Bernard Cohen

Zany Balances


Not on display

Bernard Cohen born 1933
Acrylic paint on canvas
Support: 2743 × 1368 mm
Purchased 1974

Display caption

This painting's double square format is that of Cohen's dining table. Though following a clear programme, Cohen developed an increasingly complex disposition of forms, as happens in a meal. He first painted the upper half black and the lower white. Over this he painted rectangular and elliptical panels in twos. The second of each pair repeated the first's imagery; it was placed in the opposite square, in as near as possible to the same position. But in repeating a panel Cohen would alter its size, so literal equivalence of positions became impossible. The painting ended when the last 'reasonable' space was filled. Cohen was attracted to the ellipse because it gave a stronger sense than the rectangle of both containment and direction. He requires that the painting be hung with the tilted horizontals of the ellipses parallel to the floor. The 'Zany' is the buffoon in the Commedia dell'Arte. His performance is absurd and an act of improvisation. The strangely-'balanced' angle of the painting reminds us that every painting is an act of contrivance.

Gallery label, September 2004

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Catalogue entry

T01867 ZANY BALANCES 1973–4

Inscribed on upper cross bar of stretcher ‘ZANY BALANCES, 1973. 108×54’, down centre vertical of stretcher ‘HANG/WITH/ELIPSES/ON/HORIZONTAL’ and on second crossbar of stretcher ‘BERNARD COHEN. ACRYLIC ON LINEN CANVAS’.
Acrylic on canvas, 108×53 7/8 (274.5×137)
Purchased from the Waddington Galleries (Grant-in-Aid) 1974
Exh: Waddington Galleries II, April–May 1974 (2, colour)
Lit: ‘Bernard Cohen interviewed by James Faure Walker’ in Artscribe No. 5, February 1977, pp.2–3

The following account, which has been approved by the artist, is based on his replies in conversation on 24 March 1977.

From early 1973 until April 1974, Cohen was working on (among other projects) a group of six large paintings which were all painted in his London studio throughout the same period, being begun and completed more or less simultaneously. They were exhibited as a group in Cohen's April 1974 exhibition cited above, and all were reproduced in colour in the catalogue.

The format of each canvas was either a square or a double square. With hindsight, Cohen realizes that these formats are related to the experience of meals eaten at the dining room table in his house. That table is a double square; since 1972 he has increasingly consciously seen the way he builds up the marks in each of his paintings as being analogous (among other things) to the process of a meal being eaten at this table by a number of people-a process in which a clear and ‘formal’ beginning leads quite naturally to an increasingly complicated and unpredictable disposition of elements. Cohen describes this analogy in the Artscribe interview cited above.

In painting ‘Zany Balances’, Cohen first divided the canvas visually into two approximately equal halves by painting a black ground in the upper half and a white in the lower. The rest of the painting consists only of individual ‘panels’ and their contents, painted one panel at a time. Some panels are partially overpainted by others. After completing a panel in one of the painting's two halves, Cohen would repeat this panel in the other half, positioning it as near as he could, within that half, to the position that would correspond precisely to its pair's position in the first. He was, however, never able to achieve precise correspondence in this sense, since almost every time he repeated a panel he changed some aspect of its scale-for example, having painted a panel measuring 3×4 feet, Cohen might make its pair in the other half only 3×4 inches, though despite the greatly reduced dimensions the smaller version would, like every panel, be no less complete than its pair. Thus the density of each half of the painting, and the disposition of elements within it, varied from the beginning; their alikeness was closer functionally than visually. Before beginning the picture, Cohen determined that its ‘programme’ would be simply to continue painting it on this system until what seemed to him the last reasonable space had been filled-so that he could feel that the surface as a whole had been ‘sealed’-at which point, without any aesthetic or compositional deliberation, he simply stopped. Indeed no aesthetic or compositional considerations entered consciously into the development of the painting viewed as a whole. Each panel was painted as a self-sufficient entity, complete in itself. Its external relationships-for example of colour and composition-were ignored; thus apart from Cohen's attempt to place the second panel painted within a pair as near as possible to the position corresponding to that of its ‘twin’ in the other half of the canvas, these relationships were fortuitous. In embarking on the first panel in any pair, Cohen selected its position within its half of the canvas according to no consistent system of placement. Not only was each panel painted with reference only to its own internal completeness (though subject, if it was the second of a pair, to its being a careful version of the first), but its dimensions were subordinate to Cohen's mental notion of its scale. Thus in painting a panel only three inches wide, he might be looking at it as though it were fifty feet wide, and in that case the marks he painted, though tiny, would have so to be formed that their appearance would be consistent with the imagined scale. Equally, dramatic reduction of actual size from the first to the second panel in a pair brought quite different kinds of technical problems even though the images of the marks painted in both panels might correspond. These images include conspicuously the image of the fingerprints of outstretched left and right hands. At certain points which Cohen has not specified, this motif contributes in this picture to images of horses and birds.

In each half of the canvas a slender but irregular margin of unpainted-over ground colour remains along the edges. As each panel's own ground is white, this margin is of course particularly noticeable in the upper half where the ground is black, but this very fact underlines its existence in the other half, despite its being in effect ‘masked’ there. In each half, its precise configuration is the result of chance. In 1973–74, Cohen was moving towards severe limitation of the number of particular colours used in his paintings. This idea has since resulted in colour being built into the structure of a painting. By comparison with the work of 1976 and 1977, ‘Zany Balances’ is more random as regards colour. With its companion pictures, it is intermediate between the almost (but, crucially, not quite) colourless ‘White’ paintings of 1967–72 and the brilliantly coloured works of 1974–6. In all three types of work, marks which Cohen intends should remain importantly operative for the viewer are overlaid by surfaces which partially obscure them; imagery is to be read in depth, embedded, as well as across the surface of the painting. In ‘Zany Balances’ the coloured marks include ones which have been substantially overpainted, others which are on the surface, and yet others which were overpainted with white which was then wiped off.

Until 1972, the ‘panels’ in Cohen's paintings had largely been rectangular. ‘Zany Balances’ and its companions show the introduction into his work on an extensive scale of the ellipse, as such a containing shape. On a visit to Portugal in 1972, Cohen was obliged on account of an attack of laryngitis to sit, on several days, at one end of a large pond which was entirely surrounded by a high wall of bamboo. The bamboo prevented the pond's being seen at all from outside this surround. Inside it, there was only a three foot wide path between bamboo and pond; Cohen's seat was on this path. He was thus unable to perceive the pond except as an ellipse, and this shape impressed itself on him more than the fact of the pond being a surface of water. Indeed this experience coincided with Cohen's growing interest in hermetic containership, with the sealing off of a particular space. This seemed to be more fully achieved with an ellipse than with a rectangle. Whereas the rectangle conveyed the implication that it could be extended in any direction, the ellipse was more of a pictorial thing. Moreover its more pronounced axial character meant that unlike the rectangle it was directional in effect.

Like its five companion pictures, ‘Zany Balances’ is hung unconventionally, by being tilted a few degrees out of the vertical until the axes of the ellipses are horizontal in relation to wall and floor. This is intentionally disturbing for the viewer. From at least the late 1950's, Cohen has repeatedly introduced into his paintings different kinds of incongruous elements which act to remind the viewer that the painting is an act of deliberation and contrivance. In introducing these elements Cohen is deliberately destroying the painting's purity so as to enhance its physical and (in the widest sense) gestural reality. In the Artscribe interview cited above, he relates the function of the tilting of the canvas in ‘Zany Balances’ and its companion works right back to the pictorially incongruous elements he called ‘flashes’ in his paintings of 1958–60. He identifies the tilt as a means of disturbing the painted surface. Cohen introduced this device when, noticing a painting leaning in his studio tilted, he was struck by the interest of this kind of (dis-)orientation of the rectangular paint surface. Once he had decided that the canvas would be shown tilted, the painting required to be balanced again in some way; the ellipse was an ideal means, for Cohen discovered that if the canvas itself was tilted, the directional character of the ellipse took on greater strength.

The title ‘Zany Balances’ thus relates to this balancing of the unbalanced canvas by ellipses, as well as to the balancing of the panels in one half of the canvas by their pairs in the other. However this title is also a reference to the notion of the absurd as a performance, not only by the painter but also, by analogy, by the clown. Among subjects central to Cohen's work for many years have been the idea of the absurd and the idea of ritual. He is fascinated by the myth of Sisyphus, who endlessly rolled a heavy stone to the top of a mountain only to have it roll all the way back again just before it reached the top; important in this myth is the dedication with which, every time, Sisyphus embarked on his task afresh. The idea of ritual relates to the fact that the execution of the painting comprises a series of physical (and craft) actions which the artist carries out because they are part of the ‘programme’ for the painting, despite the fact that, unlike a religious or ceremonial ritual, the process offers no certainty of the attainment of a goal. Once the artist has set up his plan of action for making the painting, he is, like the performer of absurd theatre (the clown), in a situation in which, with improvisation the principal mode, the work becomes a revelation of the ways in which the ‘performer’ behaves in circumstances with particular, specified limitations. The performance does not ‘lead’ anywhere. The performance itself-an act of balancing, in the case of the clown-is the thing. It is an extreme situation, success or failure depending on the clown's ability, within a convention, successfully to invent or (as for Cohen in this picture) to make fantasy concrete. Nothing is hidden, even if in the performance (in the paint) it is overlaid through time. The dogged and desperate performance, with all its peculiar combination of artifice with exposure, has to go on till, at a time not of the performer's choosing (i.e. when the painting finally reaches the point where it reaches the state of being ‘sealed’), it ends. Cohen's longstanding concern with the figure of the clown increased in the early 1970's. Another painting in the same series as ‘Zany Balances’ is titled, in the same connection, ‘For Certain Fools’. The word ‘Zany’ in the title of the present work is given after the buffoon-like, havoc-creating character of that name in the Commedia dell'Arte. Black and white, night and day, big and little are all held in balance in the ‘crazy performance’ of which this painting is the complete record. In a statement written in November 1975 and published in the catalogue of the exhibition Arte Inglese Oggi, Palazzo Reale, Milan, February–May 1976, Cohen wrote:

'The face and the face that covers the face have long preoccupied me. This preoccupation has made me sensitive to the formal practices, prescribed orders and customs of ritualized behaviour. It has caused me to become steeped in that unwritten body of beliefs and facts that has been handed down from generation to generation which we call tradition. It has attracted me to the characters of the trickster, fool, clown and jester.

‘It has inspired and fed my deep love of the absurd (behaviour and thought that is contrary to reason) and has led me to question matters of physical and iconographic identity. As a craftsman my criteria are medieval. For however strong my sense of the absurd, however anarchic my behaviour, my labours must be shaped with time into a form that is death defying.’

Published in:
The Tate Gallery 1974-6: Illustrated Catalogue of Acquisitions, London 1978

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