Bernard Cohen was born to an Orthodox Jewish family in 1933 in London and still lives and works in the city. He studied at South West Essex Technical College in 1949 before training at St Martin’s School of Art (1950–51) and the Slade (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. In 1969 he travelled to New Mexico for the first time. He held a retrospective at the Hayward Gallery in 1972 and, an influential teacher, has held 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.
Cohen is primarily known as an abstract painter and printmaker, 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 also sought to create various types of visual tension similar to those encountered in reality, in particular through the process of juxtaposition.
In this striking work on paper, part of a series of five related images, Cohen contrasts a limited range of different dynamic forms in a spare palette of red, black and grey, to suggest a sense of the process of change. He has said that through the combination of such shapes he hopes to create an overall image that is simultaneously both new and unique. In Untitled IV, Cohen explores ways of creating a spatial and pictorial experience. The dizzying combination of multiple forms, suggestive of both animal and human prints, stretching across the picture surface, creates a hypothetical ritual dance which unfolds before our eyes.
Five works on paper by Cohen are held in the Ben Uri Collection and he was included in the exhibition Jewish Artists at the Slade: Exhibition of Works from the Ben Uri Collection in 1992, alongside Frank Auerbach, David Bomberg, Claude Rogers and Mark Gertler. In 1994 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.