DESKTOP
TABLET (max. 1024px)
MOBILE (max. 640px)
Return to Top
Ludwig Van
Toronto Montreal

REVIEW | There Were High Hopes For The Leonard Cohen Exhibit In New York

By Peter Goddard on May 22, 2019

“Leonard Cohen: A Crack in Everything,”
“Leonard Cohen: A Crack in Everything,” through Sept. 8 at the Jewish Museum in New York. (Old Ideas/The Jewish Museum, New York)

NEW YORK — To call Leonard Cohen: A Crack in Everything  “a contemporary art exhibition,” — as the Jewish Museum in New York does  — is to suggest new ways of understanding Cohen’s very old soul have been found. Well, it doesn’t happen, maybe because this was mission impossible from the first.

This is not to diminish the work by a dozen top drawer artists.  It does a good job of that on its own.  Check out the cover of The New York Times, from November 11, (2016) where Donald Trump’s imminent electoral triumph is juxtaposed with news of Cohen’s Nov. 7, 2016 death. This is not just irony over-load: it’s missing the point — whatever it is — by miles.

While making your way to pieces such as The Poetry Machine (2017) by Janet Cardiff & George Bures Miller — wherein a poem from Cohen’s Book of Longing is spewed forth with each organ key pressed — you ease your way through a velvety gloom into various smaller rooms found over three floors, which were once lived in by the internationally connected Warburg family back in the day. Now gloom prevails, Cohen country, the more the merciless.

I really like the Jewish Museum. It’s proof you don’t have to be big in the art business to be good. It’s been more quick-witted and sure-footed than its much bigger rivals along New York’s Museum Mile. Yet over the years, I’ve felt that, perhaps in responding to its pedigree, many of its shows were couched in a certain curatorial circumspection. This time around real, physical couches, with comfy throw pillows have added considerably to the show’s salubrious vibe. On the day of my recent visit, many museum visitors were sprawling on floors in one darkened space after another giving the entire experience the ambience of an up-scale Frat House party at Montreal’s McGill University in the ‘60s and ‘70s, Cohen’s early glory days.

“Leonard Cohen: A Crack in Everything,”
“Leonard Cohen: A Crack in Everything” (Old Ideas/The Jewish Museum, New York)

Actually, this is not beside the point, it may well be the point itself.  Anything about, or from Cohen is best understood from the voluptuary’s point of view, particularly when it happens in the dark. “Serious has a kind of voluptuous aspect to it,” he once wrote. (“The light” only gets in a bit, as if through a crack, sings Cohen in “Anthem,” hence the title.) Joni Mitchell famously dismissed him as a “boudoir poet.” Her intention was anything but complimentary — she also used the word “plagiarist” to describe Bob Dylan — but she was right about the sort of setting where Cohen’s work does its best work on the rest of us. The voluptuousness at the show is boudoir-like, compressed and frilly. (Note to Ms. Mitchell: As a borrower, Dylan has nothing on Bach or Picasso.)

Dylan is inevitably drawn into any discussion on Cohen although unfortunately not in A Crack In Everything. And Dylan’s voice is missed. He would have been harder and better on Cohen than any of the dewy-eyed artists. The two met over the years and discussed songwriting. (The gist of it: what took Cohen years to do cost Dylan less than an hour.) I can imagine them as Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting for Godot or, in an American context, to Tod and Buz in Route 66. Maybe they could have revived Bing Crosby and Bob Hope’s Road To pictures. Anyway, there were always parallels as the two were aware. Whatever else has resulted, Dylan’s structural analysis of Cohen’s craft is the best there is and would have given a bit of needed grit here.

On the other hand, the mansion plays an unstated role.  Built-in 1906 in the French high frou-frou Renaissance manner, it was donated in 1944 to the Jewish Theological Seminary. It’s a reminder of Cohen’s own roots in Montréal’s Jewish establishment where his grandfather Lyon, co-founder of Canadian Jewish Congress, began the Freedman clothing company which was later run by his father, Nathan. Cohen’s own compass always pointed to Montréal, where he could renew his “neurotic affiliations,” as he once said and to where he was flown to be buried in the family plot.

“Leonard Cohen: A Crack in Everything,”
Leonard Cohen: a dapper, doleful, ironic, gracious, anxious, reclusive, theatrical, seductive Jewish Canadian troubadour. (Old Ideas/The Jewish Museum, New York)

Leonard Cohen – Une Brèche en Toute Chose, a more extended original edition at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal (MAC) until closing April 9 last year, occupied one vast gallery without the spatial “constraints” in ‘what is an aristocratic mansion on Fifth Ave,” says co-curator John Zeppetelli, MAC’s director and chief curator. “Even so, it was the first time they (the Jewish Museum) loosened up so much space.”

With co-curator Victor Shiffman, Zeppetelli turned the museum’s multiple spatial intimacies to their advantage, “for a concentrated environment,” he went on, “perfect for people who read complex novels but don’t go complex art installations.”

The complexity of these installations might well be questioned. Admittedly, I didn’t stay the entire time required by the projection compiled by editor Alexandre Perreault’s of 220 Cohen self-portrait drawings, while I did hang around for most of the entire well-chosen line-up of 18 musicians in Listening to Leonard (2017) for their Cohen cover versions. So, to recap: two lists of accomplishments.  I did go to Ari Folman’s Depression Chamber (2017), where you’re alone in a gloomy room – what else? – while listening to Cohen’s “Famous Blue Raincoat” as the lyrics are projected on the wall. A woman just came out as I poked my head in then to remember there was art elsewhere needing my more immediate attention. Anthony Perkins did his attic scene in Psycho better than I could.

A Portrait of Leonard Cohen
Candice Breitz’s “I’m Your Man (A Portrait of Leonard Cohen),” 2017. (Guy L’Heureux/Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal)

A Crack In Everything fits nicely in the modern museology’s audience-friendly connections made with pop music, like Play It Loud: Instruments of Rock ‘N Roll at the Metropolitan Museum a block or so away. (to Oct.1) But the Jewish Museum show suggests the missed-potentials of other artistic parallels, starting with Noel Coward or maybe Gilbert (“Ne Me Quite Pas”) Bécaud. Like them, he wore his world-weariness like a formally fitted evening wear. For those who shared his life and times, Cohen, like Coward, will always remain a presence beyond his music.

Art-wise though, the chart-topper in A Crack In Everything — visually, musically and conceptually — is South African artist Candice Breitz’s group of 18 older male Cohen fans singing, “I’m Your Man,” each version backed by members of the Shaar Hashomayim Synagogue Choir, from Cohen own Montréal congregation. Foe the visitor it works this way: The backing, a capella choir confronts you in the first of two darken rooms doing the backing vocals for the soloists you meet in the second darkened room.

In truth, Cohen had double his share of glory days.  The first — the young moody poet turned youngish moody songwriter ‘70s period — was in fact a tune-up for the second, where he emerged following the ‘90s as a world-weary aesthete with a chip on the shoulder of his famous blue raincoat.

Self Portrait (Leonard Cohen Family Trust)
Self Portrait (Leonard Cohen Family Trust)

We met a few times as this metamorphosis was upon him but, still, I best remember what didn’t change, the way his inherent playfulness would add wattage to his eyes when meeting women. It’s there in one of many video clips used in A Crack In Everything, when he tells a female TV host he’s thinking of getting a tattoo.

Where?  she asked provocatively. Oh, at a little shop he knows downtown Montréal.

The evident distress of Cohen’s latter years, where he had to stay on a tour going into his 80s,  although not ignored, is left for another time, for, I guess, another venue in another medium.  By then his world-weariness, like his suit, was the real thing. But then, hey, he always knew where to do for a good tailor and a tattoo.

LUDWIG VAN TORONTO

Want more updates on classical music and opera news and reviews? Follow us on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter for all the latest.

Peter Goddard

Peter Goddard

Peter Goddard has held positions as the pop music critic for The Globe and Mail, the Toronto Telegram and the Toronto Star. He received the 1973 Juno Award as Music Journalist of The Year. He is the author of 17 biographies including Frank Sinatra, Michael Jackson & The Jacksons, David Bowie, The Rolling Stones, and Glenn Gould.
Peter Goddard
Peter Goddard

Peter Goddard

Peter Goddard has held positions as the pop music critic for The Globe and Mail, the Toronto Telegram and the Toronto Star. He received the 1973 Juno Award as Music Journalist of The Year. He is the author of 17 biographies including Frank Sinatra, Michael Jackson & The Jacksons, David Bowie, The Rolling Stones, and Glenn Gould.
Peter Goddard
Share this article
lv_toronto_banner_high_590x300
comments powered by Disqus

Ludwig Van Toronto

SCRUTINY | Stratford Festival's Birds Of A Kind Will Put You Through The Emotional Ringer

By Paula Citron on September 4, 2019

Birds of a Kind runs on full power from the very beginning, and the conflicts and confrontations never let up.
Read the full story Comments
Share this article
lv_toronto_banner_high_590x300

THE SCOOP | How A Toronto Children's Choir Wound Up On Taylor Swift's New Album

By Anya Wassenberg on August 30, 2019

It’s nice to have friends in high places, as students and faculty of Toronto’s non-profit Regent Park School of Music found out August 23, 2019.
Read the full story Comments
Share this article

PLAYLIST | Classical Music Albums We’ve Been Listening To This Summer

By Ludwig Van on September 10, 2019

A list of recent classical and opera albums that we've been obsessed with this summer.
Read the full story Comments
Share this article
lv_toronto_banner_low_590x300
lv_toronto_ssb_atf_300x300
lv_toronto_ssb_high_300x300
lv_toronto_ssb_mid_300x300
lv_toronto_ssb_low_300x300
lv_toronto_tsb_high_300x700
lv_toronto_tsb_low_300x700
lv_toronto_ssb_atf_300x300
lv_toronto_ssb_high_300x300
lv_toronto_ssb_mid_300x300
lv_toronto_ssb_low_300x300
lv_toronto_tsb_high_300x700
lv_toronto_tsb_low_300x700

We have detected that you are using an adblocking plugin in your browser.

The revenue we earn by the advertisements is used to manage this website. Please whitelist our website in your adblocking plugin.