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Bernard Cohen b.1933
T01538 Painting with Three Spots, One Blue and Two Yellow 1970
Inscribed on reverse ‘BERNARD COHEN/AUGUST 1970/ACRYLICON LINEN/60 x 156’.
Acrylic on canvas, 60x 156 (152x 396).
Purchased from the Waddington Galleries (Grant-in-Aid) 1972.
Exh: Hayward Gallery, April-May 1972 (88).
Lit: Richard Morphet, in catalogue of Hayward Gallery exhibition, 1972 PP-29–33.
T01537 was the first of the single-field ‘white’ paintings on which Cohen worked from September 1966 to 1970, and T01538 was the last of them, before he embarked on a new series of (white) panel paintings in the same year. The artist wrote (letter of 4 June 1974):‘As far as I can remember, the blue spot was sprayed on to raw canvas. This was covered with an all over coat of white. A yellow spot was sprayed quite close to it. Another coat of white and another sprayed yellow spot on top of the first yellow spot. This process was repeated several times (how many I do not remember, but the number was not important) until I felt that one more coat of white would make me unable to see the original blue spot and I completed the activity with a final yellow spot some way off.’
The following notes, based on conversations with the artist in 1971, have been approved by him.
T01538 was painted in London, shortly after Cohen’s return from living in New Mexico, USA. The greatly increased size of Cohen’s ‘white’ paintings by this date (some were thirty feet long) was influenced by his experience of the immense sense of space and distance in New Mexico. Their density and luminosity reflected the intensity of light in New Mexico which often bleaches out the perceived colours of even brightly coloured objects in the landscape unless these are seen at very close range.
Over the years, the increase in Cohen’s canvas-size had been accompanied by a decrease in the size of his paintings’ coloured discs. He had also replaced the systematic positioning of discs by intuitive distribution. Thus establishing the location or even the existence of some buried discs became, for the viewer, a subtler and lengthier undertaking. As with one in T01538, some discs were perceptible only by the viewer’s adopting a side view of the picture surface, whereupon what had appeared an uninflected paint area indicated, by a ‘bruised’ effect, the presence of a buried disc. T01538 typifies the degree to which Cohen’s late ‘white’ paintings, by contrast with his early ones, involve the viewer in extremes of perception, from the instantly obvious to the barely discernible within a single work.
Like the panel paintings of 1962–63 (see entry on T01535), the later ‘white’ paintings such as T01538 were so painted as to preclude a given, indicated way of being read. Cohen wished to direct attention to the viewer’s own process of exploration, and to his or her encounter with individual discs experienced as interesting in their own right, divorced from any imposed meaning.
Blue and yellow, the colours of the discs in T01538, were the principal colours used in Cohen’s ‘white’ paintings from 1968–70. He chose these hues—one very recessive, the other appearing to advance—as those which most combined visibility on the surface with strongly-maintained visibility when overpainted.
Published inThe Tate Gallery Report 1972–1974, London 1975.