Barbara Cohen received her B.F.A. from Tufts University and the School of Museum of Fine Arts in Boston with earlier studies in art history at Oxford University. She has received numerous grants including the Pollock-Krasner Foundation, the Artists Foundation Mass Fellowship Program, Polaroid Artist Support Program, Blanche E. Colman Award and grants from the Cambridge and Massachusetts Arts Councils. She received an artist’s residency from the Emily Harvey Foundation in Venice, Italy and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. Barbara has exhibited her paintings and sculptures in numerous galleries and museums across the country. Barbara’s most recent book, Venezia: Essenze, is a series of painted Polaroids of Venice, Italy, published in 2013 by the Italian editor, Damocle. She is the author of New York Love Affair, 2010, a collection of painted Polaroids of New York City, and Dog in the Dunes Revisited, 2005, published by Fields Publishing .The original Dog in the Dunes 1998, a series of painted photographs of her black Labrador, Gabe, set in the dunes of Cape Cod, was published by Andrews McMeel. Provincetown ‘East West’, a selection of her painted Polaroid landscapes of this small seaside town, was published in 2002 by University Press of New England. Additional books include, Woman's Best Friend; A Celebration of Dogs and their Women 1996, published by Little Brown and Company, Dogs and their Women 1989, Cats and their Women 1992, and Horses and their Women 1993. Barbara is currently working on a new book of painted photos of Yofi, her 3 ½ pound, 10 year old Morkie, living an Upper West Side life in the famous French one hundred year old building, the Amsonia, in New York. Barbara divides her artistic time between Provincetown, MA and New York.

Artist Statement

It is always about the paint and the strokes: Thick muted colors of oil on pure linen, fast florescent gouache washes on Fabriano paper, quick small detailed oil strokes on instant Polaroid film. The touch and sensation of the stroke and paint come together with the emotionally-based content which takes me inside the edges of my work. I once painted portraits of the elderly women chatting away in Yiddish, relics of a dying culture, who sat on the beaches of Venice, California. Seeing and hearing them there every day evoked the tortured figures of people, my people, minutes before their extermination in the Nazi camps.  My work continued with the imaged memories of the row after row of boxes rising up to the ceiling in my grandfather’s century-old wholesale dry goods store. Many years later, in a new period of my work, these tall boxy images returned in paintings which focused on dwellings, dumpsters and displacements camps. The repetitive use of circles and squares dominates much of my painting and sculpture in what may be an unconscious effort to create a calming balance. For several years, white, soft cork imported from Asian wetlands provided me with the material for a relentless drive to cut and build sculptures. Then, it was ping pong balls which I covered with graphite drawings and assembled on a moveable conveyor belt which helped buffer my grief after a death and to move forward. While I was at a residency in Venice, Italy, a boat sling hanging gracefully above the waters of the Grand Canal became the inspiration for a series of flow images devoted to examining continuous, elegant motion. This is what I do. I take an image and I repeat it with every medium that I love until I exhaust it. Among my subjects: potholder loops, a striped juice glass, New York City dumpsters, life jackets and displacements camps, and old shoes left behind. It is now 2020 and the world is in the grips of a brutal pandemic. Living in New York City and homebound, I began exploring the painting of still lifes. This has evolved into my “farmer’s market” series featuring fruits and vegetables, painted in gouache on recycled brown paper bags.  Delivery is free of charge.

Life Jackets, Displacement and Camps of Concern

"My work over the past few years has been focused and inspired by the growing crisis of refugee displacement and flow of humanity. Throughout my travels to Germany, India and Central America, I was drawn to the settlements of families who were forced to leave their homeland, escaping terrorism, violence, poverty and war. In a recent trip to Poland and Israel, the memory of my own people, the Jews of living during World War II, who were pulled from their homes and taken to death camps, resonated with my work. Currently, millions of immigrants, in their deepest willingness to abandon one’s lifetime belongings, run for shelter with no guarantee of a life anywhere, in order to escape the terror of their country. Seeing images of florescent orange vests surrounding the hearts and chests of children and parents abroad sardine packed boats seeking freedom created the “LIFE JACKETS” series. Displacement camps of tents and boxed shelters are the subjects of my current project as I recycle images from past work.”

The Left Shoe

The series “The Left Shoe “ came from a difficult time. I had experienced a bleary and unproductive winter mostly due to the new political climate. The election results and its aftermath had a dramatic and deeply emotional effect on me.

My previous body of work had been inspired by the news of refugees, immigrants and of the displacement camps in Angola and Aleppo. Friends shared photos of those first boats arriving in Lesbos. While in Berlin, I met some of these desperate people. That world drama triggered my series of Displacement Camps.

In the spring of 2017, I felt distant and empty from my work. Then, back in Provincetown, I found a rust-colored and well-worn pair of sandals perched on my neighbor’s stoop. Those shoes, particularly the left one, became the models for the paintings in this new series.

For civilization, the shoe has been a symbol of both protection and movement. It gives the body a sense of balanced comfort and this is what I badly needed then. At first sturdy and maybe a little stiff, the shoe, with time, becomes tender, even kind, and a necessary and warm companion as we step onward to wherever we may go.

At first, I made small drawings of the shoe. They grew larger the more I saw how basic and simple the shoe was and will always be. By the end, I painted it with gouache over configurations of layers of my earlier images of Venetian slings and New York City dumpsters, to be found like a shoe left on a path or one in a pile in Dachau.

Moving On

I believe that in the indeterminacy of drawing – the contingent way that images arrive in the work – lies some kind of model of how we live our lives. The activity of drawing is a way of trying to understand who we are and how we operate in the world.
- William Kentridge, South African filmmaker and installation artist.

The simplicity of circles and squares, either free-floating or patterned in grid-like formation, has remained, over a forty-year creative evolution, the central image anchoring my work in drawing, painting, sculpting, and, most recently, installation. The inner eye remembers what it first looks upon. I grew up in a family of Eastern European Jews transplanted to Lancaster County, Pennsylvania at the turn of the 20th century. In the distance I could see the landscape created by Amish farmers who still hand-plowed their fields, leaving geometric marks separating rows of grass and grain. My grandfather and then my father earned a livelihood making garments for these traditional farmers, who in their dress code kept faithful to fabrics of blacks and whites and a spectrum of grays. Quilters working in community houses laid grid-like patterns, but in oranges, yellows, purples: saturated blocks of color that I later expressed in my painting.

Closer to home were boxes and racks stacked with grid-like patterns of bonnets, hats and sewing supplies that formed the interior of my father’s 12,000 square foot warehouse. These visual patterns coalesced to form an inner rhythm in me. My sculpture grew out of a tactile need to respond to and maintain the geometric squares and circles and the neutral shades of the Amish code.

I started with a cork-like substance, Sesbania, common in Vietnam in 1996. Working with material from this small country, where I lived briefly and whose history of pain can never be erased, I sunk my paring knife down into the core of the cork. Going further into Sesbania’s interior, I sliced its core into small circles, and carved its exterior into soft squares. The Zen-like discipline of hand cutting, stacking and gluing thousands of these almost weightless objects was followed by their transformation: some combined to become towers, others became boulders that seemed to march in a row; and an eight-foot cork sphere needed to be suspended in air.

The Provincetown Art Association and Museum exhibited a retrospective sampling of these fanciful yet still minimal sculptures in the fall of 2007. This was the capstone of a decade’s artwork. Four months later, my work was suddenly interrupted when my partner was diagnosed with a terminal illness.
What followed was a prolonged period of anxiety and anguish. Using graphite pencils (and later, permanent ink) to make marks on a surface as abundant and as yielding as the Vietnamese cork had been, I turned my attention to writing and drawing my various recollections on ping-pong balls. The surface has the character of translucent treated vellum and, being a sphere, has neither a beginning nor end. When illuminated from behind, their ethereal quality seemed to mimic my emotional state, mapping my nervous system.

Possessed, I drew continuous lines on hundreds of these faceless shapes with what felt like an unstoppable intensity. Every day there was a new set of these round vellum balls, inviting new experiments with abstract lines (zigzags, dots, loops, scribbles). The diverse grades of graphite or ink, and the resultant variety of textures and tones, thin lines, thick lines, wiry fuzzy lines, became the barometer of my moods, a compendium of spontaneous drawing on a circular shape. 

After scribbling on each surface and accumulating hundreds of balls, I wanted to see the balls in perpetual motion: flowing and separating, forming endless combinations, as spontaneous as was their individual creation. This, and the loss of my partner – loss and what follows loss – is the genesis of the piece
Moving On.

I ordered a ten-foot-long conveyor belt from the Midwest, and constructed a 4' x 4' metal container to house the balls. A timed motor was designed to set the balls in motion: the ping-pong balls with their individual markings morphed into a free-form drawing in motion, whose details constantly shifted. The movement of the lines excites me, as the vellum spheres jostle one another, their markings playing hide and seek, while the total surface pattern of the grid shifts ever so slightly.

Watching the ping-pong balls define and redefine their status within the closed space created by a square container is a reminder that nothing is permanent: like molecules in nature, the ping-pong balls are in constant flux, made and remade as their environment changes. 

Related 6' x 6' drawings and smaller sculptures accompany Moving On.

Barbara E. Cohen


Painted Polaroids

Throughout my twenty-five year art career, I have worked with 35mm film alongside my abstract painting and sculpture. Within the past ten years, I have been working on abstract methods to create photographic images that appear painterly and at the same time hold up as photographs. Using SX 70 and 600 Plus Polaroid film, I manipulate the images I photograph as the film is developing, thus creating abstract effects with line. I push the image further by oil painting onto the Polaroid surface. The combination of the line drawn with a pointed instrument which changes the surface of the photograph and loosely oil painting over selected areas of the picture allows for an original multi-image.

When I first started this process, I was doing self-portraits. Friends started asking me to do portraits of them and I began the business of 'Art in Your Face'. Later I started to paint historical towns, landscapes and commonplace objects which became cards and a means to support my painting and sculpture. My first book of painted Polaroids, called Dog in the Dunes, published in 1998 by Andrews McMeel, is a series of forty painted Polaroids of my black Labrador during an artist residency in a dune shack on Cape Cod. Provincetown East West, published by University Press of New England in May of 2002, is my second book depicting the seaside fishing village and artist colony of Provincetown. I have been working on a book of New York City in the same spirit.

Fields Publishing has republished Dog in the Dunes, as Dog in the Dunes Revisited in the spring of 2005. Fields Publishing is based in Provincetown, MA, the hometown of Dog in the Dunes. This new printing is an expanded addition of painted Polaroids and larger in size from the original.

New York Love Affair, published by Fields Publishing, May 2010, is a photographic ode to a world-class city, the everyday yet oft-remembered sights of the Big Apple appear through the lens of manipulated, painted Polaroids.