Illustrated companion

The extraordinary quality of Bernard Cohen's painting was perceptively described in relation to the period of this work by the critic David Thompson in a review in Queen magazine, August 1964: 'Behind these [paintings] lies a vision of something like Art Nouveau science fiction ...What does it all mean? I have little idea ... I've never seen a painting like it. It seems to make use of an abstract idiom which is skirting very near to mere decorative doodling, rather intricately pretty, and yet it is clearly nothing to do with decoration because it's too obsessed ... We ask an artist to stretch our visual imaginations for us, and stretching can be painful. Cohen does this with some of the most unconventional, obsessive, beautifully-wrought painting being done anywhere now by an artist under thirty-five.' Part of the answer to Thompson's question 'what does it all mean?' lies in the nature of the obsessiveness that the critic detected at the heart of Cohen's work. Cohen's obsession is with the actual process of making the work of art and with working in such a way that the process becomes an essential part of the subject matter and content of the painting. So a central underlying meaning of all Cohen's paintings is that they are images of a particular act of creation. It is because his imagery is formed through the process of creation that it is so uniquely personal, so unlike anything else in art, and it expresses, in a completely abstract way, the artist's mental world, which evidently is one of great richness and vitality. Naturally therefore, Cohen's work must often relate to the things in the world that he particularly responds to. 'Floris', for example, refers to the famous Soho patisserie of that name run by Madame Floris.

The painting was begun in the top left area of the canvas where Cohen first executed the small linear fantasy in red which forms the core of the concentric pattern around it. This core was given emphasis by white dots placed along the lines. Cohen then developed the core by repeating its contour ten times with a softly sprayed black line, which he then overlaid with a thinner, sharply defined line of red. He then punctuated that phase of the painting with the fringe of radiating black lines. He then filled in the remaining vacant areas of the canvas with other clusters of linear fantasy of a different kind where a single line is entwined upon itself like a tangle of wool. He also painted repetitions, or versions, of the dots, in white and various colours. Finally he returned to the first form and began to extend the rings of red, spinning them like a web to cover the whole canvas and thus complete the work. Because of the off-centre placing of the original form, the red lines became compressed at the top and left edges producing an effect as if the spider had become demented, although at the same time the bottom right corner was untouched and had to be covered by a few token wanderings. The lower left corner is filled in with a small spiral which is the end of the last, incomplete, contour and which marks the completion of the painting. 'Floris' is one of a number of Cohen's paintings of the mid-sixties whose titles allude to his interest in the analogy between cooking and painting: the idea of the bringing together of separate ingredients which are then fused into a new whole, being common to both. 'Floris' is certainly a wonderful confection.

Published in:
Simon Wilson, Tate Gallery: An Illustrated Companion, Tate Gallery, London, revised edition 1991, p.232