearly as you can make them. Could you tell me something about what, for you, constitutes something that is ‘well made’?

BC   Something that is clear, that is visible – that presents itself as a matter of fact, not a matter of maybe; not a matter of fantasizing something onto a canvas, or anything else.

JP   Something that is very clear and defined?

BC   Very clear and defined. I’ve loved Monet all of my life, but I stopped using a brush because of Monet, because I found the brush got in the way of clarity, for me – it became a style in itself. I have two places to go when I get to Paris. One of them is the Sainte-Chapelle – the glass – and the other is the Monet Nymphéas. You can’t have two greater extremes than that, but I’m more influenced these days by the stained glass than I am by the painting because there’s no brushwork getting in the way.

About Now, 2005-2006, Acrylic on Linen, (c) Bernard Cohen, Courtesy of Flowers Gallery London and New York

Place Games, 2013, Acrylic on Linen, (c) Bernard Cohen, Courtesy of Flowers Gallery London and New York