Cohen was born to an Orthodox Jewish family in 1933 in London, where he still lives and works. He studied at South West Essex Technical College in 1949 before training at St Martin’s School of Art (1950–51) and the Slade School of Fine Art (1951–54), followed by a period in Paris in the mid-1950s. In 1958 he held his first solo exhibitions in Nottingham at the Midland Group and in in London at Gimpel Fils. He travelled to New Mexico for the first time in 1969, where he was excited both by the landscape and by Native American ritual dances. The Hayward Gallery hosted a retrospective in 1972.
An influential teacher, with various positions at Ealing, Wimbledon and Chelsea Schools of Art, Cohen was appointed Professor and Director of the Slade School of Fine Art from 1988–2000.
Concerned with process in his art, Cohen is primarily known as an abstract painter, whose complex non-figurative forms have allowed him to express his responses to the world in rich and imaginative terms. His early work contrasted rigid, symmetrical shapes with loosely painted forms floating over, around or beneath them. From the mid-1970s, partly influenced by Abstract Expressionism, his works attempted to relate the process of painting to a range of social and religious rituals inspired both by his traditional Jewish upbringing and by the experiences from his travels. He has also produced an extensive body of prints, which currently employ densely layered, dazzling geometric patterns and motifs.
In this painting on paper, Cohen – who describes himself as ‘a storyteller and a creator of pictorial theatre’ – contrasts different organic forms, delineated in black against white, and highlighted with red, to suggest a sense of change, evoking ideas such as cellular division and the process of evolution. The artist has said that through the combination of such shapes he hoped to create an overall image that was new and unique, imbued with different types of visual tension.
Five works on paper by Cohen are held in the Ben Uri Collection, where his work has been shown in exhibitions including Jewish Artists at the Slade: Exhibition of Works from the Ben Uri Collection (1992). In 1994–5 Ben Uri hosted a major survey exhibition Bernard Cohen 35 Years of Drawing, which toured to Norwich, Bristol and Birmingham and was opened in Dean Street by Sir Kenneth Robinson, the then Chairman of the Arts Council of Great Britain.