IN NEW YORK CITY, IN A SIMPLE HOUSE IN A RESIDENTIAL NEIGHBORHOOD, AN UNKNOWN ARTIST’S UNUSUAL CREATIONS HAVE BEEN DISCOVERED
by Edward M. Gómez
NEW YORK — There is a plain, red-brick house in a quiet, middle-class neighborhood in one of what New Yorkers refer to as “the outer boroughs” that is the repository of one of the best-kept secrets of modern art’s mid-20th-century heyday.
Earlier this year, the current keepers of this nondescript dwelling revealed it to me.
They invited me to step inside and examine the unusual art trove it now shelters and preserves — the stylistically wide-ranging, thematically ambitious, unexpectedly visionary and often bizarre paintings of the American artist Shirley Cohen, who died in 2019 at the age of 97.
Self-taught and intensely private, and always wary of attracting any kind of notoriety, during her lifetime, Cohen never showed her art publicly, nor did she make any effort to explain its motivations, meanings, or purposes to anyone, including the members of her own family.
Recently, the late artist’s son (a New York-based professional who is now in his mid-70s) and his wife reached out to me to tell me about Cohen’s oeuvre and life story, and to ask me if I might be interested in seeing her paintings. Together, we drove to the neighborhood in which the house in which the painter’s son grew up is located, stepped inside, and among dusty pieces of furniture and many piles of tchotchkes and knickknacks, dug out and examined the evidence of Shirley Cohen’s life’s work, a resonant testament to one human being’s unsinkable will to create and her far-reaching, earnest, humanistic vision.
In the living room, crowned figures, a cherub, and other, more obscure human forms emerge and bob among the fabric folds and churning, brightly colored passages of a mural-size painting covering an entire a wall behind a tired-looking sofa and a long out-of-tune piano. Elsewhere, in a damaged black frame, a small, semi-abstract oil painting features the silhouettes of tall trees surrounding a fiery glade.
In various bedrooms and the attic of the old house, other paintings of various sizes depict athletic figures plunging into multicolored voids like Blakean creatures reaching out in communion with the forces of the cosmos, or futuristic cityscapes seen from dramatic, unusual, bird’s-eye-view perspectives. In some of her compositions, Cohen elaborated simple forms — concentric circles; long, extended rays; vertical streaks of color; random-pattern lines — and in others she experimented with her materials in an abstract-expressionist manner. (In one small, mostly brown-and-white painting, she appeared to have mixed sand or coffee grounds with her paint to create a richly textured surface.)
Looking at Cohen’s varied creations, it seems obvious that, as a thinker and an artist — or, simply put, as a member of the human family — she was deeply concerned about humanity’s destiny. Much of her work appears to be informed by a broadly spiritual sensibility and simultaneously alludes to technology, nature, and humanity’s fate.
A strain of hopefulness can be discerned in Cohen’s art, even though, as her son told me, his mother had faced many daunting hardships early in her life and, later, was profoundly affected by World War II (during which period she served in the U.S. Army’s Signal Corps).
Cohen’s son recalled, “My mother’s art was prescient about what the future held in store and also instructive with regard to what the past was all about. She was born on August 19, 1922, but she was not sure exactly where she was born — maybe in New York City or possibly in a town in upstate New York. She had four siblings, and her father abandoned the family. She became an orphan at the age of two, because her mother — my maternal grandmother — was institutionalized; she was sent to a psychiatric hospital.”
The infant Shirley was sent to live with an Irish family, with whom she stayed until she was eleven years old. When that family experienced a financial crisis, she was sent to another one, which was nominally Christian Scientist, although its surname was Jewish. (Later in life, free from the constraints of a foster child, Shirley Cohen would come into her own identity as a Jewish wife and mother.)
Shirley, who outlived her siblings, never knew what became of her mother. Shortly before she turned 20, while riding the New York City subway’s F train on her way to classes at the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan, she met a man who was several years older; when they married in 1942, Cohen’s years as a foster child were over.
Cohen, who learned about the production of clothing through a job with Simplicity Patterns, went on to assist her husband in his work as the owner-director of a company based in Manhattan’s garment district. A manufacturer of fine-quality women’s sportswear, it sold its wares to such high-end department stores as Bonwit Teller. Shirley’s son told me, “My mother helped my father figure out how to put together garments in an economically viable way. He would bring home a garment, and she would study it and its pattern and advise my father about how to produce the piece most efficiently.”
At home, Shirley spent a lot of time on her art. Her son recalled, “By the time I was five, around 1953, I was aware that my mother was making art in our living rom. There were wall-to-wall canvases, stacked on top of each other; some were ten to 15 feet wide. Looking back at them now, I recognize that there are tremendous messages in each one — storytelling that reflect my mother’s efforts to explain what the past was, what the future held in store, and the evolution of mankind. There were times when my friends would come over, and I’d usher them upstairs to my bedroom right away, because I didn’t want to tell them that my mother was into this stuff. The house always smelled of oil paint, linseed oil — and spaghetti sauce.”
The artist’s son’s wife spoke of her late mother-in-law with admiration and respect. She said, “Shirley was a demure, loving, quiet woman. Very much a woman of her time, subservient to her husband and working side by side with him in their clothing business. Yet she was very bohemian at heart. She never wore anything except a denim shirt and a denim skirt.”
She noted, “When you look at her work, it seems that Shirley must have had a most explosive inner life, even though she was very modest. She had been very influenced by World War II, which was devastating for so many people. All her life, she reused plastic bags, washed and reused aluminum foil, and saved and reused rubber bands. With Shirley, nothing went to waste.”
The late artist’s daughter-in-law added, “When you spoke with her, she was a little bit out there. In her art, you could sense her feelings — everything that was caught up inside her. [In retrospect,] it was shocking and amazing that [all of] this came out of such a humble woman.”
In the now mostly empty, former Cohen family home, an in situ pièce de résistance that may well be one of Shirley Cohen’s most ambitious creations covers the walls of a built-in nook surrounding a dining table. Dated 1958, it is one of the artist’s rare signed paintings.
Today, this multi-panel mural, which was painted on canvas sheets, is in a state of disrepair. Its multicolored, overlapping compositions and scenes bring together many of Cohen’s abiding motifs and themes, from feral-spiritual human creatures and serpentine lines alluding to natural forces to cityscapes, history, and the unfathomable expansiveness of the cosmos. (Look closely and you’ll spot the Eiffel Tower, Rome’s Colosseum, and what appear to be the onion-domed buildings of Moscow’s Kremlin.)
As site-specific artists’ environments go, Cohen’s kitchen nook easily falls into a category shared by such unique creations as the late Ron Gittins’ painted interiors in his home (“Ron’s Place”) on the Wirral Peninsula, near Liverpool, England, and the painted chambers of Pasaquan, the multi-building venue conjured up by St. EOM (Eddie Owens Martin) in Buena Vista, Georgia.
With this article, brutjournal becomes the first publication anywhere to call attention to and present selections from the late Shirley Cohen’s still largely unknown and unacknowledged body of very original, hard-to-classify work.
Although not large, at its best it is thought-provoking and varied. Many of the artist’s paintings could benefit from a professional art conservator’s care but, overall, they are in fair to good physical condition.
Undoubtedly, they represent an interesting footnote in the familiar, canonical story of modern art’s development and history. Somehow, seemingly unwittingly, in an unassuming house in a quiet residential neighborhood many decades ago, a typical homemaker of a now-passed generation who had no links to the art world but who enjoyed visiting museums, especially the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, managed to absorb many of the ideas and ideals of the art of her time and make them her own.
The art she created, with discipline, determination, and a deep sense of purpose, is packed with a sense of aspiration and soul.
What prompted Shirley Cohen to make art? (She left no journals, notebooks, or preliminary sketches.)
Where did her art come from?
With me, her daughter-in-law examined a mural-size painting down in the basement; it was filled with Pollock-like, dripped outlines; patchworks of shaded forms; eddies of swirling colors; and explosive passages that seemed to simultaneously push forward and recede.
Looking away from this strange picture, my companion-guide observed, “Shirley’s art came from outer space.”
[Scroll down to see more of Shirley Cohen’s paintings.]
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