Bernard Cohen

Matter of Identity III - The Trace


Acrylic paint on canvas
Support: 1835 x 1835 mm
Presented by the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1981

Display caption

This painting's six principal images are an aeroplane, a paw mark, a paddle, a meal table, an explosion and a window. From corner to corner Cohen painted an aeroplane in one set of colours which, while wet, he scraped in numerous directions. He painted the rest of the canvas in a contrasting set of scraped colours. Within the aeroplane's boundaries he then painted an image using the second set of colours, and repeated it (a different size, sometimes inverted, dismembered or as if projected) in the non-aeroplane space, but in the aeroplane colours. This process continued until all spaces were full. Colours were intended to clash as much as possible. The orientation of each image was determined by its having to rest on a scraped line. Here, as in many of Cohen's works, an unpredictable scatter of forms grows as the painting develops. Cohen sees this progression as akin to that of a meal. As a Jew, his experience of the Passover meal gave him a heightened sense, from an early age, that shared meals can have complex meanings. As he has observed, one Passover meal, the Last Supper, was eaten on 'the eve of Chaos'. Here, as in Sienese painting, smaller 'predella' panels amplify a picture's principal image. Cohen was also concerned with the notion of the traces left by the passage of anything across space, land or time. The marks here are literally traces of the delicate stencils, cut by him, through which they were painted. Paddles have no top or bottom; their irregular arrangement here accords with Cohen's decision that the painting may be hung any way up.

Gallery label, September 2004

Catalogue entry



Inscribed on cross-bar of stretcher '“MATTER OF IDENTITY III. - THE TRACE”BERNARD COHEN 1979 ACRYLIC ON LINEN/72" × 72" HANG ANY WAY UP.'
Acrylic on canvas, 72 1/4 × 72 1/8 (183.3 × 183.3)
Presented by the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1982
Prov: Purchased by the Friends of the Tate Gallery from Waddington Galleries 1981
Exh: Bernard Cohen Recent Paintings, Waddington Galleries, October–November 1979 (no catalogue)
Lit: The Friends of the Tate Gallery Annual Report 1st May 1981–30th April 1982, 1982, p.11 repr.

In 1963 Bernard Cohen made two paintings titled ‘Matter of Identity’, both containing numerous individual ‘panels’ of imagery and both measuring 96 × 96in. ‘Matter of Identity I’ belongs to the Tate Gallery (T 01535) and several of its panels overlap. In ‘Matter of Identity II’ (private collection) each panel is separate. Both works are reproduced in colour in the catalogue of Cohen's retrospective exhibition at the Hayward Gallery, London, April–May 1972. T03284 is the only additional painting to date in this series.

Bernard Cohen wrote the following statement for the Tate Gallery about ‘Matter of Identity III - The Trace’; it is dated 6 July 1982: ‘The image of an aeroplane occupies the canvas from corner to corner. It is made with a “set” of colours. The canvas that remains outside the image is made with a second “set” of colours. Conforming to the direction of the scraped colours, studies for new paintings and painted objects are placed upon the image of the 'plane. These are painted in the colours of the outer “set”. These studies are repeated in the four areas outside the image of the 'plane in the colours of the 'plane “set”. When the area becomes “full”, the painting process is at an end.

'The painting may be understood as an icon that contains its predella panels within its form. To put it another way the rectangle of the canvas and the 'plane are covered with stories in which they appear. Or to put it yet another way the painting is concerned with matters of identity arising from issues of personification and representation.’ The rest of this entry is based on Bernard Cohen's replies in conversation the same day and on 13 December 1982, and has been approved by him.

Paintings of this kind can take up to two and a half years to complete. Cohen usually has several in progress at any one time. He worked on the Tate's picture for two years. This period overlapped with his work on the other five pictures in his 1979 exhibition; these are similar in general character to the Tate's picture in which, however, the imagery is carried or crowded closest to the edge. In subsequent works Cohen allowed the central iconic image to ‘float’ more freely within the rectangle of the canvas.

In the Tate's picture one of the largest panels, crisscrossed by straight lines, represents a dark aeroplane on a light ground; this is the only panel fitted closely into one corner of the canvas. The large image of an aeroplane which Cohen drew before painting began is in the same orientation as this panel; its nose cone points into the corner of the canvas opposite to this panel. Having placed the central image, Cohen applied the two sets of ground colours. Within each set, the contours dividing any hue from its neighbours were initially irregular and grew even more so as one was scraped into another, resulting in a degree of tonal merging. Scraping had to be fast as acrylic dries quickly; its directions were random.

This coloured and scraped ground was an important determinant of what was painted on top of it, and where. Each panel had to ‘rest on’ a scraped line. Where a scraped line lay across the boundary of the aeroplane image it was possible for a painted panel, too, to overlap the two ground areas. The colours in which each panel was painted were selected (from among those in the designated ‘set’) so as to clash in as many different ways and as sharply as possible with those beneath and in the neighbouring panels. Cohen wanted each panel to sit as uncomfortably as possible, and to create the maximum dynamism in and across the picture surface. As in all his works, therefore, Cohen deliberately set up limitations (here of palette, colour relationship, orientation and imagery) within which the painting should develop. In the sense both of the original iconic image and of the working process he established ‘a formal container for informal invention’. Most of the panels were painted using paper stencils designed and cut by Cohen. They are objects of delicacy and precision which interest him in their own right, both because they are masks (which have long fascinated him) and because of the paradox that the most important thing about them is what is left when they themselves are removed.

Cohen feels strongly that the many small panels should not be regarded as ‘details’ in relation to the central generating image of an aeroplane. The word ‘detail’ suggests to him something of lesser importance. In the Tate's picture and others like it the painting process begins with a very clear statement of an iconic image which each individual panel then reiterates. Every part of the picture is therefore an invention throwing new light on the same theme. Smallness of size in a panel does not mean it is any less complete; nor is it any indication of the scale on which that panel's imagery was conceived.

Cohen sees each panel as being not particularly detailed but very direct - even rather bare - pithy and aphoristic. His painting is accessible and is for everyone, ‘as simple as anything today’. Viewers should be no more disconcerted by changes in notation from one panel to another than they are in Sienese paintings (or early fifteenth century Italian paintings) where they often find it difficult to believe the (true) fact that the panels and the central image to which they relate are by the same hand, yet accept with ease that all are concerned with a single theme.

The six main images repeated in the Tate's picture are an aeroplane, a paw mark, a paddle, a meal table, an explosion and a window. The subject matter of Cohen's paintings springs from his experience of life rather than from modern art. As he looks out of his studio window he constantly sees aeroplanes reflected in the windscreen of his car. Moreover the aeroplane motif is central to his discovery of a type of painting which would work equally well any way up. He was sitting one day beside a crowded lily pond in Kew Gardens puzzled as to how to bring this about. He wanted to eliminate the sense of gravitation in his work and thought naturally of Monet, but equally of the impossibility of Monet's solution for his own work. As he contemplated the pond he saw passing across it, visible intermittently in the gaps between the lilies, the reflected image of an aeroplane. This image and its strange combination of directness and indirectness gave him the key to how to proceed, and the Tate's picture was one of the first results.

Early in his career, Cohen began from time to time to substitute for drawn marks the direct imprint of his own finger(s). The paw mark which recurs through the Tate's picture relates to this subject and also to Cohen's repeated representation of the imprint of the five outstretched fingers of a hand (an image which is prominent in two of his earlier works in the Tate, ‘Matter of Identity I’ and ‘Zany Balances’ 1973–4). Improvising on this motif of outstretched finger prints, Cohen enclosed it with a single wandering line and the result was the image of a paw. The paw is a reference back to the time he spent in New Mexico. The paw images in the Tate's picture are all developed from illustrations in M.J. Lawrence and R.W. Brown, Mammals of Britain, Their Tracks, Trails and Signs 1967.

While the panels in this painting are conceived as studies for independent paintings, Cohen sees the paddle images as studies for objects. The paddle motif emerged when Cohen was experimenting with drawings representing an aeroplane travelling along a line and hitting a paw mark. The resulting long, balanced form tied in with his memory of paddles being used by canoeists. He wanted the imagery in his painting to function as closely as the medium would allow to the way the objects represented would function in everyday life. Just as the aeroplane's free movement through space defies both gravity and (as in the pond analogy) a fixed orientation, so a paddle can operate any way up. The inclusion of several in a painting articulates the space and assists the ease with which it can be read equally effectively any way up. In addition to imitating each other (as in the repetition of any panel, once painted, in the alternative ‘set’ of colours) and to reiterating the picture's central motif, images in the Tate's painting similarly comment on the process of painting the picture as a whole. Cohen sees the picture surface as it develops as being itself like the palette from which it is being painted. In each case the process begins with elements (in one case colours, in the other panels) laid out simply on a clearly-defined surface, but as the process develops the elements become increasingly randomly disposed, interwoven, overlaid and confused. Although it is controlled by the given limitations of the containing surface and the elements employed, in detail this development is not planned. To Cohen such a process is analogous to a meal, where it is possible carefully to plan those sharing it, the table setting and the dishes, but not the way the table will look at the meal's end. Because of his interest in this organic transformation, Cohen enjoys long meals most: these encompass the greatest variety of social behaviour, changes of mood and changes of detail on the table top.

In the Tate's painting the numerous representations of a table covered with dishes perform this self-referential function. Some of the panels containing table imagery represent, as from above, walls, floor, carpet, numerous dishes, and six people, represented as repeated units protruding from the table on all four sides. All Cohen's images carry for him important meanings going beyond the painting process. The meal motif relates to a concern in all his painting since 1975 with the Last Supper and with the Crucifixion. The Last Supper is a bridge linking Cohen's cultural background through his family and religion with the culture in which he lives and works. Although the Last Supper is a subject reiterated in Christian art, Cohen is amazed how rarely such art indicates that it was also the Feast of the Passover. This meal is of great personal significance to him. In the Passover meal, dishes are laid out formally. Squares of unleavened bread are disposed in a manner echoed in the layout of Cohen's paintings and are in turn overlaid by various foods which signify the Exodus. The panels in Cohen's paintings recall the function of pre-existing phenomena, as do the foods, such as bitter herbs, which are eaten in recollection in the Passover meal.

The importance for Cohen of the Last Supper as a cultural link coincides with the intensification from 1973 of his interest in Sienese painting, in which images of the Last Supper and of the Crucifixion are reiterated in paintings with predella panels. This structure is analogous for Cohen to works such as the Tate's picture, in which the image of the Crucifixion is recalled in the cross-form motifs of aeroplane and of window glazing bars. Sienese art was significant for him also as in itself a cultural crossroads, particularly between Byzantine form and the art of the West. (He found it notable also for the prevalence of images of flight.)

The fifth main motif in the Tate's picture can variously be read as shattered glass, as an explosion, as the mark of an impact or as the rays of the sun. It, too, developed from observation of a meal, in this case one eaten at a plate glass table out of doors, in which Cohen was able simultaneously to see feet and dogs beneath (through) the table and objects above the table reflected in it, while flaws in the glass paradoxically made the table surface itself particularly apparent.

In the title of the Tate's painting the phrase ‘The Trace’ has several intersecting meanings. Partly Cohen had in mind the way in which, through millennia, animals and men have left traces on the ground which make evident the routes they have taken. He was fascinated also by the fact that however developed modes of travel become, in each phase they still follow the routes laid down by earlier modes. Hence the earliest routes are visible even to those travelling by so advanced a mode as the aeroplane. Along the line which takes in the dinosaur, wild animals, cattle trails, trains and travel by air, three of this picture's main motifs, paw, paddle and plane, can be located. In such a progression, the most up to date mode contains within itself a memory of the most distant; similarly in Cohen's painting the images are traces through the memory - as well as reiterations - of archetypal motifs. And just as in transportation routes one form grows out of another, so in Cohen's painting one panel generates another both in the sense that it leads to its repetition elsewhere on the canvas and in the sense that the variations on each image develop by improvisation as the painting proceeds.

The word ‘Trace’ also relates to the fact that Cohen's images tends to represent the original object at one or more removes. The signs for it which he creates often represent its trace - for example its reflection, its shadow, its imprint or a plotting of its movement. Cohen relates this to the intense presence-in-absence of Moses in the Passover meal; for Moses is there the central recollected figure, yet during this important ritual of commemoration he is never actually mentioned.

Augmenting this sense of indirectness is the deliberate subversion of logic, even the stress on the absurd, which is always important in Cohen's work. Things do not appear in the relative positions they ‘should’ occupy. They are inverted, permutated or fused in constantly changing ways. The sixth main image in the Tate's picture, the cruciform outline of the bars of a window, is repeatedly merged with images of plane or table to call in question whether the view is from indoors out or outdoors in. The irregularity of outline of some images is owing to the representation being of the fall of their shadows onto a three dimensional object, as when a plane is projected onto a cream trifle. Similarly planes are projected onto and distorted by dishes, or occupy the spaces left between dishes on a table top, or appear beneath the dishes or the table. In some panels the plane is dismembered into its various parts, which are laid out with each turned around. In other panels plane and paw are shown roughly the same size, the disorientating equivalence of the natural and the contrived being indicated by lines linking each extremity in either with one in the other. Their roles are repeatedly inverted. Conventionally, paw marks are associated with the ground and planes with the air, but in this painting paw marks appear on tables and planes, while planes, as we have seen, elide with objects on or near the ground. Cohen points out that while the plane symbolises freedom by contrast with the paw's restriction to earth, it is equally true that the plane as a rigid structure can only go to certain places while an animal can move in any direction.

Once Cohen has introduced a new motif into a painting it is essential to him that he interpret it from numerous different conceptual viewpoints. Any image he uses, and indeed any act he performs as a painter, must have more than one meaning for him. A major influence on his thinking in the period of the Tate's picture was Ortega y Gasset's emphasis on the determining role in what an artist paints of the position adopted by his eye. In The Artist's Viewpoint Ortega traced the effects over a long period of the changes in this position. For himself, Cohen rejects the option that his eye should assume a single, fixed position. In his view the nature of present day reality makes it impossible for a painter to proceed as though his eye was the centre of the universe. This is one reason why some of his favourite art is that in which the position of the eye is not fixed, for example Indian and Islamic art. Ortega also emphasised the ways in which painting has always implicitly questioned the viewpoint of the spectator. In the Tate's painting and others like it, Cohen juxtaposes motifs of which we have contrasting expectations and simultaneously contradicts these expectations. By putting in question our interpretation of every part of the painting and of the nature of the space represented, Cohen hopes to maximise the spectator's awareness of his own role in interpreting freely for himself the meaning of the images and their relationship.

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1980-82: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, London 1984


Bernard Cohen: Matter of Identity III – The Trace 1977–9

Research interview Andrew Wilson (Curator of Modern & Contemporary British Art) and Patricia Smithen (Head of Conservation Programme) interview Bernard ...