Experience Leonard Cohen at the Contemporary Jewish Museum of San Francisco

Originally published in the Marina Times San Francisco in July 2021

Experience Leonard Cohen at the CJM

Musician, man of letters and global icon Leonard Cohen will be remembered in four solo exhibitions of contemporary art highlighting the man and his career. Artists George Fok, Judy Chicago, Candice Breitz and Marshall Trammel’s installations include a variety of immersive and rarely-seen personal reflections on Cohen consisting of video, sound and visual art.

The Legend of Song

The sphere of human experience – from the exalted to the despairing – had an unparalleled narrator in Leonard Cohen. A poet and novelist who entered the world of music at the age of 33, he came to songwriting with an evolved sense of expression that birthed countless beloved tracks like “Suzanne”, “Bird on a Wire”, and “Hallelujah.”  “Leonard Cohen is an iconic figure whose work has had a lasting impact on artists and the general population alike,” said Senior Curator Heidi Rabben. “His songs and poetry both reflect the time he was living in and continue to be meaningful today.”

Beginnings in Montreal

In 2017, the Musee d’art Contemporain de Montreal (MAC) combined the two exhibits by Candice Breitz and George Fok for the large-scale touring exhibition Leonard Cohen: A Crack in Everything. Now, as a part of the CJM exhibit, Breitz’s I’m Your Man will occupy the entirety of The Museum’s 6,200 square foot Koshland Gallery from September 10, 2021 through February 13, 2022.  Comprised of a moving nineteen-channel video installation, the space portrays Cohen in his absence, and looks instead to his community of fans.  Each delivers a track-by-track rendition of Cohen’s album, I’m Your Man. Breitz synchronizes eighteen amateur voices into an a cappella choir set against backing vocals by members of the Montreal-based congregation, the Shaar Hashomayim Synagogue Choir, a congregation Cohen belonged to all his life.  The show was received with great emotion especially since in the process of creating this tribute exhibition, Cohen passed away.

George Fok Passing Through is an immersive video work drawing on archives of audiovisual material.  As a film montage of Cohen’s history, his monumental career is shown in glimpses of concert footage, memories and reconstructions of his life from bohemian Montreal in the 1960’s to his later years.  The video experience is an hour-long reflection of Cohen the performer. Passing Through runs from August 5, 2021 through January 2, 2022 at the Swig and Dinner Family Gallery.

The CJM and Two New Installations

To complement the original MAC exhibit, the CJM developed two more installations over the last year with artists Judy Chicago and Marshall Trammell.  Judy Chicago: Cohanim will be exhibited from August 5, 2021 through January 2, 2022 at the Sala Webb Education Center Vitrine, and focuses on Cohen the poet. Twelve paintings on porcelain each visualize particular Cohen lyrics that have a particular resonance with Chicago.  As a renowned Jewish feminist artist, Chicago uses porcelain to commemorate the past as in her celebrated work The Dinner Party (1974-75). Her work is also dedicated to ideas regarding Jewish identity, most notably in The Holocaust Project, From Darkness into Light (1985-93). In Cohanim Chicago reveals that her own artistic process and Cohen’s lyrics are keenly linked. “Leonard Cohen’s lyrics often seemed to perfectly express my feelings at various points in my life…I am so deeply moved by the rhythms that inform his music, perhaps because of our shared lineage.  He is the grandson of a Talmudic scholar and I am descended from twenty-three generations of rabbis.”

Marshall Trammell in Residence will be exhibited from September 18, 2021 through February 13, 2022 at the Maribelle and Stephen Leavitt Yud Gallery, and reviews Cohen’s life, spirituality and musical practice in real time. Trammell is an Oakland-based experimental archivist, percussionist, conductor, and composer.  His art centers around collaboration, and in that spirit, Trammell will from time to time inhabit the CJM’s Maribelle and Stephen Leavitt Yud Gallery.  This participatory residency will encourage an improvisational, performance and collaborative re-contextualization of Leonard Cohen.  Participation in workshops will then be translated into audio-visual engagements in the gallery.  This exhibit marks the first time the CJM’s Yud Gallery will be used as a residency space.

The four exhibitions comprising Experience Leonard Cohen are made possible by entrepreneur and philanthropist Craig Newmark, founder of craigslist. “Leonard Cohen is my rabbi, and his music is my prayer book,” said Newmark.  “He has inspired many people of many religions to know God, and to work together to repair the world – tikkun olam.  These exhibitions honor Leonard, and remind us all of our connection to the divine, which is why I am proud to support the shows.”

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