Searching For That Secret Chord
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Searching For That Secret Chord

Artists, musicians and filmmakers look for the singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen’s elusive essence.

Sandee is the arts and culture editor at the Jewish Week.

The way you wear your hat: Cohen on stage, part of new exhibit. Barry Marsden
The way you wear your hat: Cohen on stage, part of new exhibit. Barry Marsden

In a first for The Jewish Museum, major exhibition space has been dedicated to the life and work of a non-visual artist, the poet, novelist and singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen. There’s no Cohen memorabilia here, no guitar, fedora or hand-written notes, but a series of commissioned works by contemporary artists, musicians, filmmakers and performers.

Extending over three floors, “Leonard Cohen: A Crack in Everything,” was curated by the Musée d’art contemporain de Montreal’s director and chief curator, John Zeppetelli, and co-curator for the exhibition, Victor Schiffman. When work was begun in 2015, the exhibit was meant to be a living tribute to the Canadian icon. Zeppetelli tells The Jewish Week that the “intensely private” Cohen gave his approval, although guarded, to the project in its earliest stages, saying that he “would not get in our way.” Cohen died in 2016 at age 82. The exhibition is now an imaginative, wide-ranging memorial.

“Every part of his life is touched upon, and done very well,” Claudia Gould, the Helen Goldsmith Menschel Director of The Jewish Museum, says in an interview. “This is the life and legacy of a poet, songwriter and, I would say, a legend.”

Gould admits that she went apprehensively to Montreal to see the show, not knowing whether it would be right for The Jewish Museum.

“I went in like any other cheerful Leonard Cohen fan and left crying like any other cheerful Leonard Cohen fan. Music touches in a way that other artforms don’t, especially for me. It taps into memories and time and place.”

George Folk’s “Passing Through,” an immersive video, above. Left, a self-portrait by Leonard Cohen. FOLK CREDIT: ©Frederick Charles SELF-POrTRAIT CREDIT: Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal/ Courtesy of and © Leonard Cohen Family Trust

Zeppetelli recognizes that it was an “unorthodox choice to celebrate a singer and poet in a museum” but felt that Cohen was still so relevant to the culture — he believes Cohen should have won the Nobel Prize. The curator was happily surprised when after almost two years of working on the exhibition, the creative team learned that Cohen was about to release an album, “You Want It Darker,” which would be his last. After Cohen’s death, “it became even more important to do the show.”

When asked if he worried about the exhibition becoming hagiography, he admits that he did, but says that the “contemporary artists get some critical distance” on their subject.

Cohen’s long-time manager and representative Robert Kory joins our conversation, and when I remark that he must miss his friend, he says, “I do. He’s also intensely present for me. We are all just passing through.”

The exhibition title is drawn from Cohen’s song “Anthem” from his 1992 album “The Future” — “There is a crack in everything/ That’s how the light gets in.” Sylvie Simmons, author of the best-selling biography “I’m Your Man,” writes in the exhibition catalog, “The state of being cracked, imperfect, was one of this perfectionist’s longest, deepest studies; it might have been his battle cry.”

Cohen was born in Montreal into a successful family of rabbis, scholars and businessmen who founded synagogues and Canada’s first English-language Jewish newspaper, Canadian Jewish Times; his paternal grandfather was president of the Canadian Jewish Congress and the prominent Montreal Orthodox synagogue, Shaar Hashamayim, where Cohen belonged throughout his life. Viewers learn that he inherited his love of sharp suits from his father, who ran the family clothing manufacturing business, and his love of songs from his mother.

For Cohen, poetry and music were entwined. His lyrics began as poems. In the foreword to “The Flame,” Cohen’s last collection of poetry, published posthumously last year, Adam Cohen writes, “My father, before he was anything else, was a poet.” Simmons writes that Cohen said there was music behind every word that he wrote, and also said that when he read a favorite poet, Federico Garcia Lorca, he heard the music of the synagogue. (His daughter’s name is Lorca.)

“A Crack in Everything” is compelling immediately, from the entrance into the dark first-floor gallery, where viewers are drawn by Cohen’s distinctive voice into George Fok’s installation, “Passing Through,” a large-scale, 56-minute immersive video projected on three walls. The effect is a penetrating montage of his work as a performer at different times over his long career; the viewer might hear songs like “Suzanne” and “Dance Me to the End of Love,” and take in the evolution of the young, then middle-aged, then still-youthful-but-aging troubadour.

In an adjacent gallery, Kara Blake’s “The Offerings” emphasizes the spoken word. The 35-minute loop on five channels features Cohen talking intimately about his work and the creative process, Judaism and mortality, even with some humor, in clips assembled from decades of archival material in black-and-white and color.

Zeppetelli says that the curators reached out to artists whose work they admired, guiding some more than others. In the case of Israeli Ari Folman, Zeppetelli explains that since watching Folman’s Academy Award-winning animated documentary “Waltzing With Bashir,” he was determined to work together on some project. So he reached out to Folman to see if he had interest in Leonard Cohen.

Folman tells The Jewish Week that his own connection to Cohen goes back to childhood, when his older sister’s boyfriend broke up with her, breaking her heart. She retreated to her room, separated from his by a thin divider, and locked herself in, playing “Songs of Leonard Cohen” again and again. He thought it was months, but says that perhaps it was days. His sister is now a distinguished physician, but for him, the Cohen music remained connected to loss and the need to be alone.

Individually, viewers enter Folman’s “Depression Chamber,” lie down on a platform, and hear “Famous Blue Raincoat” (thought to be one of Cohen’s most depressing songs) while watching the lyrics appear on the walls and ceiling and twist into patterns of images, white on black — angels, a Star of David made of two hearts, letters, trees, fish, tombstones — drawn from Cohen’s world, covering the reflection of the viewer. It’s a five-minute solitary, musical dreamscape.

In these installations and others, the themes that intrigued Cohen, like love, loneliness and darkness; his interests in language, liturgy and spirituality; his tone of melancholy, irony and irreverence (sometimes masking reverence) are evident, and viscerally experienced.

On the second floor, the exhibits take a more conceptual turn. In Candice Breitz’s “I’m Your Man,” 18 men — all over 65 with five decades of fandom, selected from hundreds of applicants — are seen singing passionately on individual screens, each having recorded his own version of the album “I’m Your Man.” They’re backed up by a professional group, the men of the Shaar Hashamayim Choir.

In “Heard There Was a Secret Chord” by the art and design studio Daily tous les jours, viewers are invited to cradle a hanging microphone and hum along while listening to “Hallelujah,” feeling the vibrations of other participants. Another gallery highlights Cohen’s many self-portraits, presented digitally, with his annotations. In “The Poetry Machine” by Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, visitors can sit at a vintage Wurlitzer organ, press a key and summon the voice of Cohen reading a poem from his “Book of Longing,” or press several keys and create a cacophony.

Visitors linger; some collapse into the scattered bean bag chairs and benches for long periods. A 9-year-old boy in a Leonard Cohen T-shirt says, “This makes you feel like you are living his life.” Dror Leiba, an independent museum designer visiting from Israel, says that “the installations made me really feel the words, and the power of Leonard Cohen’s music.”

And while the exhibition feels like a celebration, his loss is deeply felt too. In “Sicily Café,” a poem included in “The Flame,” he writes, “And now that I kneel/ At the edge of my years/ Let me fall through the mirror of love.”

“Leonard Cohen: A Crack in Everything” is on view at The Jewish Museum, 1109 Fifth Ave. (at 92nd Street), Manhattan, through Sept. 8.

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