Bernard Cohen's painting may appear idiosyncratic by comparison with other British abstract artists who established critical reputations (like Cohen) in the early 1960's. Its visual appearance has varied considerably from, for example, the formal archway with calculated addition of impure or random notes typifying work shown at the 1960 'Situation' exhibition to 1964-65 paintings filled with sprayed and overlaid meandering lines. Other works from 1964 onwards involved the removal of masking tape to leave visual foci buried in extensive white 'fields', which developed into overlays of varied whites gradually concealing groups of bright tactile marks. Subsequent works from c.1975 swarm vertiginously with textures, patterns, and stencilled images.
First Print by Bernard Cohen
However, whether more or less complicated and visually active, Cohen's whole work embodies a sense of ritualistic process which he relates to his Orthodox Jewish background and which operates dialectically with existential notions absorbed even before the impact of 'action painting' in the late 1950's. In response to 'action painting', Cohen found the need to establish clear stages in the process of painting, each act giving meaning to the next with a decisive moment of physical completion.
These particular prints, also represented in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, present the images of a simple set of actions, making fingerprinted marks, or perhaps of a single action of laying down a handful of finger-marks in turn, as used frequently in his contemporary paintings. The physical layering of the paintings is continued in the use of embossing in the printing process, and the intermediary of photography allowed a play with scale. As a result, First Print presents the images resulting from a physical process in formal groupings which suggest some social or familial relationships. Cohen's later 1970's paintings certainly used the metaphor of family meals for the play of formal pattern with the less structured gestures of human behaviour. Cohen talks about the impact on him of his discovery of the culture of the Pueblo Indians in New Mexico over 1969-70. In 1978, he told the writer:
I felt at home in the Pueblos, and I felt at home during the Pueblo ceremonies... It has related to everything I've done since... The big discovery is that the home is the creative act ... the home the place where you eat, the table you eat off of, the house in relationship to its environment ... in relationship to meeting-places, in relation to the foothills, in relationship to the mountains.
Second Print has five fingerprints dancing around an oval, perhaps reminiscent of religious and dance ceremonies which had so fascinated him two years earlier in New Mexico. One thing about Cohen's work is certainly clear. In his own thinking, he connects the procedures of painting with social rituals, producing an art offering different potential levels of reading in terms of physical process, formal structure and multiple metaphor.
|Material:||ink and paper|
|Measurements:||635 x 490 mm|
|Technique:||Colour etching 24/52|
|Location:||Arts & Humanities Research Council, Whitefriars, Lewins Mead, Bristol, BS1 2AE. View by appointment; please contact the AHRC's Facilities Manager on 01179 876 500|
|Rights owner:||Bernard Cohen|
|Rights status:||UK HE use only|
|Institution:||Council for National Academic Awards|