Catalogue entry

Bernard Cohen b.1933

T01537 Blue Spot 1966

Inscribed on reverse ‘BLUE SPOT/8x 10 ACRYLIC/END OF 1966’.
Acrylic on canvas, 96 x 132 (244 x 335).
Purchased from the Waddington Galleries (Grant-in-Aid) 1972.
Exh: Betty Parsons Gallery, New York, February-March 1967; Hayward Gallery, April–May 1972. (63,repr. in colour).
Lit: Richard Morphet, catalogue of Hayward Gallery exhibition, April–May1972, pp.27–30.

The following notes, based on conversations with the artist in 1971, have been approved by him.

Important concerns in T101537 are the identification of surface, the decisive, formative effect of the making of any mark on all subsequent stages in a painting, and the ritualistic character of the act of making marks. Although T01537 shares these characteristics with numerous of Cohen’s works, they are expressed with particular clarity in this work and in the painting that immediately preceded it, ‘Red Flash’ 1966 (acrylic on canvas, 36x 36 in., repr. in colour in Hayward Gallery catalogue 1972, op. cit.).

Cohen’s typical works of very late 1965 and the first half of 1966 involved placing one very small coloured area in an otherwise monochromatic field, one aim being to make this area so particular and assertive, as texture and as evidence of work, as to offset the sense of a specific location within the picture area. In ‘Red Flash’, Cohen adopted a new device whereby this ambiguity was concerned not with the lateral location of a mark but with its location in depth. For years, Cohen had been superimposing layers of paint in such a way as to make surface, procedure and the sequence of painting events in time identifiable through a painting’s actual form; superimposition created the effect of the projection of colours forward from the picture plane. From ‘Red Flash’ onwards, forms appeared, by contrast, to recede ambiguously into space away from the spectator; but the concern with making visible a picture’s painting history and its physical facts was the same.

‘Red Flash’ was the first painting to exemplify Cohen’s determination that he would use only the most simply executed and discrete paint marks. On a white ground he sprayed a soft-focus-coloured disc. He then painted the whole surface white again, ‘burying’ the disc, before spraying a second disc close in location to the first. He then painted the whole surface white again. This disc/expanse sequence was continued until one end of the line of discs joined the other, to form a circle. Finally, Cohen again painted the whole surface white and completed the picture by identifying this surface too, this time by smearing a single flash of red paint with his finger—deliberately choosing the most literal and direct means of application.

An interval of some months elapsed between the completion of ‘Red Flash’ and Cohen’s next painting, T01537. During this period, Cohen exhibited as one of five artists in the British pavilion at the 1966 Venice Biennale. Seeing the Biennale as a whole gave him an oppressive sense of the sheer quantity, variety and in many cases lack of necessity of the materials and techniques used, and of the visually aggressive nature of a majority of the paint marks and images. The experience confirmed his existing urge to escape rhetoric altogether and to jettison everything except the essence of a painting, to use only the simplest elements and manual techniques, and yet to maintain or even intensify the prominence of gesture.

In this state of mind, and conscious, too, of the still somewhat enigmatic ‘Red Flash’, Cohen attended a Promenade Concert given by the B.B.C. Symphony Orchestra at the Royal Albert Hall, London, on 2 September 1966. The programme included the first public performance in Britain of ‘Eclat’ by Pierre Boulez, who conducted on this occasion. Written in 1964 (it was subsequently expanded and retitled ‘Eclat/multiples’), this work is marked by sudden and dramatic single bursts of sound when, amid the progression of sound as a whole, cymbals are sharply clashed. The clashes are allowed to resonate to their fullest extent in time. Not only is their character as sound altered (in the very process of continuing to be asserted), as successive sounds merge with or overlay it, but the very form of the music proclaims their location in time. While listening to ‘éclat’, Cohen realised the implications of ‘Red Flash’ and visualised both the procedure and the general appearance of the paintings which, in the event, were to occupy him for the next four years. He began to paint the first of these, T01537, the next day.

Apart from the successive layers of white paint, the only marks in T01537 are a number of coloured discs which are painted by the same procedure as the discs in ‘Red Flash’ and arranged, as there, in a circle. The only colour on the picture surface is that of the last disc painted. The discs are of different colours. Although this general fact can be perceived by the viewer, the burying of a disc beneath white paint not only makes it paler but often also actually alters the identity of its hue as perceived. As with other aspects of his work, such ambiguity is acceptable to Cohen only as the product of explicit physical and procedural facts. In overpainting marks he has made, Cohen seeks to assert that a mark once made cannot be concealed but continues to operate with a persistence that both affects and reveals the rest of the picture.

Cohen chose the disc as these paintings’ principal motif in order as far as possible to preclude any allusive or symbolic inference, and wishing to affirm, rather, the physical process of making these marks (by the simplest possible means of using the spray gun, pressing a button). The disc answered his need for non-directional marks. As with its elementary form, Cohen chose white for the successive layers, rather than a colour, to avoid irrelevent associations. But an even more important function of white was its brilliant light-generating property which Cohen saw as a means of making colour visible and of releasing its full intensity. Very few pigments seemed to him to possess this power unassisted: the pure light of white was a means of revelation. He was very averse to the expression of light by means of colour, considering this aim to have overtones of the pastoral and subjective. Throughout the 1960s, Cohen felt somewhat isolated when insisting, in a period in which the central role of colour in painting was widely asserted, on the primacy of light.

Ever since increasing his canvas sizes in 1960, Cohen had found that the experience of creating a large expanse of bare canvas during stretching both stimulated and influenced the process of making marks on it. This response was one of the sources for T01537 and the many ‘white’ paintings that followed it. Cohen was interested, too, in the paintings conveying a sense of the weight of white pigment which repeated layering produced.

Published inThe Tate Gallery Report 1972–1974, London 1975.