The many-talented artist Leonard Cohen (1934-2016) was determined to be somebody, and it’s safe to say he surpassed even his wildest expectations. Yet, like many artists, he had his struggles. “Luck has so much to do with success or failure,” he once said. “We all get lost.”
Though best known for his novels, poetry and music, Cohen was also into visual art, which is prominently featured in Everybody Knows (until 10 April 2023), an exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario titled after his hit song from 1988. The show is the brainchild of the gallery’s chief curator, Julian Cox, who was inspired by a 2018 tribute exhibition at the Musée d’Art Contemporain in Montreal, Cohen’s hometown. “The goal was to cut inside the man we think we knew,” Cox says.
Much of what is on offer was provided by the Leonard Cohen Family Trust in Los Angeles. Another source was an archive at the University of Toronto, which boasts a slew of bankers boxes of Cohen materials, some dating from his twenties, bringing to mind Andy Warhol’s more than 600 time capsules.
Numerous works by Cohen are included in the AGO show, surprising for a fellow who once expressed little enthusiasm for the contents of galleries and museums. “I never loved a shard or a painting,” he once said. A watercolour titled My mother’s last hand is especially touching. Other works are in pastel, crayon, pencil, ink and even magic marker.
Cohen was hardly camera-shy and loved to sketch his own face—many of those self-portraits on display in Everybody Knows. Also included are portraits submitted by admiring fans, as the man was truly adored. Kara Blake, who worked on the videos that help drive the show along with George Fok, acknowledged as much at an exhibition preview. “I spent a long time at the [University of Toronto] archives and saw how many women’s phone numbers he had in those notebooks,” she said.
The exhibition concludes with a montage of Cohen’s album covers, some 20 in all, the first from 1967 when he was already well into his thirties, a bit of a late start for a popstar. The last was released in 2016, just days before his death. Along the way he was awarded a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame—evidently, his success had to do with more than luck.
- Leonard Cohen: Everybody Knows, until 10 April 2023, Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto