Story by Stephanie Levin.
Leonard Cohen–author, songwriter, lyricist, and poet (1934-2016) inspired, captivated, and illuminated generations of artists and audiences around the globe; his baritone voice and mythical lyrics touched the prosaic psyche and soul with his mind.
Cohen was strongly influenced by his life experiences, and his childhood in Montreal, the town where he grew up, was educated and would return to dip into the spiritual fountain that distinguished his lyrics and the man himself.
A year prior to Cohen’s passing, he generously consented to the production and exhibition of Leonard Cohen: A Crack in Everything, which opened in Montreal at the Musée d’art Contemporain, (MAC) in 2017. At the same time A Crack in Everything began touring to New York and Europe and the Contemporary Jewish Museum, (CJM) in San Francisco began mapping out the creation of their own exhibition entitled Experience Leonard Cohen: A Series of Four Solo Exhibitions Inspired by the Life and Work of Musician and Writer Leonard Cohen. Stalled with the onset of Covid, the curators, sponsors, and artists remained steadfast in their vision to bring the exhibit to fruition. Experience Leonard Cohen opened on September 18, 2021.
Installed throughout the museum’s galleries, the immersive exhibit is a personal and reflective journey through Cohen’s life and his artistic career. The multimedia exhibit features contemporary artists, Canadian George Fok, American Feminist Judy Chicago, Berlin-based Candice Breitz, and native Californian and local artist Marshall Trammell. The exhibitions by George Fok and Candice Breitz were first commissioned by the Musee d’art Contemporain de Montreal (MAC) for A Crack in Everything curated by John Zeppetelli, Director and Chief Curator, and Victor Schiffman.
The best place to begin Experience Leonard Cohen is with George Fok’s Passing Through. The one-hour immersive audio video in the Swig and Dinner Families Gallery is a retrospective of Cohen’s five-decade career; it’s intimate and stirring. The moment the viewer enters the dark theater, a montage of Cohen in concert rotates across three theater-sized screens.
Cohen’s career traverses before the audience’s eyes, his voice uplifting the room with his songs. The viewer is once again part of Cohen’s collective audience journeying with him through a memorable songbook featuring, Suzanne, and Marianne; the youthful, slim dark-haired Cohen commenting on his early success with the song Suzanne and how he naively signed away its rights. The catalog of Cohen’s life, his profound reflections, and concerts, the bohemian Cohen, his time on the Greek Island of Hydra in a white cotton shirt playing the guitar, then his serene smile metamorphosizes into Cohen, the septuagenarian in a dark suit, his signature fedora tilted over his brow singing Hallelujah. The gallery is as quiet as a cemetery; the montage a crescendo of blended songs before the soft-spoken Cohen bows to his audience in gratitude. Unexplained tears slide down my cheeks; Cohen’s grace, persona, spirit, and musical generosity are both palpable and dominate in this small space.
Fok’s Passing Through carries the viewer through an archive of Leonard Cohen’s life, it’s a feast of the senses, a crack into Cohen’s lyrical cloak. You pass through 55-minutes of Cohen’s concerts, lyrics, words; you enter Passing Through one person and come out another, a more reflective being.
The second exhibit, Cohanim, is a beautiful passage created by Judy Chicago. It is both a literal reference to Leonard Cohen’s surname and an indirect reference to Chicago’s given name, Judith Sylvia Cohen. The exhibit explains “Cohen” is Hebrew for priest. The series of twelve porcelain plates, each visually attributed to a particular Cohen song commemorates as well as celebrates Cohen’s memory. It’s Chicago’s personal tribute to Cohen from the plate of Cohen’s blue raincoat to her study of Bird on the Wire.
Before viewing the series, set along a sensitively lit single wall, a video of Chicago explores and explains the exhibit. Chicago recalls her opening of the Dinner Party in Montreal in the 70s and her ticket to see Leonard Cohen in concert. Both events coincided with a terrible case of the flu and Chicago missed both her opening and the concert. “I was more upset about missing Leonard Cohen’s concert than missing my opening,” recounts Chicago in her video.
The video succinctly expresses how Cohen’s music and lyrics influenced Chicago throughout her life as well as feeling a Jewish connection to Leonard Cohen, who was the grandson of a Talmudic scholar, while Judy Chicago the descendant of a line of rabbis.
Candice Breitz’s exhibit, I’m Your Man, in the Koshland Gallery, is a tender nineteen-channel video installation that portrays Cohen in the absence through a community of men, sexagenarian and septuagenarian, each of whom has cherished Cohen’s music for over half a century. Each man, framed in a separate window, sings a rendition from Cohen’s comeback album, I’m Your Man (1988). Breitz’s has synchronized the solo recordings merging the eighteen amateur voices into a cappella choir; it’s a sacrosanct experience. The Capella is set against the backdrop of a younger group of male vocals belonging to the Shaar Hashomayim Synagogue Choir (the Montreal-based congregation that Cohen belonged to all his life). I’m your Man, divides into two sections; the first room stages the younger male vocals on one screen from the synagogue; the second room the individual Capella vocals.
Brietz’s art explores how the individual evolves personally in a relationship with the larger community, and the I’m Your Man exhibit gather’s Cohen’s community in song and tribute. Breitz notes, “The installation is a musical eulogy that is both cherished and mournful as it marks the loss of Cohen while anticipating the loss of the generation to which he belonged.”
Upstairs in the Yud Gallery, Marshall Trammell in Residence offers reflections on Leonard Cohen’s life, spirituality, and musical practice in real-time. Trammell, who is an Oakland-based experimental archivist, percussionist, conductor, composer, and artist in residency at CJM, works collaboratively. His exhibit invites visitors to participate. This is the only exhibit of the four that visitors have the opportunity to leave their vocal imprint on the exhibition. Trammell’s two videos greet viewers in the lobby of Yud Gallery. The first video offers male performers singing four short songs of Cohens in Capella, and the second demonstrates how visitors with their mobile devices can participate in the sound installation Indexical Moment/um: For Friends. Several sheets of Cohen’s songs sit neatly stacked on a table and visitors choose one, enter the empty Yud Gallery, choose a circle, and record one of Cohen’s songs, or any portion of it. This can be a solo voice or two voices or a small group. Periodically, Trammell will process translate and incorporate the recordings into the sound map over the course of his residency at CJM.
While the exhibit brings Leonard Cohen’s extraordinary insights and challenges to life to viewers lucky enough to visit the exhibit, the Trustee of the Cohen’s musical estate, Robert Kory, is currently in the lengthy process of digitalizing Cohen’s vast collection. “The man” is no longer with us, but his immeasurable music, lyrics, poetry, and books live on.
IF YOU GO: The exhibit at the Contemporary Jewish Museum (CJM) runs through February 12, 2022, with George Fok and Judy Chicago works on view until January 2, 2022, and Candice Breitz and Marshall Trammell works on display until February 12, 2022. For extra insight into the multi-faceted Leonard Cohen, the CJM is offering The Leonard Cohen My Muse, a drop-in writing workshop over Zoom, taught by different Bay Area poets, to include reading, analysis of Cohen’s poetry as well as writing prompts. It begins September 24 through December 7. A second workshop, Five Things I’ve Learned will take place over a series of Thursday evenings beginning October 7, hosted by Sylvia Simmons, author of I’m Your Man, the acclaimed biography of Leonard Cohen, also online. This offers an in-depth look at Cohen the songwriting and performer. You may sign up for individual workshops or an entire series at CJM.