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 Peter Cohen  (1925 - )

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Lived/Active: New York/Pennsylvania      Known for: Figure, portrait, industrial scene painting

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This biography from the Archives of AskART:
The South Bend Museum of Art recently opened a new exhibition, the Ultimate Garage (April, 2011), celebrating American industry and post-war industrial design.  Along with works by Aaron Gorson and Raymond Loewy, the exhibit features four intriguing industrial paintings by Peter G. Cohen.

Peter G. Cohen was born in New York City in 1925.  He cut short his high school education at The George School, a Pennsylvania Quaker Boarding School, by applying a year early for admission to the University of Chicago.  Cohen’s aunt visited him in Chicago, bearing a set of paints as a gift.  Inspired by his aunt’s present, Cohen began painting and attended classes at the Art Institute of Chicago.  

While he was studying and painting in Chicago, Cohen became acquaintances with David Kammerer and Lucien Carr, who briefly attended the University of Chicago.  In Cohen’s words, they “all used to hang out a bit. “ In the fall of 1943, focused on painting, Cohen moved to New York into a second story art studio near 14th Street and 8th Avenue in Manhattan.  

Meanwhile, Lucien Carr also left Chicago for New York and enrolled at Columbia University, followed by friend, David Kammerer.  Carr and Kammerer became friends with writers Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William S. Burroughs, emerging figures of the Beat Generation.  Although Cohen was not part of this group, Kammerer visited Cohen at his studio that fall and Cohen painted Kammerer’s portrait.

Later, in August of 1944, Carr murdered Kammerer, under bizarre circumstances, which were recounted in the Kerouac and Burroughs book, And the Hippos Were Boiled in their Tanks.   

David Kammerer

Kammerer’s murder occurred while Cohen was serving in World War II.  He had been drafted into military service in January 1944 and served in the U.S. Army Signal Corps, 81st Division.

Stationed in the Philippines and Japan, Cohen painted a series of works related to daily military life and the tragedies of war.  A number of these paintings were successfully shipped back to the U.S.   They provide an insightful chronicle of an average soldier’s war experience.

After the war Cohen returned to painting in New York.  The successful war effort motivated Cohen to see for himself the industrial complex behind it.  Cohen’s father paid for Cohen to spend a week in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, where Cohen painted the steel mills.  The New York gallery where Cohen exhibited his paintings was not impressed by the subject matter of Cohen’s paintings, but Cohen was undeterred.  

For an extended trip in 1948 and 1949, Cohen drove from New York through Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, down to New Orleans.  Throughout the trip, Cohen was fascinated by the images of America’s industry—factories, steel mills, huge gas tanks, railroads, industrial workers and refineries— and Cohen painted them all.

Bethlehem Steel Mill

Cohen’s paintings of America’s industrial strength were ill-timed.  They failed as commercially viable subject matter for his gallery, and dozens of his works were packed in storage.  Today, sixty years later, Cohen’s paintings from the post-war era demonstrate both significant artistic and historical merit.  Although they cannot be defined as either American Scene paintings or Precisionist works, Cohen’s paintings demonstrate both influences.

Cement Workers

Beyond his prolific years chronicling America’s heyday in industry, Cohen’s artistic journey continued to extend internationally.   In the early 1950s, Cohen studied for a brief time in Mexico with the American-Mexican muralist, Pablo O’Higgins.  Cohen’s muralist skills also took him to India.

Back in the United States, Cohen settled in eastern Pennsylvania, where he experimented with various artistic styles and subject matters, producing a large body of work.  During the Viet Nam War, Cohen became politically and socially active.  He ran for Congress as an independent peace candidate and regularly participated in local peace organizations.

Cohen now lives in Santa Barbara, California.

Written and submitted by Michael Wright, private art consultant and curator.

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