Tracking Edwin Cohen

Saul Ostrow

When writing a catalogue, it is thought that all a writer needs, besides a point of view, is one good idea around which to construct his or her essay.  As for the essay’s form, this is perceived as somewhat prescribed, in that writers may choose to present their views in one of two ways: as a meditation on the work or as an analysis of its constituent parts.  Then there is the question of approach: the essay can be personal appreciation or a profile of the artist, or it may seek to establish a suitable historical or philosophical context for the work.  The obvious objective of all this is to offer the viewer insights, so that he or she may have a better understanding of the artist and the artist’s work.  While this may sound simple enough, determining the right approach can be tricky.  After all, there is not only the work to consider, but also the venue for which the essay is being written.  If the artist is well known, one can build on what has already been written about the work.  If the artist is young or emerging, the writer’s task is a bit more complicated, for this necessitates the layering of a foundation upon which a construction of affinities, impressions, and substantial arguments may be built.

Edwin Cohen is the perfect candidate for the profile approach.  The lead-in is ready-made: at a time when it is common for artists to make a big splash just out of graduate school, Cohen, who is self-taught and has been painting for only sixteen years, is, at the age of sixty-four, an emerging artist.  Within this framework, there is much to explore: not only his decision to become a painter, but also how his past life informs his present concerns.  In this context, we can search for how his present work is reflective of both his personal history and his internal (intellectual and emotional) life.  This would be of particular interest, given that Cohen has chosen to work within the complex and critically contested area of abstract painting.  Yet such an account need not be limited to the man behind the paintings, nor need it be filled with his observations and intentions.  Instead, parallels can be drawn and the text peppered with art-historical anecdotes about artists such as Paul Gauguin, Gerald Murphy, or Barnett Newman, all of whom made their escape into the world of art.

Regardless of how much insight into the man behind the paintings might affect our understanding and appreciation of his work, however, an essay focusing on Cohen “the artist” would actually move us away from comprehending his output.  The reason for this is simple: if I am speaking about the artist, or speaking for him, it leaves little room to speculate or elaborate on my perceptions beyond what he is willing to corroborate about what he is doing.  While his intentions and vision as to what he is doing are, of course, important, an artist’s work is never reducible to these.  So rather than writing about meeting Cohen, high above Chelsea, in his sunlit studio wit its floor covered with framelike puddles of glossy black and white paint accented here and there with multicolored drips and splatters, I’ll instead adopt the stance employed by Maurice Merleau-Ponty in his essay ”Cézanne’s Doubt”, in which, rather than assuming an authoritative voice and explaining Cézanne’s aesthetic or style, Merleau-Ponty presents himself as a self-reflexive reader of the work of art.

Merleau-Ponty starts his interrogation of Cézanne’s work with the questions: Why do they look as they do?  And what evidence is there available to us to reconstruct Cézanne’s decision-making process?  Before proceeding to answer these questions, he sets about demonstrating how art-historical, biographical/psychological, and sociological approaches to the artist’s work fail to offer anything more than a speculative or determinist account of what the artist has chosen to place before us.  While these differing approaches may supply anecdotal insights into the artist, for Merleau-Ponty they explain neither the “how” nor the “what” of the work itself.  By correctly elaborating on what he sees inscribed on the surfaces of Cézanne’s canvases, Merleau-Ponty believes he can offer a plausible explanation of the processes that order them.  Of course, Merleau-Ponty is being polemical in dismissing all other methodologies, in that he wishes to convince his readers that only a close reading of an image and the process of its making can accurately reveal something about the maker and his product.

While the idea of a close reading of a work of art is still useful and Merleau-Ponty’s explicit goal and methodology remain significant, there is an underlying assumption in what he perceives to be the common task of such an analysis: there is an implicit belief that the goal of the writer is to isolate and expound upon the essential “principle” that orders the inherent qualities making the object under inspection what it is.  Though informed by his experience as a phenomenologist, rather than by the methodologies of criticism or art history, Merleau-Ponty in this aspect is no different than Herbert Read, Clement Greenberg, Harold Rosenberg, or Lawrence Alloway, each of whom believed that his own perspective or prescription best served to identify some significant aspect of an artist’s work.

Today, any project committed to establishing a singular underlying principle guiding an artist’s work can no longer be adopted.  This is because our age is one of connectivity, where the constant overflow of information, associations, and relationships makes it no longer possible to believe that the essential nature of any given object or practice can be accounted for.  Any assertion that there are critical or philosophical imperatives that are to be privileged over all others is viewed today as being nothing more than the product of either an ideological or a metaphysical system or an inexplicable sense of morality.  In the case at hand, Cohen’s paintings, I believe that putting forth an essentialist argument would constitute stultifying limitation.  The rewards of viewing his work in the context of a network of differing intentions, sources, and issues is far richer than attempting to reduce it to some determinant factor.

I propose that the logic ordering Cohen’s paintings is premised on the view that there exist within any given practice dominant, supplementary, and complementary discourses that provide subject matter and means as well as contexts.  In other words, the work of art is the product of a multiplicity of dialogues.  Under these circumstances, it therefore seems best to approach Cohen’s paintings as a network of heterogeneous influences and intentions, jostled together and intended to be sorted through, in no particular order.  Consequently, I will seek to identify and trace in Cohen’s paintings the complex network of material and aesthetic narratives that might be assumed to be derived from formalism.

Now any discussion of the formalist tradition necessitates an awareness that formalism, due to being identified with reductive and utopian visions of modernism, has come to have negative connotations.  Were I not to address the obvious formalism of Cohen’s work, however, I would give the appearance of attempting to avoid associating his work with such negativity.  So the alternative is to present a reading of his paintings that is not reducible to a vernacular or narrow understanding of formalism.  This means engaging a broader historical and theoretical argument, which in the case of Cohen’s work focuses on the role that diverse practices play in ordering the relationship between appearance, self, and content that has come to be subsumed under the heading “formalism.”  This entails that we recognize that there exists explicitly, but also implicitly, a history of critical and aesthetic practices that have, without acknowledgement, come to be incorporated or excluded from our understanding of certain categories or classifications.

So, unapologetically, and without any sense of conservatism or appeal to Postmodernism, let us acknowledge that Cohen’s project is informed by the differing formalist approaches to abstract painting that developed in the last 1930s through the 1950s.  These earlier dialogues can be identified with the project of freeing painting from the task of depiction so that it might become a mode of expression in itself or a thing in the world.  In turn, we must recognize that while these two projects converge, they also represent two distinctly opposing goals.  With this in mind, we will be able to avoid the confusion that arose in the 1960s and 1970s when a generation of artists and critics assigned formalism the more general task of preserving the principal structural elements and conventions of traditional Western painting.

A cursory view of Cohen’s work – flipping through the pages of this catalogue, or inattentively walking through this exhibition – may lead one to conclude that these paintings are the products of both an observed and a learned history of gestural abstract painting.  Obviously, given his work’s carefully regulated and measured momentum and impulsiveness, combined with chance effects, Abstract Expressionism is one of Cohen’s inspirations, but not the source of his aesthetic.  Likewise, while Cohen maintains the principle of flatness and fills his canvases with motifs such as stripe patterns or drips distributed across extensive fields of white or black, they do not partake of the cool intellectual and pragmatic sensuousness of Greenbergian Post-painterly abstraction (more commonly referred to as color-field painting).  Similarly, despite using a few very simple elements and basic colors to maximum effect, Cohen rejects the abject materiality and process orientation of Postminimalism, as well as the puritanical and platonic formalism of Minimalism’s austere industrial aesthetic.  Instead, it would be fair to say that Cohen’s formalism is baroque or mannerist in its aesthetic, in that it does not eschew the overly ornate or fanciful, nor does it substitute the dictates of historical necessity for personal expression.  This apparent dedication to a more expressive and less reductive vision of painting brings his work closer in purpose to the formalism of the Tachists, such as Henri Michaux, Georges Mathieu, and Wols.  These artists, whose works are dominated by the autographic gesture associated with the unbridled individuality, personal touch, and spontaneity, retain the link between gestural abstraction and the automatism of Surrealism.

Though Cohen’s work can be identified with this mid-twentieth-century model of formalism, the significant aesthetic and conceptual difference lies in the distance and self-consciousness that a half-century affords the artist.  Within Cohen’s process-oriented mark making, we can discern an attempt to mediate between his desire to adhere to and emphasize painting’s structural and material integrity and the possibilities of creating an expressive narrative by intervening in them.  Given these parameters, secreted within the compositional elements are indications that Cohen partakes of an economy of risk, gratification, and potential loss as he sets about ordering the material processes he has instigated.  It is here that we can detect indications of former presences or signs of a work’s development indicative of the artist’s endeavor to establish a balance between too little and too much, between what he knows and what may lie beyond that.  Repetition would make these paintings banal: if their effect can be endlessly reproduced, there is nothing special about it.  If he goes too far, it is lost; and if he is fearful and gives us too little, nothing is achieved.  But rather than finding restlessness or angst inscribed on the surface of Cohen’s paintings, we find convulsive, beautiful, pristine materiality and mercurial moments, all imbued with traces of Cohen’s mischievousness, for all is not as it appears.

So, if we can resist being seduced by what is put before us, or avoid the challenge of trying to figure out how he does them, we discover what Cohen has produced is a cast of posed characters that have been inscribed, rather than having been rescued from dissolving back into the fluid substance from which they arose.  On close inspection, one can discern Cohen’s forms, configurations, and compositions, though they appear to spontaneously make themselves, and they are actually restrained.  The real rules of Cohen’s game are not to be found in his painterly process, but in the relationship of the microstructures that occupy his paintings to the macrostructures these form.  There is an asymmetry between the figurations he creates and the small events from which they are constructed.  The sequence of forms used to make a line, a circle, or a disintegrating band of stripes may appear to have been made in a single instance, but inspection reveals that each individuated element has been composed.  These form a repertoire of techniques, incidents, and marks, which he uses from painting to painting to create the impression of chance and spontaneity.  In this, a parallel can be drawn to painters such as Gerhard Richter, Bernard Frieze, and Brice Marden, all of whom, for very different reasons, depict the gestural and spontaneity without succumbing to impulse and subjectivity.

What Cohen’s sleight of hand – his pitting of mastery against indeterminacy, contrivance against indeterminacy, pleasure against apprehension – expresses, we can never truly ascertain, yet it seems most certainly to constitute a narrative.  Consequently, given that these are decidedly abstract paintings and embody the values and standards of the cultural context within which they exist, we can assume that their primary function is the excitation of certain experiences, among them introspection, and speculative thought.  With this hypothesis, I’m led to believe that Cohen’s dual strategies form an acknowledgement that painting these days in a less-than-ideal means by which to be overtly demonstrative – in part because painting is, by nature, virtual, and an artist can only sense what forms and structures will correspond to the impression produced in the mind of the viewer.  I can therefore conclude, to my own satisfaction, that his pitting of the actuality of painting (what paint physically does) against its ability to approximate the appearance of everything else challenges us not to see the world through our expectations.