Thomas Cohn: interview

Calling it quits, one of the city’s oldest art galleries closes

Thomas Cohn

The storied art gallery Thomas Cohn closed its doors on 31 March, almost 30 years after it first blazed an idiosyncratic trail through Brazil’s art world. The pioneering gallery, which first opened its doors in Rio de Janeiro in 1983, helped to discover and promote some of Brazil’s leading art talent, including Leonilson, Leda Catunda and Adriana Varejão.

It also brought iconic international artists such as Diane Arbus to Brazil for the first time, gave star stylist Alexandre Herchcovitch his first solo show after the gallery moved to São Paulo in the late-1990s, and represented the famous British sculptor Tony Cragg and Japanese-Brazilian artist Oscar Oiwa right up to its closing days. Time Out caught up with the gallery’s co-owner and leading light Thomas Cohn, in March 2012, to talk about the Brazilian art market today, his career highs and lows, and what comes next.

How did you get started in the art world?
I came to Rio de Janeiro from Uruguay in 1962 with my [first] wife, Myriam. I was working at an optical and medical supplies company at the time, and eventually became president of the firm. Partly because we’d left all our friends and families behind, we started going to art galleries here in the evenings, and buying some works. But we also started to meet young Brazilian artists – Antonio Dias, who was 19 at the time, Roberto Magalhães, Frederico Morais the art critic, and others – and eventually, the artists told me the art I was buying was ‘secondhand’, and that I should try to promote artists of my own generation.

So we sold everything we had bought beforehand, and started collecting their works. At first it was a hobby, but it became an obsession – a real obsession. Any time I travelled for work, I went to every possible museum and every possible gallery, in Europe – London, Germany, Paris – and New York and Japan. I went to Japan eight times. Uruguay had some good artists, some good ceramicists; but nothing like the explosive scene here in Brazil. Brazil became the meaning of my life.

You helped to start the careers of several leading Brazilian artists, among them Leonilson and Adriana Varejão. What did you see in them? Or to put it another way, what do you look for in art?
If I had to narrow it down to one word, it would be ‘magic’. With Leonilson, I felt it the moment I saw it.  And [Oscar] Oiwa also opened the door to that, but in a different way. I saw two paintings of his, and that was enough. It was different with Adriana Varejão. She came to the gallery twice, and I said, ‘You’re a good painter, but find something to say. Good painting is not enough.’

Then one day she came by, after a visit to Ouro Preto, and was very insistent that I see her works. I went to her atelier, a modest space that she shared with two other artists, and saw two paintings, one which was half-finished. I saw it and said, ‘That’s it.’ We gave her her first solo show.

What have some of the highlights of your career been?
Tony Cragg, without a doubt.  And Leonilson, Adriana Varejão, Oiwa. My third exhibition was Leonilson, and he was my first discovery. We gave him his first solo show in Rio – we held a simultaneous exhibition with Luisa Strina here in São Paulo. But after the show, four of my artists – Carlos Vergara, Tunga, Sergio Camargo and José Resende – left the gallery, because they thought a young unknown shouldn’t be exhibited alongside them. That was a huge blow to me. I was tempted to close, because I’d lost my best assets. But I had to continue. 

What’s your sense of the art market right now, and how has it changed in the last three decades?
Twenty years ago, Brazilian art was practically non-existent in international art circles. I think the galleries – not just us but other galleries too – put Brazil on the map, by going to art fairs and so forth. And that was my purpose from the start.

It seems like new galleries are popping up constantly in São Paulo these days.
That can be dangerous, because there aren’t enough good new artists [popping up] every week in Brazil to sustain all the galleries. I think there’s a good generation of painters right now, but it will take time for them to develop internationally, with the economic crisis abroad. Right now, art galleries are a good business – but for how long? Art is for people who have spent everything – on a first, second, third, fourth car, on a house on the beach, and on a yacht. After that, they decide to buy art. 

Why close your gallery now?
Well, 80 per cent of the galleries here now show young artists, which we were the first to do, when we started. Lots of galleries now show artists from other countries, and we were the first to do that too. And lots of galleries now exhibit at international art fairs: when we started the gallery, we were the first to do that. At this stage, at this age, what could we propose that would change the market?  Not much. The market is overcrowded right now. I’ve always told my artists, ‘Don’t repeat yourself.’ But this became repetitive. It became boring. I’m 78 years old. My life is not over and I want another challenge. To start something new, something that could change the market.

So what comes next?
I’m going to open, in the next 2-3 months, a design watch shop in Jardim Paulista, with watches designed by architects, artists and designers in Scandinavia, Norway and the USA. There’s nothing like that in Brazil – it’s a niche, and I’ve found I can choose who I want to work with, because there’s no one else doing anything like this. I’m calling it ‘art in 40 millimetres’, or art by an author – art you can wear. For example, Frank Lloyd Wright and Phillipe Starck have designed watches. I’ve thought about asking Niemeyer to design a watch.

I know it’s a risk. I’m completely aware it’s a risk. I’ve never sold a watch in my life, so this is something that really challenges me. But the process of learning, starting from zero: that’s what really interests me. And watches, the way I see it, are an extension of the art business. What you’re paying for is craftsmanship. I’ll be working with some companies that make only 15-20 watches a year. 

By Grace Fan


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