George Fok’s “Passing Through” (2017), a multichannel video installation appearing at the Contemporary Jewish Museum as part of the "Experience Leonard Cohen" exhibit.
George Fok’s “Passing Through” (2017), a multichannel video installation appearing at the Contemporary Jewish Museum as part of the "Experience Leonard Cohen" exhibit.

Contemporary artists riff on Leonard Cohen’s music in new CJM exhibit

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Tracking Leonard Cohen’s peripatetic trail around the world while researching her magisterial Cohen biography “I’m Your Man” inevitably led Sylvie Simmons to Montreal, where she sat down with the elderly rabbi emeritus of the historic synagogue that Cohen’s grandfather helped build.

“The rabbi was about 90 years old and had these great white eyebrows. It was like a scene out of that Coen brothers film,” she said, referring to 2009’s “A Serious Man,” in which a wizened rabbi may or may not be a source of profound wisdom.

Rabbi Wilfred Shuchat, who as a young man in 1947 taught Cohen’s bar mitzvah class at Congregation Shaar Hashomayim, recalled for Simmons the teenager destined to write some of the 20th century’s most acclaimed songs.

“I asked him, ‘Did Leonard Cohen sing?’ He peered at me. ‘Leonard, sing? Not so much. He spoke well.’”

Simmons, an S.F.-based music writer whose Cohen biography was published in 2012, will be weighing in on his life and career over the course of the Contemporary Jewish Museum’s immersive undertaking “Experience Leonard Cohen,” which will open Aug. 5 with the solo installations ”George Fok: Passing Through” and ”Judy Chicago: Cohanim.” Two other Cohen-esque solo exhibits will open  Sept. 18.

Unlike other CJM exhibitions on illustrious Jewish artists and impresarios — including Bill Graham, Amy Winehouse, Warren Hellman and Stanley Kubrick — “Experience Leonard Cohen” doesn’t aim to tell a biographical tale.

Judy Chicago’s “Galloping Mare” (2018). (Photo/Donald Woodman)
Judy Chicago’s “Galloping Mare” (2018). (Photo/Donald Woodman)

The new exhibition “explores Cohen through the response of contemporary art,” said CJM senior curator Heidi Rabben. “The biography you can get in a lot of different ways, and we’ll definitely have Sylvie Simmons in the mix. But ‘Experience Leonard Cohen’ speaks to his artistic influence and enduring legacy reflected via other artists today. He inspired such a wide flock of creative people.”

Cohen, who died in Los Angeles in 2016 at the age of 82, spent a large portion of his 60s secluded at the spartan Mt. Baldy Zen Center in Southern California’s San Gabriel Mountains. Still, his persona grew increasingly magnetic as he aged — the jaunty fedora added 50 more watts to his old-school charm. But he kept the focus on his music. He wrote a bevy of beloved, oft-covered songs, including “Suzanne,” “Hey, That’s No Way to Say Goodbye,” “Bird on the Wire,” “Hallelujah” and “Everybody Knows,” and even with his droning croak of a voice he was often among the most effective vehicles for his tunes.

“Experience Leonard Cohen” gives a good sense of Cohen’s reach. The Fok and Chicago installations will be on view through Jan. 2, 2022; “Candice Breitz: I’m Your Man” and ”Marshall Trammell in Residence” will open on Sept. 18 and run through Feb. 13, 2022. (An opening celebration for all four components will take place on Sept. 19.) It’s an unprecedented undertaking for the CJM, the first time that every major space in the institution (come September) will be dedicated to one project.

Rabben started with an ambitious plan for the installations, which were drawn from the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal (MAC) touring exhibition “Leonard Cohen: A Crack in Everything” and were originally slated to open in the fall of 2020. The pandemic not only delayed the exhibition’s arrival, but also forced the CJM to reimagine the undertaking.

He inspired such a wide flock of creative people.

The CJM expanded the MAC-commissioned Breitz and Fok installations, but other components of “A Crack in Everything” weren’t Covid-compatible. Virtual reality headsets? Forget it. A personal listening booth for one person at a time? Gone. Shared headphones and microphones? No thank you.

“There were so many interactive elements [that use] a lot of technology that wasn’t going to be inviting after what we’ve all been through,” Rabben said. “In normal times we’d have been so thrilled, but it was very clear they weren’t ideal in this time frame.”

Working with the same conceptual framework, the CJM scaled up two of the works that originated at MAC, turning Fok’s ”Passing Through” into the centerpiece installation. Presented in the Swig and Dinner Families Gallery, it’s an immersive video work that draws on a vast archive of audiovisual material spanning Cohen’s five-decade career.

Manifesting his singular voice, charismatic persona and evolving stage presence, “Passing Through” evokes various stages in Cohen’s life, from his early years as a celebrated poet in bohemian 1960s Montreal to his gradual emergence as an iconic performer. The hourlong video collage offers a seamless reflection on Cohen’s life on stage.

If Fok focuses on Cohen as public artist who embodied impulses both Dionysian and ascetic, pioneering feminist artist Judy Chicago offers a deeply personal response to the music. She isn’t the first artist one might expect to find inspiration in Cohen, who reveled in and often burnished his reputation as a ladies’ man. But the world premiere of “Judy Chicago: Cohanim” will feature a series of 12 intimate paintings on porcelain, each portraying Cohen lyrics to which she felt a particular connection.

The title references the birth name she once shared with Cohen (which she shed after becoming Gerowitz by marriage and then changed to Chicago), while the format of “Cohanim” echoes her epochal installation “The Dinner Party” (1974-79).

In writing about the work, Chicago said that “Cohen’s lyrics often seemed to perfectly express my feelings at various points in my life,” while suggesting that her affinity for his verse might stem from their “shared lineage.” She wrote, “He is the grandson of a Talmudic scholar and I am descended from 23 generations of rabbis.”

Oakland percussionist and composer Marshall Trammell. (Photo/Agatha Urbaniak)
Oakland percussionist and composer Marshall Trammell. (Photo/Agatha Urbaniak)

Landing “Cohanim,” which she created in the months following Cohen’s death and has been exhibited only online so far, is something of a coup for the CJM. The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco will be presenting “Judy Chicago: A Retrospective” starting Aug. 28 at the de Young, and in talking with Jessica Silverman, her S.F.-based gallerist, Rabben stumbled across a set of works based on Leonard Cohen.

“I couldn’t believe it,” Rabben said. “We just reached out and asked if they were available. It’s a really lovely addition to the exhibition. Judy created it as an impulse, a reaction to his passing. It wasn’t for a show. She felt the need to commemorate him, and created this really personal group of works that offers a uniquely intimate connection.”

Another longtime Cohen fan is featured in the CJM’s panoply. “Candice Breitz: I’m Your Man” weaves together a 19-channel video installation that captures men who have treasured his music for more than a half-century. Delivering track-by-track renditions of songs from Cohen’s 1988 album “I’m Your Man,” the sexagenarian and septuagenarian men turn into an impromptu video chorus (a feat that makes me long ardently for the great, 30-member Bay Area a cappella ensemble dedicated to Cohen’s music, “Conspiracy of Beards”).

The final component in “Experience Leonard Cohen” is also the most unpredictable. Oakland percussionist, experimental archivist, conductor and composer Marshall Trammell is an artist who thrives in frictive encounters with fellow creators. His intermittent residency in the CJM’s Maribelle and Stephen Leavitt Yud Gallery will encompass improvisation, performance and collaborative recontextualization of Cohen’s legacy via collaborations with an array of artists.

The encounters in Trammell’s progressive, participatory residency are intended to provide abstract reflections inspired by Cohen’s life, spirituality and musical practice in real time.

“I’m such a huge fan of Marshall’s as a thinker and talent,” Rabben said. “The way that he thinks about music is as a research strategist. I knew I wanted to add a local artist to the show, someone who can abstract this question about Cohen’s work and legacy. Marshall’s is by far the one component that’s still in process.”

Cohen was an artist who wasn’t afraid to fail. Creating a space where unexpected musical encounters can unfold in the moment sounds like just the kind of tribute that he would appreciate.

“Experience Leonard Cohen”

Aug. 5 through Feb. 13, 2022 at Contemporary Jewish Museum, 736 Mission St., S.F. Face coverings required. Purchase timed tickets in advance. $14-$16, free for members and 18 and under. Closed Mondays through Wednesdays. 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. other days.

Andrew Gilbert
Andrew Gilbert

Los Angeles native Andrew Gilbert is a Berkeley-based freelance writer who covers jazz, roots and international music for publications including the Mercury News, San Francisco Chronicle, East Bay Express, San Francisco Classical Voice and Berkeleyside.