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Nancy Cohen: Incorporating
By Janet Koplos

A deep engagement with the palpable unifies Nancy Cohen’s substantial career in sculpture, from her student work in ceramics through the concrete, paper, glass and other materials she has explored since then. The frequent addition of found objects adds layers of association to the physical interests. Her work is abstract but often relates to the body in some way; that body implication and the added objects—we might say the corporeal and the incorporated—define her approach. Her sculptures and installations are complex and multipart, yet she has chosen to avoid fixating on processes or on repetition. She often works at a scale that invites intimacy and close-up viewing, yet she has also made large works for public sites. She is not motivated by perfection of finish or by conventional beauty, except in the sense that each material, each found object, expresses the beauty of integrity and identity. Characteristic of all her work is direct contact with substances and things and the almost visceral linkages that connect them.

Cohen says she has always been an assembler, and that’s evident throughout the work in this show, all made within the last five years. The sole hanging piece, and one of the older works on view, Couple (2007) is identified by a long, noncommittal list of materials: metal, wood, glass, handmade paper, monofilament. As the title implies, the sculpture consists of two joined—even entwined—forms. Neither is representational. Both are long, and both are wider toward the top and bottom and narrow at the middle to a sort of waist. This formal parallel is obscured by the striking difference in materials and surfaces. Cohen says she does not consciously plot opposed qualities of materials but rather considers gravity, weight, how the piece will balance as it hangs. Nevertheless, viewers may project their own appreciations and associations, and “opposites” would surely be among them. It might be assumed that this couple is a gendered pair. One element might be feminine because it features glass beads and an evening bag among its raw materials. The other element includes concrete, presumably tough and masculine—except that Cohen has tamed and personalized it by squeezing it in her hand. Moreover, that element terminates in a slightly bulbous form that can be recognized as a wire whisk (a kitchen tool) encased in translucent paper (a seemingly delicate substance). So this attempt at gender opposition fails. In any case, the work is pervaded by an energetic quality of disjunction that calls attention to each part and keeps the viewer’s eyes moving.

Disjunction is, in fact, another characteristic aspect of Cohen’s sculpture. Consider the modest-size pedestal piece called Dissolve and Disseminate, made of metal, glass, rubber, cement, aquaresin and sand. The found object here is an old roller skate, the type that clamps onto a shoe. Tipped on its side, conveying decay and abandonment, the skate is caught in an unexpected flood of melted glass, greenish and translucent, seemingly halted in mid flow. The waves of glass echo the curves of the skate, yet the material is contrastingly fragile and temporary-looking. This combination is only half the piece: Dissolve and Disseminate also includes a separate, more vertical element made of loops which echo the curves and sense of motion in the skate-and-glass part, but with different color, texture and orientation. Adjacent position is the most compelling relationship of the two parts, and it’s not much! So the viewer examines the whole, tests the juxtapositions, notices the contrasting rise and spread, becomes caught up in the work. The viewer is gripped by a tension between individually appealing aspects, oppositions and constituents that look hard, rough, sharp and cold yet also communicate the artist’s touch.

Cohen’s forms are never predictable, and although most works in this exhibition are object-scale, one wall piece and an installation give a sense of other capabilities. P (n,k) [combinatoric] occupies a spectacular 68 by 120 inches of wall space. It comprises dozens of elements suggestively linked by similarities in form or, in many cases, actually touching. The five-point star form is sometimes expressed positively, usually as an arrangement of springs, and sometimes negatively, as creases, shadows or segments in repetitive forms of various sizes and colors. The effect is a field, a swarm, a growth—some sort of organic manifestation of related things clustered together. They might be tidal creatures or microorganisms, alien invaders or friendly spirits. Cohen plays with density here, both in making individual objects transparent, translucent or opaque, and in contrasts of near and far that create different qualities of openness in the cluster. The springs are also stretched to show the potential for expansion and contraction—or pure growth.

The curious title of this piece calls attention to Cohen’s thoughtful titling throughout. The structure of this title suggests scientific or mathematical formulas. Indeed, Cohen says, “P(n,k) is the mathematical notation for the number of permutations or orderings of k things taken from a set of n. The branch of math from which the notation is taken is combinatorics.” She uses the verbal construct to suggest her interest in “all the variations I might derive from a simple modular form.” Her titles in general are as unpredictable and essentially abstract as the sculptures themselves. Only occasionally are they specifically referential. More often they consist of unfamiliar words, such as the made-up Amphichron; a relational phrase, such as Up from Under; or something that gives information but may be a false clue, such as 0 psi. Probably the most jarring title is River with her throat cut. Aside from the obvious homage to Giacometti (an artist she much admires, who in 1932 created an abstract sculpture called Woman with Her Throat Cut) and the implication of violence, the title is surprising because, although it’s ordinary to speak of the mouth of a river, throat is a term less commonly applied. This wall work, one of many recent sculptures that make reference to water, may correspond to physical reality without being literally depictive. One might imagine the source of the river implied by the green glass on the upper left. The white grid that follows as one reads from left to right could be a spillway, a manmade interruption or cut in the river’s flow. The central wire structures suggest rapids and eddies, the clumps of glass within and to the right could read as calmer pools. It’s not unusual to refer to rivers, seas and the vessels upon them as “she,” so this title, while at first disconcerting, has a poetic logic.

The installation created for the Katonah [N.Y.] Museum of Art in 2009, a portion of which Cohen has remounted here, also refers to a river. The title, Perspectives on Salinity: River From Within, sounds quasi-scientific, as if the topic were researched by Helen and Newton Harrison or other ecologically focused artists. But the work itself is surely about sensation more than data. Cohen takes off from the notion of an estuary, where a river meets the sea. The Hudson River is a spectacular example, since it responds to tides even farther north than Albany; at high tide, salt water flows upstream for well over 100 miles. That fact creates a striking mental picture of the enormous force of the river meeting, mixing with and being turned back by the greater force of the ocean tides. Cohen puts the viewer in the center of the rush, and alludes to the salt water with open white structures and to the relentless fluidity of the river with sequences of handmade paper sheets with embedded wire for shaping. Viewers in effect experience the river from within, as turbulence and majesty. As so often in her work, details are rewarding: in this case, when the paper panels are backlit, observers can see patterns of circular and linear “ripples” in the paper, which change in clarity and contrast with shifting natural light.

Several of the drawings in the exhibition are similar to this installation’s parts in their emphasis on the tactility of handmade paper, the incorporation of wire structure or the “watermark” interior patterning, to say nothing of their titular references to water (Undertow, for example) or to salinity (The Structure of Salt). Water may also be implied in Accretion through its color, rippled surface and obscured relief watermarks that seem to drift slowly downward, as well as the uneven aggregation along the bottom, as if silt—or trash—has been carried and deposited by the current. Accretion is a generous size, and Undertow is still larger. It speaks to both the color and structures in the installation. It also recalls the physicality of the sculptures, since it seems more constructed than drawn. Its modest relief illustrates a process of creation, unlike a more conventional work on paper in which composition or image are more important. Cohen doesn’t just make works on paper—she works with paper. It’s a sculptor’s inclination that brings the real world and the capabilities of the hands to every piece.

The sculptures, it should be noted, are almost all permeable in one way or another. Cohen does not pursue mass any more than she seeks refinement. Instead, through her use of linear materials (including wire and small test tubes), open placement of parts and use of transparent or translucent materials such as glass, she makes the works provisional. The result is a subtle ecological quality: her choice of material involves recycling, and the work often looks as if it were the product of accidents and time. Cohen does not make sculpture as monument or as biography, but as a gentle appreciation of what there is in the world.