Leonard Cohen died on November 7, 2016. The next day, Donald Trump was elected president. Nearly exactly a year later, the exhibition Leonard Cohen: A Crack in Everything opened at the Musee d’Art Contemporain in the musician’s hometown of Montreal. A pop star who was skilled and deliberate at controlling his public interactions (is there any other kind?), Cohen had preemptively refused to attend the exhibition opening when his manager gave the museum tacit access to his archive of songs, poems, prose, drawings and video clips.
Like many enraged voters, when news broke that Cohen had died, I could not help but read into its timing. The near simultaneity of Cohen’s death and Trump’s election felt tragic and enormous in scope, a generational passing of the torch from the earnest artist to a world whose corruption and brokenness had been laid bare. Cohen was prone to making grandiose statements in — and about — his art, and his death was a pop gesture so brimming with cosmic coincidence that it could only be compared with David Bowie’s. A stake had been placed in the 20th century and the dilemmas of the 21st century were left for living artists to work out.
Walking around Leonard Cohen: A Crack in Everything, which opened in April at New York’s Jewish Museum after a year-long run in Montreal that broke attendance records, I was hounded by the question of making art in the 21st century — if only because the show fails so spectacularly at even acknowledging that this question exists. Unlike the massively successful exhibition David Bowie Is, Cohen’s museum tribute does not consist of memorabilia, stage sets, costumes, fan mail, chord charts, lyrics, or other visual appendages of modern musical stardom. Rather, A Crack in Everything consists of commissioned works, mostly by Canadian artists, many of who use Cohen’s music, words, and images as their materials.
An archival show has to be judged, in part, by the depth to which it mines the archive, and the issue with many of the works in A Crack in Everything is that the delving seems willfully shallow. Two of the commissions use a widely available documentary produced by the National Film Board of Canada, Ladies and Gentleman…Mr. Leonard Cohen (1965), as the basis for new pieces of video art. Another, George Fok’s “Passing Through,” presents clips of Cohen concerts on multiple screens. Fans of Leonard might have seen some of these clips before. Many can be found on YouTube.
Kara Blake’s “The Offerings” is the most interesting documentary work in the show, partially because Blake culls footage from sources deeper than the internet. She edits talk-show appearances, studio footage, audio interviews, and photographs into a moving and inspiring biographical narrative splayed across a five-channel video installation. We hear about a nine-year-old Cohen, after his father died, cutting open his dad’s tie, stuffing the first poem he ever wrote inside, and burying it. We see him tell a censorious sound engineer at a radio station, “There are no dirty words.” Blake is clearly immersed in her subject, ignoring the crowd-pleasing anthems of his pop phase for a less visible Leonard, one who was flamboyant in his thoughtfulness.
When works rely on his music, they too often debase their own artistic motives and achieve something kitschy. Across the hall from Blake’s piece is a by-appointment-only installation called “Depression Chamber” by filmmaker Ari Folman, which, according to the wall text, addresses “the debilitating nature of loss, suffering, and depression.” The museumgoer walks into the chamber and lies down in its center, a live video feed projecting the visitor’s image onto the ceiling. In the darkened space, there is a moment of solitude within the otherwise crowded confines of a Manhattan museum, the emptiness of the room offering a real opportunity for self-reckoning. Then Cohen’s 1971 song “Famous Blue Raincoat” begins to play and animated figures start floating up the walls. The work renders the “debilitating” set of conditions mentioned in the wall text into something cute, harmless and interactive.
The second floor centers around an installation by the design studio Daily Tous Les Jours. Microphones hang over an octagonal arrangement of benches. Museumgoers are invited to hum Cohen’s much-beloved song “Hallelujah,” a digital display above counting the number of participants, which include people who visit the website asecretchord.com and contribute their own voices to the chorus.
The piece claims to reveal “an invisible vibration uniting people around the world.” The vibration, however, is glaringly obvious: “Hallelujah” is moving, particularly for people who like the song enough to attend a show devoted to its writer, or visit a website named for one of its lyrics. If art exhibitions have reason to examine the fervor of collectively adulating an icon, they achieve little by piggybacking on it.
Popular culture’s presence in art museums should be predicated on something cultural, not popular. Exhibitions devoted to a famous musician have to consider a couple of questions, at least: How might the public figure of the musician be considered a work of art? And what is the artistic weight of the works related to this person? The first question is easy to answer with David Bowie, who inhabited his various pop personalities with a commitment that echoed Andy Warhol while diverging into its own meticulously stylized realm. In the case of David Bowie Is everything from Bowie’s costumes to altered contact sheets from Rolling Stone photoshoots can be contextualized as art. These objects are occasionally stupendous in their own right, too, and generally interesting to consider as part of the patchwork of an artistic persona.
Cohen’s show occupies an unhappy middle-ground in which commissioned art is saddled with the responsibility of being powerful, while simultaneously being “about” Leonard Cohen. The burden of tying an artistic practice to a dead singer-songwriter is unlikely to provoke anyone’s best work.
But the show’s luxurious and expansive layout — it covers three floors and uses so much space that the Jewish Museum had to close exhibitions early in order to accommodate it — suggests that its underlying intentions were not to find the best work possible, but rather to use a beloved celebrity to attract the same sort of droves that saw the show in Montreal. At times, A Crack in Everything feels like a low-key Disneyland for all ages. The predominance of immersive installations, the superfluous, often deadening use of Leonard Cohen’s music and voice, and the kid-friendly bean bag chairs scattered across many of the galleries indicate an experience that wants to strike at a cultural taste many parents share while also providing ample sensory stimulation for their children.
This is no widespread criticism of the Jewish Museum, which has taken on a number of important shows in the past couple of years. Art institutions have en masse embraced exhibitions like A Crack in Everything — after all, it’s headed to Copenhagen and then San Francisco after it wraps up in New York — and there is a wink-and-nudge expectation that critics treat “art-lite” shows such as this one with an appropriate levity.
More interesting than art lite — and more relevant to the purposes of art museums — are the moments when the inspired practices of some of the artists shine through. Jon Rafman’s animation “Legendary Reality” sources images from video games to create a phantasmagoric evocation of a metropolis that incorporates Cohen’s poetry and music subtly, without making it the basis of its aesthetic. Candice Breitz, whose work is about fandom and previously took Bob Marley and John Lennon as subjects, contributes a lavishly installed video deconstruction of Cohen’s 1988 album I’m Your Man featuring a synagogue choir that sings the album’s backing vocals in front of a velvet curtain, behind which various sexagenarian-plus men sing the lead vocals. The effect is eerie, and unsettles rather than advertises Cohen’s music.
Many artists, writers, and musicians working in the 21st century will illuminate their practices by grappling with the long shadow cast by the 20th century. This phenomenon may even mean they question their position as audience members to entertainers like Leonard Cohen, but only rarely does A Crack in Everything extend beyond the senses and into this deeper realm. The biggest hope for a show like this one is that a sensitive, curious child enters the depression chamber and sees something she has never seen before.
Leonard Cohen: A Crack in Everything continues at the Jewish Museum (1109 5th Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through September 8. The exhibition was organized by the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal and is curated by John Zeppetelli, director and chief curator at the MAC, and Victor Shiffman, co-curator. The New York presentation is coordinated for the Jewish Museum by Kelly Taxter, Barnett and Annalee Newman Curator of Contemporary Art, and Ruth Beesch, Senior Deputy Director, Programs & Strategic Initiatives.