By Max Blue
Special to The Examiner
Leonard Cohen (1934-2016) was one of the most formidable songwriters of the last century, a poet and novelist born in Canada, who became a folk singer and band leader performing across the globe. But what most defines Leonard Cohen for me is not his writing, so much as something his writing betrays about his character: Cohen was unflinching in the face of life and death alike (he recorded the vocals for his final album “You Want it Darker” in his hospital bed).
This is not to say that he was unmoved by life’s trials and tribulations, but that he went toward them with open arms, welcoming and unshakable. This may have something to do with the fact that he was a man of deep faith — he was a Sabbath-observant Jew and an ordained Buddhist priest — or the revolutionary spirit of the folk revival, or simply because he managed to maintain happiness. Ah, maybe that is the secret chord he refers to in his 1984 hit “Hallelujah”!
Billed as four tangential solo-exhibitions, “Experience Leonard Cohen” is a joyous, exultant tribute to the songwriter. Split between four galleries in the Contemporary Jewish Museum, each features a love letter to Cohen by a different living artist. The interaction of the four shows feels like the title of Cohen’s debut poetry collection “Let Us Compare Mythologies”: the myth of the great man explored from various angles.
Judy Chicago contributes “Conahim,” a series of small paintings inspired by Cohen’s lyrics. These illustrations might pass for tattoo flash in style and homage alike. A blue raincoat drifting inside lyrics from that song; a bird perched atop the lyrics of “Bird on a Wire.” The paintings feel like an admittance of Cohen’s impact on the arts, the way in which he has infused himself into the culture.
Marshall Trammell “In Residence” is an interactive sound piece, in which visitors are invited to upload recordings of themselves singing Cohen’s lyrics during the first 20 minutes of every hour in which the gallery is silent. The recordings are then melded and played back during the rest of the hour. The installation will also be supplemented by live performances from Trammell.
Collaboration with Cohen and others is a key element of all four shows, an approach that is essentially musical: the performer and the audience; the interaction of notes. Candice Breitz’s “I’m Your Man” is a 19-channel video installation in two rooms in which a community of fans of Cohen’s music perform a full-length rendition of his 1988 album “I’m Your Man.” Most of the performers are delightfully amateur, some profesional, including Shaar Hashomayim Synagogue Choir — the congregation that Cohen belonged to throughout his life, and the choir that provided the backing vocals for Cohen’s final album. But this isn’t about a good recording (go listen to the album), it’s about the sense of community that a shared love of art inspires.
George Fok’s documentary style film “Passing Through” stitches together footage of Cohen’s life and performances. Projected on three walls, the film creates a sense of Cohen as literally larger than life, tracing his career from early, nervous television appearances to stalwart performances given towards the end of his life. The film presents a great, momentous hero who worked with his heart to the grindstone.
What all four exhibitions prove is that while Cohen may have been one of the 20th century’s great depressives, lyrically moody and mired, he was also a purveyor of immense joy. There is something sacred in our love of music, some musicians attaining a near priestly status. I’m left wondering what I can say that Cohen hasn’t already said, better. So, in the spirit of the exhibition, I’ll turn the writer’s words back on him: “Magnified, sanctified, be thy holy name; he walked upon the water and he spent a long time watching from his lonely wooden tower; the baffled king composing Hallelujah. So long.”
IF YOU GO: “Experience Leonard Cohen”
Where: Contemporary Jewish Museum, 736 Mission St., S.F.
When: Thursday – Sunday 11 a.m.- 5 p.m., through Feb. 13, 2022
Tickets: $0 under 18, $14 students and seniors, $16 adults
Contact: (415) 655-7800, thecjm.org