Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Joseph Cohen's Use-Value

Robert Boyd

When one looks at Joseph Cohen's elegant paintings which occasionally are made with gold or diamond dust suspended in the paint, the last thing one thinks of is "use value." It's a Marxist term about which Marx wrote, "The utility of a thing makes it a use-value. But this utility is not a thing of air. Being limited by the physical properties of the commodity, it has no existence apart from that commodity. A commodity, such as iron, corn, or a diamond, is therefore, so far as it is a material thing, a use-value, something useful." Cohen was using the term to distinguish his own work from that of artists who produce "zombie abstractions." Zombie abstractions were called out earlier this summer in an article by Jerry Saltz. He wrote
This work is decorator-friendly, especially in a contemporary apartment or house. It feels “cerebral” and looks hip in ways that flatter collectors even as it offers no insight into anything at all. It’s all done in haggard shades of pale, deployed in uninventive arrangements that ape digital media, or something homespun or dilapidated. Replete with self-conscious comments on art, recycling, sustainability, appropriation, processes of abstraction, or nature, all this painting employs a similar vocabulary of smudges, stains, spray paint, flecks, spills, splotches, almost-monochromatic fields, silk-screening, or stenciling. Edge-to-edge, geometric, or biomorphic composition is de rigueur, as are irregular grids, lattice and moiré patterns, ovular shapes, and stripes, with maybe some collage. 
It certainly sounds familiar.

Joseph Cohen, Zombie Painting #1

I saw the painting above on the wall of his studio. It was, Cohen said, a deliberate attempt to create a work of zombie formalism. He said it took him several minutes to create this art-fair ready masterpiece. This is the kind of work that he describes as having no use-value. We could quibble about this--after all, if it is useful for decorating one's living room, that surely counts, no? But for Cohen, the use value of art has to do something with the need by people for art-qua-art as distinct from decoration.

I met with Cohen at the house which he built himself and shares with his girlfriend, Lindsay Davis. An architect friend helped him design it, and the electrical work and plumbing were done by professionals. But beyond that it was him and some hired hands. He built it on a small triangular lot and turned this complication into an advantage. It's a beautiful dwelling.

The living quarters are on the first two floors and the studio on the third. I was glad to be able to see where he lived as well as his studio. It meant getting a peek at the art on his walls. It's my experience that artists have the best art collections.

Joseph Cohen's living room

For instance, that's a Robert Goodnough to the left of the television in the photo above.

A David Reed in the kitchen

And he had several pieces by David Reed. Interestingly enough, both Reed and Goodnough are known for their art writing as well as their visual art. Our conversation made me wonder why Cohen doesn't write about art. He had a lot of thoughtful things to say about contemporary art and artists. For example, he spoke about how he had been looking at Wade Guyton, and how the idea of using something printed as a basis or substrate for a painting might work for himself. That such a practice have a purpose is important to Cohen. That was part of his beef with the zombie painters. Their techniques weren't aesthetically required; they were just the easiest way to get the work done.

Joseph Cohen, Proposition 369

For many painters, this might not be an issue. They're creating an image and how one gets there is not that important. But boy howdy, not with Cohen. He is deeply concerned with what he calls the "aboutness" of the work. Everything has a reason. The way he talks about it, he seems very concerned with process. But that would be the wrong conclusion. "Aboutness" is, as I understood it, the thing itself. All the steps and materials to get to the thing itself are important because of the thing itself.

Cohen is articulate when talking about art, whether his own or other people's. This isn't all that common. Many of the best artists I know seem reluctant to speak about their work or other people's. They are often self-deprecating or aloof, which I read as strategies of avoidance. I don't hold that against them, but I appreciate artists who can express something about their art. Cohen, who studied English lit and philosophy in college, seems to feel comfortable discussing these issues. It made for a mentally invigorating studio visit.

Cohen's studio

Of course, the main reason I was there wasn't to have a conversation. It was to look at work. Cohen's work is well-known in Houston. The earliest work of his that I saw was made with some of the cheapest materials possible--surplus house paint and cheap wood paneling. The thing that drew my attention to these works were the carefully "sculpted" drips. I described them at the time as being like stalactites, but in the studio this time, they appeared to me as like rows of sharp teeth. Of course, paint is semi-liquid and drips are a natural part of the process--an inherent quality of painting. But Cohen isn't allowing accidental drips into his work--he turns the drip into a very deliberate, controlled effect.

Joseph Cohen, Proposition 401

Joseph Cohen, Proposition 401 (detail)

Because dripping is a long-time practice of Cohen, he has developed a repertoire of drips, many of which were on display in his studio.

Joseph Cohen, Axiom 2

Joseph Cohen, Oak proposition

As random as the drips can seem, they are in fact purposeful, as is everything else in Cohen's work. The switch from house paint to varnish mixed with pigment and various substances (crushed diamond, gold, iron oxide, etc.), the inwardly sloping backsides of the paintings, painted so that the wall glows faintly with the reflection of the color--these are carefully considered strategies to create the final objects.

Murray Goldfarb relaxing in the studio

The result are objects of great beauty. I still have a hard time applying the term "use value" to them. I guess I'm too cynical about things like this. If I'm lucky, I don't think about economics at all when I look at a ravishing painting, but if I do, it's Veblen that comes to mind, not Marx.

But it appeals to me that Cohen thinks in those terms. I said artists are often reluctant to speak about their own work, preferring for it to speak for itself. Or so they say. But I think they are reluctant because someone like me will end up fixating on a phrase or word--"use value," "aboutness"--and lose sight of the work before our eyes. But Cohen's words about his art didn't affect my appreciation of the work except to give it a deeper context.

Joseph Cohen and his playful dog Murray Goldfarb


  1. Great article about a talented artist. Thanks.

  2. "Zombie formalism"?

    A solid blue canvas. . . and "He is deeply concerned with what he calls the 'aboutness' of the work"?

    Don't you self-absorbed pseudointellectual poseurs ever get tired of imitating artists?

  3. [Yawn] Another patently pretentious article about pretentious people masquerading as intellectuals and artists. They typically describe their craftless tat, i.e., the solid blue canvas, with phrases like:

    "Hidden meaning transforms unparalleled abstract beauty."

    Although this statement may seem to convey some sort of potentially profound meaning, it is merely a collection of buzzwords put together randomly in a sentence that retains syntactic structure.

  4. OK, two victims of the Zodiac Killer have commented. When are we going to hear such insightful criticism from David Faraday, Betty Lou Jensen, Darlene Ferrin, Mike Mageau, etc.?