‘Leonard Cohen: A Crack in Everything’ is not the museum exhibit you might expect

Artists tribute Leonard Cohen in experimental ways at the Jewish Museum's "Leonard Cohen: A Crack in Everything" exhibit. 
Artists tribute Leonard Cohen in experimental ways at the Jewish Museum’s "Leonard Cohen: A Crack in Everything" exhibit.  Photo Credit: Spectrum News NY1

Don’t come to the Leonard Cohen exhibit expecting a typical collection of memorabilia. There are no dog-eared notebooks under glass, no stage fedoras on display. For those of us sick of that sort of thing, let’s quote the man and say “Hallelujah.”

Leonard Cohen’s career followed no typical path so it’s fitting “Leonard Cohen: Crack in Everything,” a collection of contemporary art pieces inspired by his work, is an unusual and deeply moving experience. To its immense credit, one doesn’t need to be a fan of the Canadian author/poet/musician to enjoy this show. But if you are a fan (and if my memory of dorm room posters serves me, many people are), a visit is mandatory.  

Occupying the first two floors (and part of the third) of the museum’s Fifth Avenue Warburg mansion, the elaborate French Revivalist architecture is a perfect setting for the clear-eyed, gravel-voiced troubadour who always seemed a little out of time. Cohen died in November 2016 at the age of 82.

The exhibit begins conventionally, with two rooms showing concert and documentary footage on massive split screens. The one focusing on the music is 56 minutes on a loop, the collection of wisdom and bon mots culled from decades of interviews runs 35. “Poetry is a verdict, not an occupation,” the young Cohen demurs, suggesting it isn’t his place to put himself on a pedestal.

Candice Breitz's installation "I'm Your Man (A Portrait of Leonard Cohen)." 
Candice Breitz’s installation "I’m Your Man (A Portrait of Leonard Cohen)."  Photo Credit: Guy L’Heureux

A highlight piece comes from Israeli filmmaker Ari Folman (“Waltz With Bashir”) called “The Depression Chamber.” You enter a room, lie down on a bed, and, looking at a hazy reflection of yourself, listen to Cohen’s 1971 song “Famous Blue Raincoat.” The lyrics are projected on the walls which dissolve into stick figures and icons representing the world’s religions. They float to the ceiling and eventually land on “your” chest. It is a disorienting and strangely melancholy experience, reflective of Cohen’s oeuvre. (“I think it is a great gift to be serious,” he says in his deep, resonant voice in one of the other rooms.)  

The Canadian collective Daily tous le jours’ “I Heard There Was A Secret Chord” tackles Cohen’s most famous song, “Hallelujah.” Real-time online listener numbers are tracked, and microphones hang from the ceiling like tentacles. Visitors are invited to hum along as the room vibrates to the familiar melody.

Another elegant room features a Wurlitzer keyboard and stacked, 1970s-style speakers. Created by Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, “The Poetry Machine” is an interactive work: pressing the keys trips Cohen’s voice and a line of poetry. You can listen to them individually or create a collage of many, catching different patterns of phrases.  

The best piece (and I’m leaving many out) is Candice Breitz’s “I’m Your Man (A Portrait of Leonard Cohen)” A group of men on a giant video screen sing Cohen’s songs a cappella in an antechamber; through a curtain a huge room displays a circle of senior citizens harmonizing in bright, crisp video. It’s the ultimate tribute to an artist to see the work embraced with such warmth.

 ‘Leonard Cohen: A Crack in Everything’ is on display Friday through Sept. 8 at The Jewish Museum, 1109 Fifth Ave., thejewishmuseum.org.

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