Alfred Cohen (1920-2001), born in Chicago, of Latvian émigré stock, won a fellowship in 1949 on graduation from the Art Institute of Chicago to come to Europe for a year. He never left, studying and living in Paris and Germany before moving to London in 1960. He had already met with considerable success in Europe but with the large, ambitious, shimmering canvases of his Aspects of the Thames exhibition in 1961 Cohen really began to win critical acclaim in Britain too.
This exhibition features 50 key works displayed chronologically. It highlights Cohen’s constant dialogue with key modern art movements and the radical evolution in his style that resulted in this powerful body of distinctive pictures.
In the mid-1960s Cohen moved to Kent and later to Norfolk, specialising in painting the British landscape and the Channel coasts, interiors, people, and flowers. His attraction to Britain never waned; ‘'I don't want to leave it. America is no longer my home. I feel more of a foreigner there than I do anywhere in Europe.’' But he was also attempting to capture the features of the land that most perplexed him including its post-war air of decline: 'It is crumbling from the inside, and crumbling in style. It's elegant, but there's danger in the elegance.'
Cohen’s work was well received in his adopted home. Brian Wallworth in Arts Review wrote of ‘ a fine wildness about Cohen's pictures that instantly commands attention’ and James Burr in Apollo said: ‘He reacts with a fierce passion to direct experience. His emotional power and exuberantly vigorous response infuses his paintings with an intensity that makes much contemporary expressionism look feeble’.
Loans for the centenary exhibition are from the Alfred Cohen Art Foundation, the artist's estate, and several private collections. Three of the pictures have been accepted by the Arts Council Collection and will enter collection after the show.
The exhibition is co-curated by Max Saunders, Professor of English and Co-Director, Centre for Life-Writing Research at King’s College London and Sarah MacDougall, Head of Ben Uri Research Unit (BURU) and Ben Uri Collections, in collaboration with the Alfred Cohen Art Foundation, the Sainsbury Centre at the University of East Anglia, The Courtauld Institute of Art and the Centre for Life-Writing Research at King’s College London.
The project includes a programme of events, including curators’ talks, art workshops and panel discussions. A lavishly illustrated catalogue combines an extended biographical account with analytical and interpretative approaches to Cohen’s work that locate him among his insert: artistic peers. Contributors include art historians and curators: Paul Greenhalgh (Director, Sainsbury Centre), David Peters Corbett (Courtauld Institute of Art), Rachel Dickson (Ben Uri), Claudia Milburn (Pallant House), Hope Wolf (independent curator University of Sussex), and critics and writers: Tom Overton, Devorah Baum, Jacky Klein and Philip Vann. The book is available for purchase from The Union Shop at Bush House and the Somerset House Shop, at Ben Uri Gallery and online through ACC Art Books.