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Interview with Bernard Cohen by Jonathan Parsons
I met Bernard Cohen during the installation of his exhibition About Now: Paintings
and Prints 2000-
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-
JP There are a couple of things about that that I find fascinating – particularly
the idea that the non-
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-
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?
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-
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-
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-
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-
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-
JP You said when you alighted upon the method of using these silhouettes of identifiable
motifs, these line drawings and cut-
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-
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-
JP Both of those experiences – of seeing the distant aeroplanes, and of viewing
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-
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-
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-
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-
©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-
About Now, 2005-
Place Games, 2013, Acrylic on Linen, (c) Bernard Cohen, Courtesy of Flowers Gallery London and New York