August 22, 2013

The Formative Formlessness of Cora Cohen
by Samuel Jablon

Curtain 3, 2011, 69 x 91” (175.26 x 231.14 cm), acrylic, Flashe, pigment on linen

When Cora Cohen needed help in her studio, a mutual friend recommended she call me. The job started by looking and talking about her art. There were clashes. We have different and similar approaches to painting.

Cora’s work deceives the eyes — it simultaneously reveals and obscures. The paintings are sincere and in the moment, with a grimy and honest quality. They could hang in a Bushwick studio, but would seem odd, out of place. The aesthetic would not belong, because it comes from somewhere else. Yet Cora’s paintings are, in some ways, akin to those of younger contemporaries. She is interested in what young artists are doing; she collects their work, visits studios, and hires them. This interview started in Cora’s studio and continued through text messages, emails, phone calls, and a dinner party.

Cora Cohen has a solo exhibition of drawings, On Paper, opening September 6 at Galerie Hafemann in Wiesbaden, Germany.

Nomad (revised), 2013, 34 x 38” (86.36 x 96.52cm), acrylic, Flashe, oil, spray enamel, tape, wood veneer on linen

Samuel Jablon: Could you talk about your work, and your interest in your “Nomads”?

Cora Cohen: I do many kinds of work — what I call “curtain” and “drawing” paintings, the “nomad” paintings, and also, altered x rays — works on exposed x ray film that are not painting per se.

The curtain and drawing paintings are done with pigment and water-base paint. They begin with the act of seeing, when things are first glimpsed, before logic and rationality take over. The uncertainties I experience in seeing filter into them. They are informed by my unsureness of what I have seen and what I am painting.

I began my nomad paintings in response to the profoundly unsettling experience of having no permanent home or studio. They were my attempt to place myself in a world in which I had lost my place. They are also a tribute to Jean Prouvé.* The first time I saw Prouvé’s work, and attempted to follow a form within it, I found I would have to discard my expectation of what the form had first signaled. Forms detouring from the expectations they set often occurs in interesting painting, yet is uncommon in three-dimensional work. I learned about Prouvé’s ideas connecting art and industry, and concerning the making and producing of structures for nomadic existence, and felt a kinship.

After the loss of my studio and home, I worked a lot, in many modes, and in a variety of locations. In the borrowed studio of a friend, I began cutting some wood veneer that was on hand, attempting to follow Jean Prouvé’s shapes and forms. The slippages and discrepancies that occurred encouraged me to include additional disparate elements in the rest of the painting. After gluing the cut shapes onto stretched linen, I used both oil and water-base paint to make marks and forms that were antithetical to the cut shapes, and I painted over other parts of the cut shapes in an attempt to incorporate them into a larger whole. Lately, I’ve been painting onto the veneer with ink, cutting it, attaching it to the linen, and painting on it again.

Little Nomad2, 2013, 16 x 21” (40.64 x 53.34cm), acrylic mediums, graphite, veneer on linen

SJ: I like that seeing comes before logic and operates as a source of uncertainty. How does logic get in the way when you are painting?

CC: Logic doesn’t get in the way exactly. I try not to let it. When we look at something, we tend almost automatically to organize our impressions into rational, acceptable forms – according to pre-existing models. I attempt to work from my experience of first sight, when things are first glimpsed and are rather disjointed. The results are often as disparate and disjointed as my first impressions.

SJ: This reminds me a bit of the Art Informel movement and its intuitive unplanned approach. Do you feel a connection to the thinking of this movement?

CC: That is an excellent question and my answer is somewhat involved, and has taken me awhile to figure out.

First, although my work is often as uncertain and unformed as first sight, it is anything but intuitive or unplanned. Also, I am always skeptical of the notion of attributing thinking to movements. Artists have ideas, and tend to phase in and out of movements. Thus, movements have little fixity and are not monolithic. Finally, I don’t know what constitutes Art Informel other than certain historic and stylistic affinities. It was of a particular place and time – Europe, after World War II. There was nothing quite like it in the States. Furthermore, it is impossible to know what the Informel artists thought. Having said that, I see the approach of most of the artists designated as Art Informel as neither intuitive nor unplanned but resolutely strategic.

Art Informel is many kinds of art, and much of it is of interest to me. Materiality is one feature that connects me to some of the work designated as such, particularly Fautrier. His paintings consist of paper and plaster conjoined with color, then painted onto to, often with lines that run free of shape and form. Fautrier’s motivations in making his work, particularly his hostage paintings, were complicated. Yet in looking at his works, and at the work of Wols and Henri Michaux, artists who are often grouped with him, there’s a subversion of conventional Western perspectival space, a renunciation of a reliance on form, and a rejection of quotidian psychological space. Image is deployed as a floating thing or object. The painting is a platform from which this thing or object looks out onto the world. The work of Fautrier particularly often gives me the sense that the world is being presented to it (rather than it to the world), although it is not passive in any way.

An interesting exhibition was done by Yve-Alain Bois and Rosalind Krauss at the Pompidou Centre in the late nineties that connected some of Georges Bataille’s thinking, particularly base materialism, to Art Informel as a force that destablized existing foundations. The exhibition, and the accompanying text, Formless: A User’s Guide (1997), attempted to disrupt binary conceits about 20th century art, for example, the split between form and content. The text was of the late-20th century postmodern criticism world, and had an exclusionary, esoteric nature that feels even more exclusionary and esoteric now. Yet at the time, their terminology (“base materialism,” “horizontality,” “entropy”) was a relief. The exhibition mixed Robert Morris felt pieces with the work of Fautrier, and Fontana, and others, was remarkably heterogeneous, and had an element of funk.

Little Nomad 4, 2013, 13x15", aluminium tape, Flashe, ink, pencil, wood veneer on linen

SJ: What are your thoughts on formalism?

CC: I feel completely at a loss with art historical and critical terms. They exist on so many levels of meaning and that makes it difficult to speak about them in a meaningful way. It’s like at a dinner with interesting people where it’s impossible to keep track of things because so much is going on ­– the conversation, the conversation’s sub-text, and everyone’s body language.

“Formalism” is complex and contentious as a critical term. It assumed various guises over time — Wölfflin, Fry, Greenberg. When I was a student at Bennington College in the sixties and early seventies, Clement Greenberg asserted the primacy of a particular aesthetic. In addition, he advanced a formalist analysis that was based on Wöfflin. Greenberg’s formalism became linked with the style of the work he supported ­– color field painting.

Although I don’t know formalism on any deep art critical level, I do know that it has been utilized to remove a sense of the world from the practice of painting, and has enabled the consideration of a painting as an autonomous object, often outside of any social system. I refute this obliquely and explicitly. On the most elemental level, my altered x rays and nomads assert the existence of the world at large, as do my paintings. However, if one considers formalism literally, every artist I can think of does have formalist antecedents.

Thinking and writing about visual art is supremely difficult. Yve-Alain Bois and Rosalind Kraus valued the discrete object and attempted to rescue visual art from the politicized arena of cultural studies. In 2003, when I was trying to think about painting, I found that the texts and terminology of post-colonial studies provided exploratory paths. In 2013, I find David Josilet’s emphasis on the migration of meaning, and the notion of reformatting, helpful modes of consideration.

R88, 2011, 11 7/8 x 9 7/8” (30.2 x 25.1 cm), leather, paper, pigment on roentgenograph

SJ: Let’s go back to the issue of the formlessness. How do you address the issues of form and formlessness in your work?

CC: It is the hardest to answer so specifically about my work. I will try.

Approached solely as a visual issue, formlessness is uninteresting. Yet as a notion in a psychoanalytic context seen through Georges Bataille, formlessness expanded my notion of what painting might be. Base materialism and irrationality counter the striving toward logic that is inherent in making discrete art objects. My curtain and drawing paintings are my attempts to allow perceiving and making become the work. Questioning is a topic within the painting.

SJ: Do you think there is a hierarchy in contemporary painting?

CC: Hierarchy is part of the world order. There is the hierarchy of money in contemporary painting yet what interests me more, and is more comprehensible to me, are the many hierarchies that exist now in painting. Within our world of objectless nodes, electronic flows, and matrixes founded on information-based rethinking of conceptual and performance art, there are contemporary painting situations, or scenes, or communities, each with its own transient hierarchy. Those hierarchies are knowable and they are interesting in combination with each other.

SJ: What do you think of the current move to make socially engaged community oriented public art?

CC: From what I understand (which is just a bit), socially engaged art is as varied as any art form, and defining its successes or failures is as difficult. I haven’t thought about it enough. In some ways, it doesn’t feel as if there is an “it.” For example, two projects I admire that would be considered socially engaged art have radically different origins. Project Row Houses (Houston, Texas) began local and has become global, whereas the Gramsci Monument at Forest Houses (the Bronx, New York) began global yet became local. As a child of the sixties and who I am today, I respond to the idealism of each, and to any object making that expands into the world, and connects people with art, and art with people.