Adam Cohen is one of the artists featured in our book How Art Is Made: In the Catskills, available as paperback and e-book.
Learn more about Adam at adamcohenstudio.com.
This weekend in the Catskills:
For more, go to Upstater.com.
Adam Cohen earned his BFA at Philadelphia’s Tyler School of Art at Temple University. He also studied abroad in Rome. Using Photo Shop 1, Cohen was one of the very first artists ever to use the computer for art-making, launching his career as a top illustrator. He worked for clients such as Disney, Visa, MasterCard, Coca-Cola, CBS-TV, McGraw-Hill, Pfizer, Orion Pictures, Verizon, AT&T, The Atlantic Monthly, Dean-Witter, The New York Times and others.
In 2015 Adam’s painting Intuition was selected among the finalists in the Art Olympia International Competition held in Tokyo, Japan. Judges from prestigious art institutions in the United States, France, Japan and other countries looked at 5000 entries from all over the world in two categories: Open Category, and Student Category. Eighty works, including Adam’s Intuition, were selected for the final. Also, in 2015 Adam signed a contract with Morren Galleries to be represented in the Netherlands.
Simona David: Adam, you have formal training as a painter – you studied at the Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia. When did you start painting?
Adam Cohen: I started painting when I was 12 year old. A friend of mine was studying with this teacher – Lillian Marzell, who was to become a pivotal figure in my life. I studied with Marzell for a few years. What was great about her was that she wanted us to listen to and bring out what was inside us; she was not telling us how to do things. I think that’s what really kills creativity – the idea that if you draw the sky it has to be blue. Marzell was an abstract painter. She knew all these artists like Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Merce Cunningham – she would go out to Provincetown and hang out with them in her earlier days. Bob Dylan used to go there too. Marzell was ahead of her time, and very dynamic. At that time, when I was 12 year old, I was doing figurative painting, and I wanted instructions. If I asked how to do clouds, or how to draw the sky, she would say “You know how. You do it the way you feel it inside.”
SD: When did you switch to abstract painting?
AC: About three years ago. I was feeling lost, and got the feeling that there was something else that I wanted to express, but it wasn’t clear to me. In college I didn’t like abstract, and didn’t understand it. I wasn’t really interested in it. Everyone else was doing abstract painting, I was doing figurative. But students were doing these hideous abstract paintings, and the teachers were upset with them – it was the worst year of painting at Tyler. From 1967 until 1975 the work was amazing in the school. Those years were like a Renaissance in art. My class wasn’t living up to that.
SD: What painters did you like around that time?
AC: I liked de Chirico. I liked Léger at one point. I never liked representational work. I prefer dream like, surrealist works. There is a mysteriousness in them.
SD: Who is your favorite painter today?
AC: I like Gerhard Richter. He’s a German painter. There are many things that I like about his work. He’s using a big squeegee to rub the paint. My approach is different. But I like a lot the early abstract painters.
SD: These days you paint abstract only – Carter Ratcliff characterized your style as Gestural Abstraction. Let’s talk about your toolbox: what materials do you use in your work?
AC: I use acrylics, some oil paint. I work mostly on canvas, and some wood panel. I go to art supplies stores and buy gels that I mix in my own formula.
SD: Let’s talk a little bit about your style.
AC: I’m an intuitive painter. But I can always do what I did as well: once you know that it’s part of your language. Carter said that I’ve taken every nice thing from every earlier phase and carried with me what I thought was the best. I do a lot of line work, and cutting, and slicing through the paint. I’m doing all this vascular work: the paintings are very much sculptural; they look visceral.
SD: How do you name your paintings?
AC: My partner, John Merriman, who does PR for celebrities, usually steps in and captures both my inner drive and the mood that a certain work of art is set to convey. Sometimes he even tells me when the work is done, although at night I may sneak back in the studio and add a few more brushes.
With abstract painting, John says, “There are so many things that you can get out of the painting, and what it’s supposed to tell. Some people would look at an abstract painting, and they’ll find all kinds of little faces in it. Others may very well see fire and ice.”
Asked about the naming process, John adds: “I tend to go after unexpected contrasts in the name. Adam paints so intuitively that at times it tends to be emotional. For instance, this one is one of his earlier works – it’s called Enigma: it’s kind of dark, but you don’t quite know what’s at the bottom of the whole thing. Life is not all black and white: there is the grey, and then there are different colors, it can be paradoxical. Enigma is one of his first carving paintings – it’s when Adam started to carve his paintings.”
SD: Adam, what inspires you? You divide your time between New York City, the Catskills, and Ocean Grove, NJ. Are there any external sources of inspiration or just inner experiences that trigger your creativity?
AC: Consciously or unconsciously the environment influences me. For example, this winter was so long, and I painted Early Spring a few days before the equinox – I was dreaming of spring, hence these colors: reds, pinks, oranges, greens and blues. I spend a lot of time on Instagram these days. For instance, this painting was inspired by a photo I saw on Instagram with shimmering flowing water. I wasn’t trying to copy, but rather use these reds in a way that inspired me. There is also an internal color palette that changes for me. It’s a little mysterious. For example, I go to my studio in a particular week and for some reason there is a color that I feel attracted to. I don’t question why I’m feeling drawn to that particular color. But then, as I start to work, a whole color palette emerges. And then I realize that I want to do the same color palette in the next painting, and the next, and the next, like I can’t get enough of it. Maybe a month or so I’m in love with this color palette, and then all of a sudden that changes. I see paintings as living experiences. And to me they need to have a life of their own, and energy. I think Carter Ratcliff put it best when John asked him one day what makes a great work of art. Carter said “if I was going to use one single word, I would say that it’s inexhaustible.” When you look at it, there is no beginning, and there is no end, and you always discover new things. He once said about my work that the entire surface was connected and alive. I like how he brings definitions to me about something I can’t define. The intuition and the experience come first, but then you need someone to define it. However, once I do define something, and it really resonates with me, I look for that experience in it.
SD: What kind of message would you like people to find in your work or you’re not concerned about that?
AC: It’s that kind of question that people have: how do you know when it’s finished? It’s such a deeply personal feeling, and so critical. Yes, I want the surface to be connected and alive, and the painting be inexhaustible, and look at it forever and still find something you haven’t seen before. It’s almost like a magic trick.
SD: You mentioned Carter Ratcliff before. He wrote a beautiful essay about your work. “A painting by Adam Cohen is like a sudden burst of light,” he said.
AC: Carter was actually the closest to my very private and personal experience, and the decisions that I’m making in the process of painting. It felt like he was right there in the room with me, but he’s never been there. He interviewed me, but he was never there. He got the process so right. In his essay Carter said that the viewer looks at the painting and tries to look back at how the painter painted it.
SD: That’s right. The artist starts with a blank canvas, and keeps adding to it. The viewer sees the final product, and strives to understand the artistic process that led to that accomplishment.
AC: It’s a little bit like a maze. Really the entire world is abstract. The closer you get to anything that you magnify – your skin, a table, a rock – it’s abstract; everything is abstract and our eyes pull it together. I think it’s very natural to create that way. If you go very close to a Renoir painting you don’t see something that looks like a face or a shirt or an object on a table. You see all these very abstract marks. If you get really close, you can see every brush mark. It’s extremely abstract. You have to step back ten or fifteen feet, and then it comes together.
SD: Let’s talk about your contract with Morren Galleries.
AC: I signed a contract with Morren Galleries to be represented in the Netherlands. They have four galleries. My work is shown in Amsterdam. I have five paintings there: Infinity Blue, which was done by the ocean, and November Moon, done in November during the full moon. Usually John names my paintings, but this one I named myself. There is also Spring Sequence, which I named myself, and Mystic Marsh, named by John. I’m the first abstract painter to be shown in Morren Galleries in Amsterdam.
SD: You are getting ready for a show at Carrie Haddad Gallery in Hudson: Abstraction, opening date July 18. Let’s talk about that.
AC: I have nine paintings in this show, including Paleolithic, Reflecting Pool, Enchanted, Clairvoyant, and Dragon Fly. Abstraction is a group exhibit showing the works of five artists, including mine. There will be a reception on Saturday, July 18 from 6 to 8 pm. I invite everyone to come.
To learn more about Adam Cohen, visit http://www.adamcohenstudio.com/.
© 2015 Simona David