On a recent afternoon in the Manuel Barreto Furniture Studio and Gallery on Delaware Avenue, Harold Cohen settled into a leather-cushioned chair and rattled off rapid-fire stories about the prints, paintings and sculptures that surrounded him.
“I was appointed by Johnson to represent UNESCO,” he said in a typically matter-of-fact aside, pointing to a quiet linocut of birch trees hanging on the gallery’s south wall. “When I landed in what was then Leningrad, now it’s St. Petersburg, they have the largest birch forest you’ve ever seen in your life. This is a diptych, two plates.”
Almost every piece in the exhibition, which charts the late-life renaissance of the 90-year-old artist and dean emeritus of the University at Buffalo’s School of Architecture and Planning, has a story like this behind it: A presidential appointment, a nod to his work with the Supreme Court on prison reform, a recollection of his time as a colorist and associate art director for DC Comics.
It’s all there – all 90 years of Cohen’s fascinating academic and artistic life, only now in full flower – laid out on the gallery walls.
The ghostly abstract images of bodies burning at Birkenau and Stutthof in two paired prints carry echoes of mourning for Cohen’s extended family, murdered in the Holocaust. A swastika intertwined with a hammer and sickle in a piece he calls “Blood Brothers” speaks to his long distrust of authoritarian governments and methods of social control.
Other pieces are lighter and much more abstract, hearkening back the first paintings he made as a child, when his mother bought him a pad and two tubes of paint to keep him entertained during a two-month illness. One of them, an intaglio print called “In Space,” was selected from thousands of works to appear in “Art Olympia,” an international exhibition opening in Tokyo on June 13.
Cohen, who celebrated his 90th birthday last week, is dashing off with his wife, Mary, to Japan next week to see the show. Before they leave, he’ll give a short lecture on his process in the gallery on June 9 at 6 p.m.
“I don’t have much time left, and I keep on going fast,” he said, glancing up at an oil portrait on his studio wall. “I used to do oil, but it took too long, and I don’t do oil anymore. I’m 90 years old and I’ve got a lot of achey-pachey, so I try to do as much as I can.”
Like many artists a third his age, Cohen is constantly experimenting with different modes of art-making, systematically shedding laborious pursuits like oil painting or wood engraving in favor of ever-softer woods, intaglio prints and various hybrid methods of his own invention.
Cohen’s sixth-floor studio on Chippewa Street, which he opened in 2000 to launch his late-life art career, houses a 2.5-ton Vandercook press modified to execute his unorthodox printmaking process and a vast collection of antique Swiss and Austrian woodcutting tools.
The light-filled studio contains towering stacks of woodcuts and nearly every inch of the walls is taken up with prints of all imaginable kinds.
A quote from Cohen’s longtime friend Buckminster Fuller, the great architect and thinker, sits above the refrigerator: “The possibility of the good life for any man depends on the possibility of realizing it for all men. And this is a function of society’s ability to turn the energies of the universe to human advantages.”
Cohen, like Fuller, is a fervent believer in the creative potential of all human beings. It’s what motivated his entire academic career, from his time as a student and teacher at Chicago’s famous Institute of Design to his work with poor Honduran communities to his counseling of students as dean of UB’s architecture school.
It inspired the furniture design company he founded as a young man – “We wanted to keep the price low, so we went bankrupt,” he said. It inspired the patented pesticide container he designed to combat disease throughout Central and South America and the remote biological research station he designed in Costa Rica. It inspired his recruitment of diverse faculty during his time at Southern Illinois University and at UB.
And now, 15 years into what may turn out to be a much longer art career, that same defiantly humanist sentiment is finding new and fascinating life in his work.
“And I think art is a projection of the human being,” he said, “and all the people that I knew and respected in the arts were emotional yo-yos.”
Cohen clearly includes himself in that category. Aside from a few aches and pains and a little impatience creeping in at the edges, the fact that he’s 90 is no impediment whatsoever. At least not to Cohen.
“It’s a very complicated thing, getting old. People treat old people differently than they treat other people,” Cohen said. “I don’t tell people that I’m 90, but now that people know I’m 90, they’ll probably try to treat me differently. But I’m just like I was before. Just as crazy as before.”