Alfred Cohen: forgotten painter?

The first exhibition in nearly 20 years of the painter Alfred Cohen, who died in 2001, opened and closed the same day in London this week. The show was in the planning at least two years. There were 50 paintings from across the UK and several reclaimed from the US, some not seen for half a century.

[Note:  I filed this piece for ArtUK and a version should appear on their website shortly, shorter and perhaps more directed to their content.  But I’m posting this here for now, because it’s been part of my Coronalife.   I have yet to add pictures and picture links and this will not have been so rigorously fact-checked.   I wrote briefly on the exhibition for the Art Newspaper here and a mosaic spin-off here,]

The artist’s widow Diana Cohen, aged 90, braved the first day of the Coronavirus lockdown, to travel down from North Norfolk, where she has long run a small art gallery. The exhibition in The Arcade at Bush House, a gallery at King’s College London, was due to run six weeks. The opening night reception was the first thing to go, as the global pandemic swept London’s streets empty.

Diana Cohen

She walked with her stick between the rooms, devoid of visitors, as university staff locked down the building. Assembling and selecting the work for the show, preparing and framing the works, had taken “ages”, she said. “I had to come, I had to see it here. It was going to be on for six weeks, now it’s going to be closing tomorrow, because of this dreadful virus.”

The exhibition, Between Figuration and Abstraction, marks Cohen’s centenary with a major new book. The author and art historian Sarah MacDougall, head of collections and research at the Ben Uri Museum in London, and an expert on emigre artists in Britain, writes of one painting, Cohen’s Sunset from Blackfriars Bridge (1961): “In Cohen’s Sunset, sky and river melt into one fiery whole, spreading out into the water until it too catches flame.”

Sunset from Blackfriars Bridge, 1960

MacDougall is one of a list of art historians marking out his talents, from the director of American paintings at the Courtauld Institute, to Paul Greenhalgh, director of the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts at the University of East Anglia, which recently acquired a group of Cohen pieces. Museums with his work run from the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge to the French government collection, the St Paul Museum in Minnesota and the universities of Chicago and Wisconsin. ArtUK lists some ten works, in mostly smaller institutions, though those on paper have yet to join the database.

Leaving the question: who was Alfred Cohen?

He staged his most ambitious London exhibition, Aspects of the Thames, in 1961 He had moved to the city late in 1960, finding a studio near the river in Chelsea, and showing an adventurous streak: hitching lifts on tugs between Gravesend and Hammersmith, and scaling the scaffolding for the new Millbank Tower to sketch the view to St Pauls.

A journalist with a newsy bent called him “The Spiderman Painter.” The young Anita Brookner, the Courtauld-trained art historian who would later become both Slade Professor of Art at Cambridge and a Booker Prize-winning novelist, was more seriously impressed by the bold blasts of colours in panoramas of the Thames and the London Docks. Writing in the Burlington Magazine, she called him “a fresh and accessible artist of considerable accomplishment, whose abstract impressionist compositions were enlivened by an acute charm of colour”.

Turnesque is one word that comes to mind with the rain-drenched blue-on-blues of a canvas of Tower Bridge, where the colour seems to cascade like a London downpour on a windscreen.

Wapping Pier and Tower Bridge, 1961

Art tastes change. Cohen kept painting until close to his death in 2001, but he had moved on, to north Norfolk, and so did the London he left behind, to conceptual and Pop art. He exhibited in the same circles as artists like Philip Sutton, with more than 40 paintings on this site.

The exhibition hosted by King’s College London will got into a sort of lock down itself; nothing’s likely to replace it for a while. It offers a chance to revisit a painter of a period in post-war British painting overshadowed by those that followed, whose market and name-recognition dwindled to almost nothing, from the brink of a much more brilliant career. It’s a shame if people don’t see it.

Take a work like Dieppe Harbour. At a chance you could mistake it for something cute; there’s an assemblage in the next room that gives that first impression, too. Then you admire the framing of those open windows, and close up, the thick layers of mottled, puddled, impasto. Confession: I had pooh-poohed this exhibition when I heard of it, and looked up Cohen’s auction prices. Put your face against this work and you’re drawn deeply into it.

Dieppe Harbour, 1968-74

His stepson Max Saunders, the son of Mrs Cohen, began recording interviews with the artist 25 years ago, the model of a family archive, for the Alfred Cohen Foundation. “That’s why I’m so heartbroken that the exhibition is not going to be seen by more people, because I have always thought you had to see the paintings on the wall to get a sense of the textures and the way the shadows fall,” he said. “However good the posters are you never quite good the full effect of that texture on the paint. “

The Chicago-born painter, son of Latvian-Jewish emigre parents, Cohen saw his first solo art show tour to nine German cities in 1952. He lived in Paris, doing “the whole romantic bit” in a Left Bank studio, while he met Ernest Hemingway in Pamplona and stayed with the actor Anthony Quinn in Rome, a close friend whose portrait Cohen painted. He opened his first Paris solo show in 1958, and Aspects of the Thames was his third in London.

He kept working until his death, in 2001, recognised with sizeable obituaries in the Telegraph and The Guardian, but his prices told a sadder story. Paintings bought in the 1960s were being sold out of estates in the 21st Century for as little as a few hundred pounds. When artists live long and keep producing, it’s a sad fact that earlier, fresher work can get diluted, but Saunders said his stepfather had a fresh burst of creative in his 1990s.

A later work on Art UK is the striking Evening Sky, Wells, of Wells-next-the-Sea on the north Norfolk coast. where blues, oranges and red sweep powerfully across the canvas in abstracted sunset over sketchy shapes of coastal homes, and a boat crane. Like several of the pictures it was a gift; the Alfred Cohen Foundation has been doggedly assiduous in recent years in placing them in museums.

Three exhibitions were scheduled to follow this one in Cohen’s beloved Norfolk, to mark his centenary.

The earliest dated acquisition currently on ArtUK is the Rye Art Gallery’s Man At Ease, with a solitary, sober figure in end-of-day thought, red-socked feet up by a glowing fire. It was bought in 1977 with the help of the Victoria and Albert Museum Purchase Grant Fund.

But the quality of those listed don’t represent his work strongly enough. With three more pictures slated for the Arts Council collection, that will hopefully change.

Born in 1920, Cohen took evening classes at the Art Institute of Chicago before the war. He volunteered for the US Army Air Corps and was a navigator based in Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands, scene of some of the Pacific Wars most hellish fighting against the Japanese. He returned to study and graduate from the institute before heading for Europe on a travelling fellowship, living with his then-wife in Heidelberg and Paris.

Cohen himself said at the time that the roof of London was a natural place for a flyer, even one saw planes explode alongside him in the air. “Like Kokoscha, Cohen favoured a high vantage point, but he went further still,” Ben Uri’s MacDougall added, scaling scaffolding of London’s Vickers Building with his legs dangling as he sketched

Through a fellow Chicago alumni Cohen got portrait commissions of big-name actors: the film star Basil Rathbone, and Anthony Quinn, starring as Stanley Kowalkski on the Chicago stage in A Street Car Named Desire, on the heels of its sensational 1947 Broadway opening with Marlon Brando.

Cohen produced his workmanlike, characterful Quinn portrait in 1948 (sadly, not in the show, but still in the Quinn family selection); the two became firm friends, with Quinn coming to Cohen’s studio , as well as introducing him to other film and stage celebrities like Errol Flynn. The Cohens stayed with the Quinns in Rome and Sicily; in 1960, Cohen finished a powerful bust of the actor.

He went to Rhodes for the filming of Guns of Navarone, met Quinn’s co-stars Gregory Peck, David Niven, and Stanley Baker, who also became a friend.

Brookner was not the only critic drawn to Cohen’s London work in the early 1960s. Brian Wallworth in Arts Review wrote of “a fine wildness about Cohen’s pictures’ and James Burr in Apollo of :a fierce passion…His emotional power and exuberantly vigorous response infuses his paintings with an intensity that makes much contemporary expressionism look feeble”. Several shows in London sold out, after Cohen, with Quinn’s backing, became an artist in the Estorick Gallery’s stable.

David Peters Corbett, director of the Centre for American Art at the Courtauld Institute of Art, writes in the catalogue about the questions posed by Cohen with cool blues and hot reds, with a “blizzard of expressive, insistent, mark-making” in a painting like Pub Interior from London in 1958-60, with its “shabby, beery comfortableness”. [Collection: Bruce and Rhonda Cole, in exhibition.] He cites the influence of Walter Sickert as a touchstone for British post-war painters with works like Off to the Pub from 1911 [Tate].

“What people are saying now is that interest in figurative painting, and just in painting, is really coming back,” Saunders said. “There are art students saying please teach us about painting. the materiality of the techniques, they are less interested in installations and conceptual stuff than they were .

“He used to say that it was noticeable that a lot of modern artists were painting enormous works for museums that no one could possibly buy or hang in their houses. He wanted the work to be liked and bought.”