Harry Cohen: A life in service to abstract art

David Briggs
ART: Harry Cohen’s Woodacre studio is a collage of finished pieces, works in progress and a healthy splattering of paint on the floor and walls. The abstract expressionist is showing his latest works at the San Geronimo Valley Community Center this month.  

Every Tuesday morning at the Woodacre Country Market & Deli, the Gangsters meet for a morning klatch. They are painters, artists, sculptors and photographers, mostly over age 65. Their patriarch, Harry Cohen, playfully says their name derives from the fact that they’re all “hiding from police.”

Late in January, Mr. Cohen, a Woodacre resident who has lived most of his 92 years in service to a lineage of abstract expressionists, sat at the head of a table scattered with cups of coffee and a diced-up Danish. Dried paint was splattered across his trousers and, with his exuberant speech tickled by an East-coast twang, he appeared to define “spry” as the Gangsters hashed out the value of art criticism and, later, expectations for their group show at the community center. 

“Harry Cohen and Friends,” which opened this week, includes pieces from most of the group’s members, but the largest wall in the Maurice del Mue Galleries  is reserved for Mr. Cohen. 

In his art, Mr. Cohen paints with a freeform brushstroke  that encourages (or compels) viewers to form their own ideas about his sizeable works. Charcoal, papier-mâché, dripped and splattered paint: Mr. Cohen changes his medium about as often as he changes his studio’s lightbulbs. 

“In a lifetime your head is in many places,” he said. “I don’t want to end up with one type of painting, but several.” 

Mr. Cohen was born in Boston in 1924. While studying at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in his hometown during a post-W.W.II artistic bloom, he often butted heads with his professor Karl Zerbe, a renowned member of the city’s expressionist  movement who would remind Mr. Cohen that he was no Toulouse-Lautrec.

“He told me I was too loose and free with paint,” he said with a grin. “Zerbe  told me I had to compromise—which is a terrible word. When you’re 20, you live without compromise. If you don’t set your ideals at 20, you never will. I wanted to be an artist and I thought that I might not succeed, but I’ll give it my best effort.”

Mr. Cohen began looking outside academia to further his schooling, and soon linked up with a cast of ex-pat artists who had escaped Europe and arrived stateside. “I had good fortune when [Austrian expressionist] Oskar Kokoschka came,” Mr. Cohen said about another of his mentors. “He opened my eyes to what a real artist is, because [Professor] Zerbe only talked technique. Kokoschka talked life: human possibilities, structure of art. ‘Who are you?’ And isn’t that the search we’re all on?”

That search took him west at a time when if you wanted to become a successful artist you lived in Manhattan or Brooklyn. He landed in San Francisco in 1950 with just $100 in his pocket and the desire to paint the Central Valley. Eventually, a writer friend of his tipped him off about Marin County; he arrived, and has lived here ever since. 

To pay his bills, Mr. Cohen worked as a caterer and waiter, earning enough to support an East Marin shack and a fledging artist’s diet. “Then I got lucky,” he said. During a shift at Sam’s Restaurant in Tiburon, Mr. Cohen was complaining to the bartender about his cramped cottage in Mill Valley. “He then said, ‘Why don’t you move to the valley?’” he recalled.

At the time, the San Geronimo Valley was predominantly home to carpenters, electricians and seasonal workers drawn to its affordable housing. “I was out there three hours before I bought a place,” he said. “Five hundred dollars down, $50 a month and one sheet of paper.”

Even though the bachelor lifestyle fits him well—he never has to ask permission to get together with the Gangsters—Mr. Cohen is a recent widower following a half-century romance.

“I met this woman—there, the one with the face on the wall,” he said during a recent tour of his Woodacre house. He pointed across the dining room to a portrait of his wife, Marjorie Anne, whom he met in 1957 while working in Sausalito. 

The couple flourished together in their Woodacre home, where they raised her two daughters. “Simply put: she took care of the interior decoration and I took care of the outside,” he said. 

Mr. Cohen spoke about how he knew he found his partner. “At one point my ex-wife wanted to settle down at a time when I did not want to,” he said. “Later, she came up from L.A. to see where I was and if I was still adrift and available. She met Marjorie Anne at a bar where I was working and said to her: ‘You’ll never satisfy him. You know nothing about art–he is an artist!’ Marjorie Anne responded with: ‘He’s a man first. And I can satisfy the man.’”

Often alone in his home following the passing of his partner in 2014, Mr. Cohen’s house continues to burst with vitality; there’s barely an inch of unused wall space in the abode. Some of the art pieces are from his own collection, others are from friends. “Artists swap things with each other,” he said. 

His vast collection stems from a commitment to making art every day. To explain, he paraphrased another hero, sculptor Henry Moore: “Every morning I get up and every day I try to do a piece as good as Matisse or Picasso,” he said. “I know I can’t, but I still try. This is my inspiration.”

Each day, he treks up the jagged steps to his hand-built studio, where he works on or finishes another piece. Inside, pictures of Goya, Picasso and Matisse are pinned on the walls. “I’m never very far from the old masters,” he said. 

Generally, Mr. Cohen’s paintings are large and they are most often vertical, towering over the artist himself. He prefers creating by instinct as opposed to abiding by a theme. 

Bruce Burtch, the newest addition to the Gangsters, remarked on Mr. Cohen’s practiced use of spontaneity. “Harry will basically start a work and then something will begin to happen. They’re very large-scale [pieces] with paint and cutouts. And they’re very abstract and modern,” he said. “He’s grounded in the masters and he has a strong feeling that you have to study art history before you start throwing paint up on  a white canvas.” 

Back at the Woodacre Country Market, the Gangsters evaded police yet again through their commitment to art. At one point, Mr. Burtch asked, “When was the last time we had 13 artists all gathered together for one show?” 

“In prison,” deadpanned a gang member, to a reception of laughter. Thus concluded their weekly klatch. 


An opening reception for “Harry Cohen and Friends” takes place from 4 to 7 on Saturday, Feb. 4 at the San Geronimo Community Center.