Bernard Cohen

Matter of Identity I


Not on display

Bernard Cohen born 1933
Oil paint, tempera and metallic paint on canvas
Support: 2438 × 2438 × 28 mm
Purchased 1972

Display caption

This painting is composed of numerous individual 'panels'. One source for this format was Cohen's freely inventive drawings, laid out in groups. Another was the tackboards which he and artists of many kinds used, to display diverse 'found' images. As would be his continuing practice, Cohen conceived each panel as a discrete painting, and completed one at a time. The panels are containers for very varied imagery, including a womb or squeezed bladder, a gathered curtain, head, body and legs in a schematic stack and the imprint of Cohen's outstretched fingers. Painting in layers, as here, would be increasingly important to Cohen in the years ahead.

Gallery label, September 2004

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Catalogue entry

Bernard Cohen b.1933

T01535 Matter of Identity I 1963

Inscribed on reverse ‘Matter of Identity I. Bernard Cohen March 1963.96 x 96’.
Oil, egg tempera and synthetic metallic aerosol paints on cotton duck 96x 96 (244x 244).
Purchased from Mrs Audrey Gibbs (Grant-in-Aid) 1972.
Coll:Mrs Audrey Gibbs.
Exh: Kasmin Ltd, June–July 1963; Hayward Gallery, April–May 1972 (23,repr. in colour); From Henry Moore to Gilbert and George, Palais des Beaux Arts, Brussels, September-November 1973 (114, repr.)
Repr: Living Arts, 3, 1964, p.72, as ‘A Matter of Identity’; Robertson, Russell and Snowdon, Private Viezv, 1965, p.222, as ‘A Matter of Identity no.2’; Das Kunstwerk, xxill, April–May 1970, p.26, as ‘A Matter of Identity I’.
Lit: Richard Morphet, catalogue of Hayward Gallery exhibition, April–May1972, pp.14–16.

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

T01535 was the second to be completed in a group of three ‘panel’ paintings all of the same dimensions and media. It followed ‘Performance’ 1962 and preceded ‘Matter of Identity II’ 1963, both of which are reproduced in the Hayward Gallery exhibition catalogue, op cit. In both these companion paintings, each panel is distinct and self-contained, whereas in T01535 panels overlap extensively. This device of superimposed or overlapping panels, derived from techniques in Cohen’s earlier paintings but stated with particular clarity in T01535, was shortly afterwards developed by Cohen with increasing graphic complexity, and it has continued to be a central procedure in his work.

Although T01535 contains many striking images, these result—far from any image-making intention—from the wish to replace a conscious concern with image-making as such by a stress on the painting process and on the functional rather than aesthetic relationships between different marks. The images emerged through the painting process and the investigation of function, and represent these factors as much as they do anything outside the picture. In T01535 and its companion pictures, Cohen sought to present the spectator with marks that afforded no one interpretation but a wealth of possibilities, among which the spectator should develop his own routes and links, and should thereby experience the intellectual and physical process that had produced the painting.

Since 1961, Cohen had been combining quite distinct structures in single works, by superimposing successive images. One day a large number of drawings were strewn on his studio floor, and this lateral way of coming to see the intricate multiple connections and contrasts between separate statements suggested the new formal approach of the panel paintings of which T01535 is one. These paintings recall the photograph of drawings spread over a wall of Cohen’s studio which he had chosen late in 1961 for the cover of his one-man show at the Molton Gallery early in 1962. They also resemble the tack boards that were a prominent feature of London artists’ studios, especially in the1950s, but their spirit is very dissimilar to the collage-type paintings which often sprang from the same studios. The key difference is that each mark in the panel paintings was made by Cohen within the context of its individual canvas and referred inwards to it only. Superficially there is an analogy of form and idea with strip comics which were then fashionable in the art world, but though the notions of banality and stylisation of detail involved were not alien to Cohen’s concept, his paintings neither refer outside themselves nor do they present a coherent reading sequence. By contrast with earlier works in which one thing was set into or in front of another, Cohen wanted to make paintings in which the systems of space, behaviour and function were so open that nothing could be surprising or impossible. Strongly averse to the tendency, dominant in the 1960s, for an individual artist to identify himself with a single style and pursue it relentlessly in work after work, Cohen felt such procedures were wanting in a sense of the absurd, and that style must be used as raw material, in a cavalier manner, to break restrictions of vision. The panel paintings were a means of assimilating to the process of painting the idiosyncrasy, excess, and sometimes even slightness that the medium of drawing seemed naturally to permit. It gave painting a greater freedom; and this combination of the paint medium with a feeling of less restriction upon invention allowed peculiar ideas to slip out which might either come to dominate the painting or later be developed in one of their own. The panel format also gave Cohen another way of combining contrasting extremes into a single work. He wanted to be able to move in a flash from the formality of heraldry to the casualness of handwriting.

The abandonment of any coherent sense of scale, composition or space were positive assertions. As he worked on any individual panel, Cohen saw it as a full-scale painting and allowed it to suggest its own notional dimensions. A five inch high panel conceived as twelve feet high might adjoin a ten inch high panel conceived as three feet high. The positions of the panels were determined by Cohen moving across the canvas filling the spaces one panel at a time, considering no panel’s position, size or content until the previous panel worked on was complete.

The following are some of the semi-abstract motifs which appear in T01535. The bladder motif, itself drawn from a graphic line terminating in a knot or ‘root’ (this is the central image of ‘Generation’ 1962); the undulating surface which in receiving distorts images projected on to it, or has to be traversed like uneven terrain (a further major theme of ‘Generation’ and immediately preceding paintings); the curtain which is gathered into folds, and the sheet (bottom right panel) which is turned over at one corner (for one significance of this motif in Cohen’s art see Morphet, op cit. p.8); a linked stack of rectangles, a motif invented by Cohen in earlier work and standing for head, body and legs; impressions of the five finger tips of a band. This last motif appeared because of Cohen’s wish to make a gesture that literally came from the hand, without intermediary; some of these marks are positive impressions of the fingers and in others Cohen sprayed over them. This motif has gained renewed prominence in Cohen’s work since 1971, as, for example, in T01867‘Zany Balances’ 1973–4.

Although there is no drawing specifically for T01535, numerous drawings of the period by Cohen relate to it very closely.

Published in The Tate Gallery Report 1972–1974, London 1975.


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