"Bruce's pictures have this other sense," explains his older brother Larry, a gifted landscape painter who has been Bruce's best critic since they decided at the same moment to become painters. "They are a little bit strange."
At age 15 Cohen received a summer scholarship to study life drawing at the Otis Art Institute. Later, at the College of Creative Studies of UC Santa Barbara, his brother Larry introduced him to Paul Wonner, who became a mentor to both young men. "Wonner was somewhat against the grain; a representational painter." Larry recalls. "For 35 or more years he helped us out, and that had a huge effect." Bruce agrees, adding that he found in Wonner's work sense of "poetic magic that can really move you."
After studying at UC Berkeley Cohen settled in Los Angeles. He earned extra cash painting houses, and also began to exhibit successfully; he had one man shows at Asher/Faure Gallery in Los Angeles in 1981 and 1983, then a 1985 Bay Area debut at San Francisco's prestigious John Berggruen Gallery. Now 58, he has gone through a long evolution, but not, according to the artist, a conscious one.
Cohen first absorbed the influence of Renaissance and Surrealist paintings as a young man, then studied 17th century Dutch interiors and domestic scenes. Bay Area Figurative paintings -- in particular the works of Wonner and Diebenkorn -- made their impression next. Nabi Bonnard and Vuillard are there in Cohen's mature work, and so is an affection for Indian miniatures, which have provided ideas about how observed nature can be manipulated. The still life paintings of Giorgio Morandi, rich in poesia, have also had their effect.
The results are somewhat surreal and mesmerizingly theatrical. Cohen struggles quite a bit as his paintings coalesce, and wipes out quite a bit along the way. Still, he wants the finished result to be opaque, and carefully edits any hints of process that may remain. Cohen's paintings don't literally include the human figure, but their presence is somehow implied. "I feel sometimes that I am looking at a place where some tremendous, mystical event has just taken place," wrote Paul Wonner. "The people concerned have just moved on out of sight, but there remains on the scene the residue of a magic moment."
The image is crystal clear, but the events surrounding it are not. "There is a hint of something else," says Larry Cohen of his brother's pictures. He has been watching Bruce's art develop for 40 years, and even he can't say exactly what that something is.