Abstract Critical

Bernard Cohen at Flowers

Written by Dan Coombs

Place Games, 2013, acrylic on linen, 137 x 167.5 cm, copyright Bernard Cohen, courtesy Flowers Gallery, London

Place Games, 2013, acrylic on linen, 137 x 167.5 cm, copyright Bernard Cohen, courtesy Flowers Gallery, London

Bernard Cohen’s paintings are self-replicating systems that proliferate across an exploded grid seemingly independently of the artist’s personality or will. In all his works Cohen looks for a painting that appears to generate itself. One dimensional layers of overlapping matrixes obscure and reveal further layers that lie beneath. Layers of cellular circuits are intensified by their placement relative to the layers above and below them. Some of the cells align, others misalign, creating complex connections and new visual circuits. The effect is one of a high density three-dimensionality that dazzles, as well as alienates, with its incomprehensible intricacy.

Untitled #3, 1963, acrylic on canvas, 91 x 91 cm,, copyright Bernard Cohen, courtesy Flowers Gallery, London

Untitled #3, 1963, acrylic on canvas, 91 x 91 cm,, copyright Bernard Cohen, courtesy Flowers Gallery, London

An early work, Untitled No.3 (1963) seems relatively lyrical and connected to nature. Yet it is already an artificial nature, as synthetic as the fluorescent orange paint that filters through the striated beige ground. Silver tendrils emanate downwards and coagulate in uncannily identical formations at the bottom edge of the painting, as though the canvas itself is a container, a petri dish for the proliferation of a strange mercurial organism. This animated secretion  connects different points across various territories of colour that seem to multiply beneath  like signs. Black loops of paint, printed and repeated, appear as inverted roots of the sinuous plant. The effect is of a picture  built from elements that collectively can barely contain their own burgeoning multiplicity. The delirious cilia spill from the painting’s centre and we watch the picture metamorphosise into a quivering organism.

Connection V, 1972, oil on linen, 91 x 91 cm, copyright Bernard Cohen, courtesy Flowers Gallery, London

Connection V, 1972, oil on linen, 91 x 91 cm, copyright Bernard Cohen, courtesy Flowers Gallery, London

Particularly beautiful and serene are the white ellipses, squares and rectangles of Connection V (1972). In it Cohen elegantly side steps the area of the painting he will henceforth avoid: its centre. Cohen’s compositions from this point on operate through multiple points of entry and exit, through expansion, sedimentation and layering, always in avoidance of a central anchor. Cohen’s decentred compositions consist of  pure circulation, without an organising hierarchy, a self, or a fixed identity. All manner of states are implied by these paintings: to the world of technology, of politics, of global expansion, of books and maps and indexes and circuits, of conduction and transmission of energy; of skyways and byways, of air-space and electricity and digital circuitry. The paintings are a cartography of impossible topologies held together by a vibrating pictorial energy.

There’s something ambitious about the way Cohen conflates so many modes of painting together, something impossible about the problems he sets for himself. There’s an overweening ambition to paint the whole world,  to paint an overview – to get everything conceivable into each painting. Cohen wants to get away from the self and immerse himself in the world – but it’s a world that has fragmented downwards into chains of tiny particles. The effect is similar to my experience of David Foster Wallace’s novel Infinite Jest. I bought the brick-thick paperback  but found it was impossible to read in a straightforward linear way. I ended up only being able to digest small particles, but each particle was vivid.

Octet, 2011, acrylic on linen, 137 x 167 cm, copyright Bernard Cohen, courtesy Flowers Gallery, London

Octet, 2011, acrylic on linen, 137 x 167 cm, copyright Bernard Cohen, courtesy Flowers Gallery, London

Up close, Cohen’s marks become graphic like much 1960s art . The introduction of graphic devices, the hard edge, the squeezing out of feeling and the elimination of the gestural are some of the hallmarks of sixties Pop Art. Cohen employs masking tape like Michael Craig-Martin, but unlike him he uses the levels of cuts the masking tape creates into the dry paint to build up levels in the map of the virtual cityscape. Masking tape allows Cohen to combine painting with collage. In Octet (2011) the red aeroplanes lodged within the painting’s surface are haunted by searchlights. They take off over a uniform grid motorway of slow moving rectangles, each containing, like cargo, rows of purple paint- blips. We are flying. In other paintings there are layers of what seem like primitive image patterns, improvised or using imagery based on cave-painting or Aboriginal Art. Cohen is never far from the primitive. He references the art of the Illuminated manuscript, religious art before the Western Renaissance. These works are book-bound, visually stunning intricate tableau by anonymous and presumably ego-less monks. In the Book of Kells, each page is a labyrinth. Cohen also seems to want this labyrinthine space in some of his more geometric compositions.

Seven Places, 1977–79, acrylic on linen, 92 x 183 cm, copyright Bernard Cohen, courtesy Flowers Gallery, London

Seven Places, 1977–79, acrylic on linen, 92 x 183 cm, copyright Bernard Cohen, courtesy Flowers Gallery, London

We are on a trip. We don’t quite know where we are going but Cohen’s paintings seem to contain so much within them, pointing down through layers of historical time but also laterally, in infinite expansion of the  mapped environment ,and upwards towards the the surface layer that is a synthesis of all the other layers… In works such as Seven Places (1977-79) the delicate surface quality of Cohen’s painting seem close to printed textiles. In this Cohen has a kinship with the work of Italian contemporary Alighiero  Boetti (1940-1994). In Boetti’s Tutto series, begun in 1975,  tapestries were conceived by Boetti and woven by Afghan women. In them, arbitrarily coloured silhouettes multiply endlessly, alluding to all the objects of the world. A parallel could also be drawn with the  German Pop artist Thomas Bayrle (b.1937). Bayrle’s morphing and hallucinatory “magic-eye” pictures were inspired by the  trauma of two years work in a German textile factory in the 1950s. Bayrle later recounted: “.. I sank deep into this undergrowth of warp and weft. I kind of melted away – especially when I felt tired . I was immersed in this endless reinforcement of millions of cross-overs and cross-unders that make any average fabric consistent. In such weak moments, my feelings were likely to be shifted into strange areas and other scales. Big drops burst into smaller ones and disappeared in sparkling bubble clouds”.[1]

Op, Pop, Ab-Ex and World Art, Primitive Art, as well as systems-creation and the dawn of the internet; Cohen’s paintings echo so many things. With so much intelligence, whirring and humming, the paintings resist being decorative or aesthetic. In terms of subject, they have something in common with conceptual art’s obsession with systems, but staying within the field of painting Cohen has created pictures of overlapping systems that explode into multiplicity. There is so much going on in his paintings and the viewer is forced  to find a way through. Ultimately his paintings can’t be looked at aesthetically at all. They have to be decoded, deciphered, experienced, read and walked through.

Bernard Cohen: 80th Birthday Exhibition is on at Flowers, Cork Street until the 22nd of June

 

[1] ‘Thomas Bayrle in conversation with Lars Bang Larsen’, in Thomas Bayrle: I’ve a Feeling We’re Not in Kansas Anymore, ex.cat , MACBA, Barcelona, 2009

  1. Katrina said…

    Thanks Dan for describing these works I enjoyed reading this – you can see so much there that I can’t see – my eyes are in such confusion….. I feel that although you quite rightly mention all the worldly references they seem to be paintings painted in isolation – in a bubble -an outsider? It’s hard to see any beauty in the jarring colour and non-structure – although they are quite fun. I almost yearn for a safe William Scott and to be able to breathe! How do these guys get to be so big?

  2. Paul Osipow said…

    Happy birthday,Bernard. Best wishes from Toscana.

    Paul

  3. Sam said…

    Not sure about the later work, but the Untitled 1963 is an excitingly weird painting…

    • Noela said…

      I agree with you about this painting, it has a variety of application which can hold interest. The highly complicated works are, for me, far too relentless and really difficult to physically look at in the flesh.