John Cohen made drawings continuously throughout his life. Early impulses to sketch, paint and design eventually led him to Yale Art School and a disciplined visual and esthetic engagement with the world around him. Relationships with Josef Albers, Bernard Chaet, and Herbert Matter—as well as the Old Masters and Abstract Expressionists—stayed with him whenever and wherever he worked.
He taught drawing (as well as photography) first at Silvermine College in the early 70s and then at Purchase College (SUNY) from 1972 to 1997. His barn/studio was a rotating gallery, with current and recent drawings pinned to the walls. In the midst of his many projects—books, films, exhibits, teaching, performing—his desire was always to ‘get back to my drawing’.
"The FEARLESSNESS of John’s drawing life aligns with the rest of his complex interests and accomplishments. Never satisfied, he was after something . . . something he couldn’t put words to, but a something that led him to try anything."
- Len Stokes on John Cohen's drawings, 2019
In 2019, John Cohen published Do Not Disturb My Waking Dream, a lyrical book that weaves together themes and mediums.
One cold sunny morning in December 2018, Gerhard Steidl drove from New York City to see John Cohen at his rambling home in upstate Putnam Valley. The purpose of the visit was to pick up originals to be scanned for Cohen’s Look up to the Moon, his book of photos from Morocco in 1955 and published by Steidl in 2019. But in the organized chaos of Cohen’s barn-cum-studio they stumbled across another group of prints from across his 60-year career: “I didn’t know what to do with them,” he recalls, “They weren’t a book or an exhibit, or for sale. They were not of one subject.” To Cohen’s surprise and delight, Steidl took the boxes under his arm, and the photos now appear for the first time here in Do Not Disturb My Waking Dream, Cohen’s most lyrical and personal book, as well as his last.
Sequenced wholly by mood and intuition and eschewing titles and dates, the portraits, landscape and still lifes, along with some of Cohen’s drawings, unify disparate subjects—his wife Penny, Roscoe Holcomb, fragments of the Parthenon, renovations to Cohen’s farmhouse in the mid-sixties—into a dreamlike flow. Cohen’s confessional text, recalling his intense intertwining dreams across decades, explores the line between dream and reality, and between memory and book.