ALFRED COHEN; 1920-2001

An Illustrated Biographical Sketch

Cohen in Guadalcanal 1943
Cohen in Guadalcanal 1943

Alfred Cohen was an American whose art was firmly rooted in the European tradition; he was inspired in particular by the commedia dell’arte, the caricatures of Daumier and the colour and handling of the Post-Impressionists and Expressionists.

He was born on May 9 1920 in Chicago. His father, a furniture dealer, had emigrated from Latvia to America, where he married the daughter of another Latvian emigre.

Cohen attended the Art Institute of Chicago, but the Second World War intervened and he volunteered for the US Army Air Force. He hoped for a posting to Europe, but served instead from 1942 to 1945 as a navigator in Flying Fortresses and Liberators based in the Pacific.

After the war Cohen returned to the Art Institute, where he studied under Louis Ritman, Boris Anisfeld (who collaborated with Leon Bakst) and Egon Weiner. In 1949 he was awarded a fellowship to study in Europe, where he was to spend the rest of his life. He travelled widely throughout the Continent — including Spain, where he met Ernest Hemingway — revelling in the artistic fervour of the post-war era.

Standing by Posters in Paris
Standing by Posters in Paris

For a time he and his first wife, Virginia Adler, lived in Paris, where he studied at the Académie de la grande Chaumière, drove a Bugatti, took on Sam Francis’ old studio, and painted nudes. ‘I did the whole romantic bit,’ he later recalled, ‘a studio on the Left Bank, soirees at which painters sold their work, days of sitting at the feet of the masters.’ Cohen’s work was representational and figurative, owing most to Dufy, Bonnard, Chagall, Kokoschka, Rouault and Soutine. His favourite subjects were ports and river banks, vibrant flower compositions and searching portraits.

Through his friendship with the actor Anthony Quinn, whose portrait he painted, he got to know many of the leading film stars of the day, including Ingrid Bergman, Kirk Douglas, Sophia Loren and David Niven. Particularly close friends were poet and translator C. F. MacIntyre, film writer Tom Rowe, and painters Arbit Blatas and Reggie Weston.

In the 1950s he had one-man exhibitions in Germany and Paris. French critics described him as an ‘intimist’, ‘ranking among our best painters’, and hailing his paintings as ‘good, direct and

Quinn Portrait
Quinn Portrait

natural’. In 1958 he had his first one-man exhibition in London, where two years later he decided to settle. His exhibition at the Obelisk Gallery in 1960 was the first of several sell-out shows in Britain. He had been painting the light and water of the French Channel Ports with bravura; now it was the Thames that attracted his eye:

I was sharing a studio on Chelsea Reach and one morning I walked out and saw the light on the river and the houseboats and I knew that’s what I had to paint. I didn’t want to set up an easel on the shoreline. The river was moving and I had to move with it. So I wheedled a pass from the port authorities and rambled round the docks where I managed to hitch lifts on the tugs which plied between Gravesend and Hammersmith. The crews were marvellous. I’d sit there on deck and sketch whatever was going on. They never made me feel in the way. Their world was something different, something on its own, and I think they shared something of my own excitement in seeing me get it down on paper.

The Vickers Building was going up on the Embankment at the time and they let me paint from the very top. The roof of London was a natural place for me after four years as an aerial navigator. I felt like a bird, soaring over the surface of the river, dipping down when I wanted to. And what was also important to me was that I was the first to see it that way. The paintings were impressionistic – watery, Turneresque, suffused with light’.

He had already met with considerable success in Germany and France. But with the large, ambitious, shimmering canvases of his Aspects of the Thames exhibition in 1961 Cohen really began to win critical acclaim in Britain too. The young Anita Brookner wrote in the Burlington Magazine that he was ‘a fresh and accessible artist of considerable accomplishment, whose abstract impressionist compositions were enlivened by an acute charm of colour’. The Tatler admired ‘the rich sense of colour that makes his work immediately striking and lastingly memorable’ and again noted the combination of abstract design and representation which remained important throughout his career: ‘Look . . . at almost any few square inches of a Cohen canvas and you have a little gem of abstract painting’. Edward Lucie-Smith, in Arts Review, found the paintings ‘strikingly well constructed’, adding: ‘the architecture is nearly always firm and logical. . . . I admire these pictures most as virtuoso demonstrations of technical skill. They have immense panache and glitter, and yet they are self-consistent’. The New Daily appreciated the ‘visionary quality’ of their effects of light. Paintings were bought by Anthony Quinn, Anthony Mann, Edward Sieff, and Lord Palumbo (later Chairman of the Arts Council).

This exhibition is represented here by four paintings: ‘Docklands Morning'; ‘Parliament’, ‘Towers — Tower Bridge”, and most importantly, one of the largest paintings Cohen painted, and an early masterpiece, ‘The Pool of London’. Though much of the canvas is in its original state, it suffered some damage, and Cohen began repainting it shortly before his death. It is thus an exceptional example, combining work from both the beginning and the end of his forty years in Britain.

Cohen followed this with an even more successful exhibition at the Brook Street Gallery in 1963, on the theme of the commedia dell’arte. The Daily Telegraph described the technical achievement of his images as ‘formidable’, and declared him ‘one of the best draughtsmen at work today’, adding that ‘Only Picasso in one or two early works has in our time touched such depths through the characters of the Commedia dell’Arte’. Conroy Maddox, wrote in Arts Review that ‘The paintings are a show of force and theatricality. . . . Cohen has certainly gained a sensuous richness and a robust and vigorous way of handling his material’. Several tours de force from this exhibition are included here, notably: ‘The Entrance of Punch'; ‘Polichinelle Rex'; ‘The Entrance of Columbine’, and ‘Columbine No. 1′.

The inspiration of the commedia dell’arte was to recur throughout Cohen’s work. But once again he resisted the temptation to repeat a successful formula, and completely reinvented his painting yet again. Now he turned his attention to the landscape of Kent, where he settled with his second wife, Diana Saunders, in 1963. His exhibition of ‘Recent Paintings’ at the Brook Street Gallery in 1965 sounded a note that was to remain important in Cohen’s work, focusing on the English countryside and country people. His attraction to Britain never waned. ‘I don’t want to leave it. America is no longer my home. I feel more of a foreigner there than I do anywhere in Europe.’ But he was also attempting to capture the features of the land that most perplexed him. First, its postwar air of decline: ‘It is crumbling from the inside, and crumbling in style. It’s elegant, but there’s danger in the elegance.’ But also the challenge represented by its crowded seclusion:

It was Kent that engaged my feelings more fiercely than any other place I can remember. What hit me was an incredible feeling of privacy. Driving along a country road I felt the hedges crowding in on me. The leaves were so thick that they were like a wall. We passed a hedge-cutter and he glared at us as if we’d interrupted some ritual. Then he stepped down into the ditch and disappeared as though he’d been absorbed by the landscape. Everything was so impenetrably, all-over green that I could think of no way of getting into it as a painter. The way I’d been working simply wouldn’t do.

‘Living there made all the difference’, he told the writer Philip Oakes:

At Sculls gate Easel
At Sculls gate Easel

I realised that the landscape had no dominant features — no crags, no gorges, no rocky escarpments. Everything was reduced in size. The fields were small. The villages were built in sheltered folds, tucked out of sight. The people and the place related to each other. The men who lived and worked there seemed to me to fit their environment as naturally as the pegs securing the tiles to the roofs. To make sense of it as a painter I had to re-order what I saw. I had to separate the elements, to isolate the component partss

As Oakes explains: ‘He evolved a new style, using paint like a sculptor, laying down slabs of colour, carving it with his brush so that the fields and hedges and houses seemed to be hewn from the canvas':
I found it was practically impossible to paint on a large scale. To present England as it really is you must particularise and paint it in detail. Then what you see and what you record is intimate and truthful not just to the topography, but also to the spirit of the place. It’s a reflection of character, I think.

His British landscapes were well-received too, with critics continuing to praise his compositional intelligence. ‘He uses the inter-relationship of houses, trees, fields and roads as excitingly as any abstract painter’, said the Jewish Chronicle, adding that ‘the pictures are intensely alive both as paint and as nature’. Pictures on Exhibit said:

There are very few artists of today’s generation with the ability to synthesise the quality of 20th Century Ecole de l’Europe in the sense that the late impressionists and the post-impressionists did it for their epoch. Alfred Cohen is one of them, and maybe this explains his success with a wide category of collectors. Their enthusiasm is unstinting . . . . These are recognizably contemporary paintings. Cezanne’s tough palette is neatly handled and we are charmed without experiencing for a split-second any doubt that these are really good paintings. . . . There are few enough painters like him nowadays; hardly one capable of capturing the British scene in such an attractive and authoritative way.

The Virtual Gallery on this website includes as examples the glowing small oil ‘Near Goudhurst’, and ‘Hedgecutting and Harvesting’, both of which, typical of Cohen’s painting of this period, are worked up into a thick, earthy impasto. In these Kentish pictures the interest in construction and abstraction is as strong as it was in the Thames paintings, the lyrical expressiveness and ability to capture a mood as strong as in the commedia dell’arte paintings.

Cohen had nine one-man exhibitions in London, and others in Heidelberg, Hannover, Paris, Toronto, Montreal, Tokyo, Cape Town, Belfast, and many other cities and towns in England, including Cambridge, York, Harrogate, Leeds, Rye, and King’s Lynn. He had two-person exhibitions with Josef Herman, Patrick Hall, and Mary Newcomb. And his work was also included in many international mixed exhibitions, such as one at the U.S. Embassy in London of ‘Five Americans in Britain’, with R. B. Kitaj and others.

In the late 1960s he joined Roland, Browse and Delbanco, in Cork Street, which combined exhibitions of artists such as Rodin and Matthew Smith with work from contemporary artists such as Phillip Sutton, Keith Grant and Cohen’s friend Josef Herman. The first of his four exhibitions there was in 1969. It continued the exploration of the country. ‘He was always effective and satisfying’, wrote the Jewish Chronicle, ‘but his Kentish landscapes have been a consistent breakthrough . . . . He has things in common with several good artists, but most noticeable with what de Stael might have painted had he been able to sustain himself at his best. For Cohen now uses that thick impasto in jewel-like colour-blocks that are subtly balanced. The variety of blues and greens, and of reds, that he can weigh in his balance is astonishing’. But he also began to return to the Channel coast, seen from both sides, and in new ways. James Burr, in Apollo, noted:

Many subjects have engaged the expressionist fervour of Alfred Cohen; in these recent paintings, the boats and houses of the coastlines of France predominate. He reacts with a fierce passion to direct experience that is organized into a formal structure. . . . His emotional power and exuberantly vigorous response infuses his paintings with an intensity that makes much contemporary expressionism look feeble.

It was this return to coastal paintings that was to characterize much of his later work. Marina Vaizey reviewed his second show at Roland, Browse and Delbanco in 1972 for the Financial Times, commenting on how the works ‘play on the borders of abstract and representational art’, and noting: ‘He is particularly fond of a deep range of blues, and sea-greens, and the compositions have a deliberate naiveté that is charming but never cloying’. The Jewish Chronicle said: ‘Like Marquet, Cohen paints beautifully, but more warmly. . . a man who is passionately concerned about painting well, and who has also a first-rate sense of colour, deep and rich, belonging to the earth and the sea’.

Arts Review said of his 1974 exhibition at Roland’s: ‘The paintings are generally small, the colours brilliantly vivid (predominantly blues and greens), and the treatment exquisitely painterly. . . . Cohen depicts his subjects with such obvious understanding and sincerity as to produce pictures of unusual depth’. Of Cohen’s last exhibition with Roland’s in 1976, Brian Wallworth wrote in Arts Review:

Paintings and drawings of astonishing vivacity and assurance. . . . Each one is a fully resolved picture of an obviously very intense visual sensation felt by the artist. . . . delicious . . . What a perceptive, revealing and loving eye this American turns on the people, places and atmospheres of Kent! . . . there is a fine wildness about Cohen’s pictures that instantly commands attention. . . .

That exhibition represented yet another new departure. As Peter Stone wrote: ‘Alfred Cohen is unique. I can think of no other artist whom I have followed since his beginning and found to be literally better in each succeeding exhibition. . . . Here is a new line of free and easy drawings of characters like cartoons. You can’t pass them without a chuckle’. These caricatures are represented here by ‘Canape’ and ‘Quilted Jacket’.

In the mid-1970s Cohen took up print-making. His hand-coloured etchings, often of flowers, were sold worldwide. He also turned his sense of space and design to the renovation of houses. In 1978 he and Diana moved to Wighton, north Norfolk, where they converted an old schoolhouse into a studio, print workshop, and art gallery. They later discovered that this was the house where Henry Moore had lived as an art student in the 1920s, and where he had begun to sculpt. When landscaping the garden, the Cohens unearthed a marble carving that had been left unfinished and they returned it to Moore.

Like many painters, he loved the light in Norfolk, its skies, and above all its coast. He often exhibited there. Tony Warner found his exhibition at the King’s Lynn arts centre in 1991 ‘invigorating’, describing how it: ‘glows with colour. . . . There is an obvious joy in the visual world. . . . each painting is carefully crafted. Layers of paint build up to an intricate pattern of complementary colours. The structures are worked out with an almost mathematical precision, each part firmly measured against the painting as a whole’. Of his only one-man exhibition at the School House Gallery, in 1994, the Eastern Daily Press commented: ‘Alfred Cohen is recognized as one of the finest colourists and draughtsmen living in England. . . .’ His collectors latterly included Sir Keith Joseph, Judge Stephen Tumim, Lord and Lady Norwich, and John Madden.

Several paintings from the 1980s and 1990s are reproduced in the Virtual Gallery here; notably the Cyprus landscapes painted after a trip there in 1990, such as ‘Catia’s Terrace’ and ‘Lefkara – Cyprus'; and the interiors and shop-fronts that he had always painted, but which became favourite subjects in his last years, especially for the screenprints he began to make in the 1980s..

A comparison of the ‘Aspects of the Thames’ and ‘Commedia dell’Arte’ series’, painted soon after he moved to Britain, with the pictures of the Norfolk coast and its shops, painted thirty years later, will reveal both the developments and continuities of his art. While the paint surfaces became flatter, less illusionistic, their materiality more insistent, his attention to effects of light, water, and colour, was as intense as ever. Cohen continued painting, drawing, etching, and producing screenprints, collages, and assemblages up until his death, on 25 January 2001 at King’s Lynn.

Obituaries appeared in all the major broadsheets. The Times praised his ‘vibrant flower compositions and searching portraits’, as well as his ‘evocative scenes of the Thames’. The Independent recalled that ‘Once in Europe he . . . made his reputation in its galleries, where his unmistakably chunky, jewel-like canvases were for several decades much sought-after’. The Daily Telegraph concurred, recording how ‘His work became increasingly sought after, by such notable collectors as James Mason, Stanley Baker, and Sam Wanamaker’, adding: ‘A gregarious man, and a friend to many other artists, Cohen also possessed a photographic memory and an encyclopaedic knowledge of Hollywood cinema. His conversation, like his art, bubbled with wit and satire. He hated pomposity or prejudice and was passionately liberal in his beliefs’. The Jewish Chronicle described how he ‘produced a prodigious number of vibrant and colourful paintings. . . . Well received in France, he was equally acclaimed when he moved to London. . . . His hand-coloured etchings . . . were popular in Europe, the US and Japan’. And the Guardian called him ‘a brilliant colourist and deft draughtsman’, admiring his ‘vibrant oils of the Seine, the Thames and the Channel ports, and some telling portraits’, as well as his ‘restless energy’ and the wit of his cartoons and constructions. Examples of all these qualities can be seen here.

WakehurstTwo retrospective exhibitions have since been held: the first at the School House Gallery from May-June 2001; the second at the London Jewish Cultural Centre from October 2001 – March 2002. Derek Gillman, Director of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art, wrote for the first: ‘He was a grand artist, a great colourist, a forceful designer, and a highly acute observer of places and people. He also made very fine prints, with the same intelligence and wit.’ Lady Vaizey, opening the London exhibtion, spoke of how Cohen’s work was ‘filled with warmth, life, affection, pleasure in the beauties and good realities of the present day’.

Howard Jacobson, in the Independent, praised his ‘wonderfully violent paintings':

he painted sensuously, in paint rather than in epigrams, and, like many of the best artists still alive in the last quarter of the 20th century, had to take a back seat to that institutionalised facetiousness we know as conceptualism. . . . It should, of course, be Tate Modern that exhibits him, but he’s a little hot for their whitened aesthetic. . . . And not only too hot, but too possessed of the satiric daemon. For me, although you can see the influences of Vuillard and Kokoschka and Soutine on Cohen, his best work has Daumier behind it, the vigorousness of caricature and the savage grotesqueries of the commedia dell’arte. . .

Alfred Cohen’s work is represented in many public collections, including: The Art Institute of Chicago, Ben Uri Art Society, Bradford City Art Gallery, The Castle Museum Norwich, The Contemporary Art Society, The Department of the Environment, Eastern Arts, Ein Harod Museum (Israel), Essex and Bedfordshire County Councils, Ferens Gallery (Hull), The Government Art Collection, Lancaster University, Musée d’Art Moderne d’Eilat, National Collection of the French Government,The Nuffield Foundation, Pembroke College Oxford, The Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art, Rye Art Gallery, The Spertus Museum — Chicago, The Stanley Picker Trust, Sainsbury Centre, University of East Anglia, St Paul Art Gallery, Minnesota, South East Arts, The Trianon Press, Paris, Trinity College Oxford, University of Wisconsin.

© Max Saunders, 2002 Tel: 020 7372 7959 E-mail: max.saunders@kcl.ac.uk