Like the number of times the song “Hallelujah” has been streamed, sung, or hummed since its release, in 1984, Leonard Cohen’s influence on the world is immeasurable. Whether you know his songs as his own or by the tongue of another singer (Nina Simone, Joe Cocker, R.E.M., and even Lana Del Rey have all released successful Cohen covers), or you gravitate toward his unsung lyrics, poetry, and writings (his novel Beautiful Losers has been translated into 11 languages), Cohen occupies a large space in the hearts of many—particularly those of artists and creatives.
So what better way to pay homage to the legendary Québécois singer-songwriter, who passed away just three years ago, than to showcase his influence directly? Opening tomorrow at Manhattan’s Jewish Museum is “Leonard Cohen: A Crack in Everything,” an exhibition that culls together the works of more than 20 contemporary artists and musicians from all over the globe, each in poetic tribute to Cohen.
The exhibition debuted in November 2017 in Cohen’s hometown of Montreal (Cohen worshippers are known to make pilgrimages to his unassuming brick house in Le Plateau-Mont-Royal), at the city’s Musée d’art contemporain. Its stint in New York owes much to a Cohen fan by the name of Nili Lotan—known to the fashion world for her blazers and military-esque khaki separates, which look anything but utilitarian.
Last night, the Israeli-born Lotan hosted a preview of the exhibition, touring the show for the first time herself alongside a group of close friends and family. It’s also the first time she’s sponsored a museum show (one museumgoer cleverly referred to the collaboration as a besheret, the Hebrew word for an ideal match). Lotan’s love of music is somewhat matrimonial (her husband is Israeli singer and national treasure David Broza), and she’s a Cohen fan through and through.
“Nili Lotan and I have both been inspired by music throughout our lives and careers," said Claudia Gould, Helen Goldsmith Menschel Director of the Jewish Museum. "We are grateful for Nili’s support."
“His writings, even beyond his lyrics, hold so much meaning to me,” said Lotan. “He tried to reject his Judaism, but to me it appeared in everything that he did—you can’t run away from who you are!”
Who was Leonard Cohen? Well, that depended on the decade. On the ground floor of the exhibition, showgoers could read a timeline—from his earnest student days at McGill University to a blip in Cuba during its revolution; from his frequent and creatively fruitful trips to the Greek island of Hydra, which inspired many volumes of his poetry, to his rock-star youth (during which Cohen bore a striking resemblance to Al Pacino) and his later, shaved-head phase, which coincided with a years-long retreat to a Buddhist monastery atop California’s Mount Baldy. After getting people acquainted with the man of honor, the exhibition unfolded with audiovisual tributes by artists Kara Blake, Candice Breitz, Janet Cardiff & George Bures Miller, Christophe Chassol, Tacita Dean, Kota Ezawa, George Fok, Ari Folman, Jon Rafman, Taryn Simon, and Daily tous les jours.
On the ground floor, Chassol created a melody out of Cohen’s 1964 poem “The Only Tourist in Havana Turns His Thoughts Homeward,” crafting a music video of sorts, with visuals from the 1965 documentary Ladies and Gentlemen. . . Mr. Leonard Cohen. Guests could then wind up the stairs to the Richard Morris Hunt–designed museum, where the chateau-esque interiors experienced an audio-friendly makeover—the floors were carpeted in a cushy, sound-absorbing material and the walls swathed in acoustic foam. Two standout installations were those by Daily tous les jours and Candice Breitz. In the former, an octangular bench of a neat blond wood appeared a marvel of Scandi design, with microphones dangling from the ceiling. Guests were invited to take a seat, take hold of a microphone, and hum along to “Hallelujah,” to produce a vibration felt throughout the room—an installation that winked to the song’s lyric “I heard there was a secret cord.” Mia Moretti, who came out for the preview, could be seen humming with dedication into this mic.
Elsewhere on the second floor was a contribution by Breitz (she represented South Africa in the last Venice Biennale): a moving series of videos featuring ardent Cohen fans and performers from the choir of Montreal’s Congration Shaar Hashomayim synagogue (a congregation to which Cohen belonged). Each participant was individually recorded singing to songs from the album I’m Your Man; Breitz then projected these simultaneously, producing a false harmony that resounded throughout the red-velvet-curtained rooms, as though each singer were having a moment of glory in a luxe theater.
On the third floor, Cohen homages were more straightforward: a listening room where guests were bathed in song, all written by Cohen but sung by other musicians, including Lou Doillon; Feist; Moby; and The National with Sufjan Stevens, Ragnar Kjartansson, and Richard Reed Parry. (Some covers took creative liberties, while others were true to form.)
Exiting through the gift shop, visitors will find (among other Cohen-related merch) a Nili Lotan top emblazoned with the lyrics “Dance me to the end of love.” It’s a favorite of Lotan’s and, no doubt, of many others in attendance last night. But it’s so hard to pick just one, isn’t it?
“Leonard Cohen: A Crack in Everything” is on view at the Jewish Museum April 12–September 8, 2019.