Tuesday, September 24, 2019

Harry Cohen 1924-2019

Harry Cohen died a few days short of his 95thbirthday.

The sad news about Harry came as a real sucker punch.  Harry moved fast and talked fast, always filled with ideas and good humor.

And painted every day.

I think it's a great testament to Harry’s life and vitality that his passing at 95 years could be such a wholly unanticipated event.   Harry seemed far too vital, far too busy to die. Somehow it seemed like he would still be at it at 113….

Harry exhibited these works on paper just last August at the San Geronimo Valley Community Center in our Silent Art Auction.

Donn DeAngelo taking Harry’s picture at the 2015 annual San Geronimo Valley Spring Art Show

Harry was raised in Boston’s South End in the 1930’s. He studied at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts with Karl Zerbe and Oskar Kokoschka.  He moved to the San Geronimo Valley, Marin county in the mid 1950s.

Photo: Donn DeAngelo

Back in 2011, I interviewed Harry and his good friend and fellow Valley artist Jenny Hunter Groat.

( This is a ‘reprint’ of the original posting from this blog.  Portions of this transcript appeared in print in the West Marin Citizen and Stone Soup).

A Chat with Harry and Jenny 

As the Visual Arts Coordinator at the San Geronimo Valley Community Center I curate two shows every month.

In November of 2011, painters Harry Cohen and Jenny Hunter Groat exhibited at the Center’s Maurice Del Mue Galleries.

Valley artists Harry and Jenny have been good friends for a long time.  Last fall the three of us gathered at Jenny’s home in Lagunitas for a casual, completely impromptu brunch of bran muffins and coffee and engaged in a very pleasant, if slight chaotic, chat on life and art.

Larry:  How long have you known each other?

Jenny:  I did a show at the Two-Bird. Harry and Marge went to dinner there one night.  And about 10 o’clock at night Peter got this phone call—I had gone to bed—and Harry said “Jenny Groat!?” 

Peter said “She’s in bed”

Harry said “I wanted to tell Jenny Groat I’m an artist myself.”  This is literally what he said, with his Boston accent.

“I wanted to tell her, her paintings are just mahvelousMahvelous!”

 Does that sound like you Harry?

Harry:  When I walked into that restaurant--I never saw art like that.  Wow.  I looked at the name.  
Why, it’s Jenny Groat.

Jenny:  We’ve been heart friends ever since”

Larry: Harry, obviously, you came from Boston. You got the G.I. Bill…

Harry: Yeah, right after the war.  I was like a lot of kids who decided to use the G.I. Bill. So being an art student then was kind of rough. First of all, Boston is a very cool city.  And the G.I. Bill, you were only getting 75 bucks a month.  So you‘re living in a coldwater apartment.  I rented a place with cracks in a wall. So, when you slept the cold would come through. I was like a rotisserie….   rotating all night.  I met this young lady who was also an artist we got married. I said its time to get the hell out of here. Then I came out West.  I was stationed out here and I saw how nice the climate was.  The climate was marvelous.

Jenny, you were born on the east coast also?

Jenny: I was born in California.  As a dancer, I had my dance school and company in San Francisco and I went east three times to measure myself against the best in the nation.

It was a tactical error I made in one sense not to move to New York because in San Francisco dancers, particularly innovative or whatever, avant garde, pioneering…

Harry: In other words, it was centered in New York.

Jenny: Very much so, even now.

Larry: Jenny, you have made the transition from being a dancer and then you were a calligrapher and you made art books. Were those easy transitions where you just drop one thing and go to the next?

Jenny:  They intertwined.  I quit dancing because of the pressure.  I took five years off. I did a lot of a camping. Even by myself. And Zen practice. I was in psychotherapy with a Jungian analyst. I started an interest in Western handwriting while I was teaching in Reed College in Portland.  So, then I started studying handwriting with Lloyd Reynolds. And I also became interested in Zen at that time. I then I found when I started my dance classes I had quite a few Zen people in my classes. I thought: ‘What are you doing here? Why are you people here?’  And come to find out they were practicing Zen mindfulness, because of the awareness I taught in classes—sensory awareness, improvisation. So all of that fed into painting. They’ve all synthesized.  I call it three streams, one river

Harry: See I never had that problem. I knew I couldn’t do much but I knew I could paint.

Jenny: Your work is a lot more form based. You have form

Harry:  Yes, I’ve never got too far away from that.

Jenny:  I work more with textures and color. And my colors have to fight for their lives

Harry:  laughs

Jenny:  I like layers and layers of form. One layer after another.
I like that kind of layering because I want a painting to have a history.
It has to have a past life. It’s like people, it gives it some depth.

Harry:  …you destroy one form to discover another

Jenny: Exactly

Larry:  Jenny, You’ve also made books…

It was connected to the calligraphy world. Calligraphy fed into the painting. So that the gestures are still dance gestures.

Larry:  It’s interesting because calligraphy could be considered a little bit of a dance.

Jenny:   That’s right. There’s always been a field called calligraphic art. Which calligraphers don’t really understand.  I was not well understood in the calligraphy world. 

Larry: You picked the form of a painting that makes sense for improvisation. You’re not doing landscapes or something where you‘re plotting everything out ahead of time.

Jenny: I don’t plot anything.

Harry:  The most important thing is what it says to you. I don’t know what it says to me verbally but you feel good in front of it. What does Bach tell you verbally?

Jenny: Exactly.  It’s feeling.  You can say ‘cantata;’ but it doesn’t mean anything. It’s what you feel. I like to give it a little title to give people a clue how to get in there. That’s exactly what happens when I went combining calligraphy and the dance in calligraphy and I turned it around and made the dance come out without words.

Larry: Did you discover you were doing that or did you plan to do that?

Jenny: I began to realize, I was trying to make calligraphy be my full art form the way dance had been and I couldn’t. I loved doing it and I still do love doing it. What happened then was, calligraphers were making books and I got interested in what they call artists’ books. And one of those was the one that was purchase by the National Museum of Women in the Arts. I was in a show there in Washington, D.C. I was invited to do that.  It was a show of eight American women calligraphers.

Larry: Harry, What about your paper sculptures, what I call paper sculptures...

Harry: Hangings, I call them hangings. I like the three dimensional too.
I didn’t want to get too serious with it, and it turned out…you bump into problems…when I paint…an impasse..for me those impasses are not something that  are going to come and go away easily. I know from experience it takes a lot of time, a lot of thinking about it. And during that period that I’m thinking there’s kind of layers of consciousness and I have to go through it. The solution is never right there and so I have to weigh it mentally. And during that period while I’m waiting for this thing to come through I do the hangings

Larry : Your art training- you were with Oscar Kokoschka?

Harry: Only one summer. It was after the war. 
A lot of wonderful artists, Hoffman, Beckman--you know those people?-- they were all here in America because Europe was destroyed, more or less.

So they were all teaching here and they were all trying to peddle their work, find positions: Hoffman ended up in Brooklyn, Beckman ended up in St. Louis. They were looking for work and a place to work.

Oscar took a job at the Brookshire’s. The school I went to had insurmountable monies. Monies that they would never would have admitted to, it’s the old rich, the old wealth. They had money locked up.  They were able to afford him. So that summer I took the G.I. Bill and went to the Brookshire’s. The school had enough money that they leased a lot of wonderful homes in the Brookshire’s.

They put about a half a dozen of us artists in one house. We artists ruined this beautiful house. The artist took the rugs and made rooms out of them, the paint was splattered all over. I heard later on that it cost the school a fortune to restore the house.

We would paint in whatever area we wanted to.
And [Oscar] would come by twice a week and look at your work

He said to me one day “Did your people come from Russia?”
I said “Yeah”

“I can tell you use a lot of white”  (laughter)

Oscar was like a child. He would walk the streets at night in Pittsfield.
We would see Oscar walking the street and we would go over to him and say
“Oscar what are you doing?”

“Oh I’m walking…” 

We would say, “Oscar come with us”

And he’d say “Okay!”

We would take him to a café and sit him down. And he’d tell you stories of his mother and his father and his life in Czechoslovakia.

Larry: I was reading something about him…during WWI he had been in the war
 He was in a hospital when he was wounded and they deemed him mentally ill.

Harry: Oh yes, he used to tell stories about it.
Do you know that famous painting he did with his finger on his heart?

We said to him, “Oscar, why is that painting so famous?”

He said “When I was in the war—he was in the German army—he said I was in a dugout. And suddenly a young allied troop soldier came up there with his bayonet I was in the dugout and I had my gun. The youngster, I looked up and the kid was like a young boy of 17 or 18. He had such a face of innocence I couldn’t pull the trigger. The kid bayoneted me--right here”. And he said “That’s where I made the painting. I painted that painting before I was bayoneted. He stabbed me in the very point”.

He thought it was a psychic experience. He was almost childlike.

Larry: Harry, I’ve seen these definitions applied to you… abstract artist…action painter…

Harry: I never considered myself that. ..catalog…that label… I think artists --like Picasso, he was in and out…

Jenny: Nowadays you pretty well have to give somebody a tag.

Harry:  Among artists, among peers it’s not necessary. I’d know a Groat instantly..

Jenny: (laughing) And I’d know a Harry…

Photo of Harry and Jenny courtesy of Peter Groat.

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