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Helen Kohen: A Life Well Lived PDF Print E-mail
Written by Anne Tschida, BT Arts Editor   
January 2016

Her private collection captures the esteemed critic’s love of local art

TArtFeature_1he installation of the aptly titled exhibition “Helen L. Kohen: A Gracious Life: Forty years of collecting, critiquing, and supporting South Florida artists” is so intimate and feels so personal, you almost wonder if you’re invading an inner sanctum.

But that’s what this exhibit aims to evoke: a place to remember someone whose influence on Miami’s art scene for many decades was wide-ranging and deep, and to recognize the many ways, personal as well, in which she touched our community.

The former Miami Herald art critic (from 1978 to 1995) passed away in May 2015 at the age of 83, leaving behind a huge number of admirers and family who were present at this opening on a Sunday evening in January. On the walls are examples of the local art she acquired for what became a phenomenal collection spanning generations and representing diverse work.

And it is set up salon-style, incorporating the art with classic furniture and Oriental rugs from her home. In one sectioned area, paintings from Purvis Young, Tom Schmitt, Robert Huff, and Rosario Marquardt -- the last of which resembles Kohen had Frida Kahlo maybe painted her? -- surround a little living room. Sitting on the beautifully upholstered sofa or chair, the visitor could physically absorb one of the most remarkable pieces in the entire show. Draping one sofa is a quilt, stitched together with small squares made by dozens and dozens of artists, produced for Kohen’s 50th birthday by her family. These are the details that make this exhibit more than just an art show.

ArtFeature_2Wandering around the Bridge Red gallery this evening were many of the artists displayed in the show, along with those who knew Helen Kohen as a critic, as a co-founder of the Vasari Project -- one of the first attempts to archive the history of art in Miami -- as a collector, and as a friend.

One friend and professional confidant is Beth Dunlop, former Miami Herald architecture critic and current editor in chief of Modern Magazine.

“On the first day I was officially the Miami Herald’s architecture critic,” she recalls, “Helen and I were both wearing the then-brand-new Diane von Furstenberg wrap dresses. We were colleagues and sidekicks for the rest of my time at the Herald, and friends for the whole rest of her life.”

As others at the opening continued to stress, Kohen also had a far-reaching impact on an arts community -- long before Art Basel -- that needed support and intellectual heft.

“She was the champion of artists who were under-appreciated and too little known because they were in Miami, which really until 10 or 15 years ago had a vibrant art scene that had no traction elsewhere, no bandwidth,” says Dunlop. “Her impact was profound, both for the artists and for the city.”

After taking in the art and the atmosphere of “A Gracious Life,” Suzanne Delehanty, former director of the Miami Art Museum (MAM), commented that “the exhibition is elegant and quietly powerful…like Helen. It captures her love of family and artists -- who felt and valued her encouragement.”

ArtFeature_3Delehanty started working in Miami in the early 1990s as director of what was then the non-collecting space called the Center for the Fine Arts, which would morph into the Miami Art Museum (MAM) and then into the Pérez Art Museum Miami.

“For close to 50 years, Helen was a champion for Miami-based artists and visual arts institutions,” says Delehanty. “During her 17-year tenure at the Herald, she educated thousands of readers with her clear thinking and fine writing. And then she established the Vasari Project…to insure that the roots and evolution of the arts in our community were not forgotten. She made history, and remains a vital part of it.”

Clearly, Kohen’s was a life well lived and well respected, which is why the artists behind Bridge Red, a not-for-profit alternative art gallery, produced this show. The three artists behind it encapsulate a period that Kohen inhabited so directly.

Sculptor Robert Thiele started working and exhibiting in Miami way back in the 1970s, while his daughter Kristen and son-in-law, Francesco Casale, grew up when museums, institutions, and art schools, such as New World School of the Arts -- and Art Basel -- were having an impact.

“The extent to which Helen Kohen touched generations of South Florida artists is immeasurable,” state the exhibition notes that the three wrote. “She was our voice, our champion, and our advocate in all ways large and small.”

ArtFeature_4As powerful as that quilt is, with so many artists’ imprints on it, another artwork in the show also explains this respect that Kohen elicits: a black-and-white portrait of her on a front wall by photographer Timothy Greenfield-Sanders. It radiates elegance, serenity, and above all, intelligence.

Joining this portrait in a gallery of fascinating artworks are puppets from Pablo Cano and small sculptures from his mother, Margarita, set on a self-standing wooden shelf. Drawings by Cesar Trasobares and Maria Martinez-Cañas, and others form another little grouping. In yet another corner are works from Ana Mendieta, Carol K. Brown, Carlos Betancourt, and Michelle Weinberg.

And in front of a gorgeous wooden chair and table, at the entrance to the exhibit, Rafael Salazar has made a collage of photographs, domestic scenes from the Kohen household.

In describing Helen Kohen’s collecting taste, Dunlop says that it was “always refined but never restrained. Helen understood art inside and out. She was not a snob or swayed by outside views. She was a great proponent of local Miami artists, and she was an advocate for art that was good and true.”

That is reflected in the exhibit, which, while very personal, is also universal -- and important to see at this juncture.

As the Bridge Red collaborators state, “Helen’s support included purchasing works by South Florida artists at all stages of their careers. Over four decades she assembled a rich and varied private art collection that practically serves as comprehensive survey of the history of art making in South Florida since the 1970s.”

 

“Helen L. Kohen: A Gracious Life: Forty years of collecting, critiquing, and supporting South Florida artists” runs through March 6 at Bridge Red Studios, 12425 NE 13th Ave., www.bridgeredstudios.com; call for appointment 305-978-4856.

 

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