What to See at Leonard Cohen: A Crack in Everything

Andrew Rosenberg

Despite a late start—he released his first album at 33—Leonard Cohen had an enormous influence on popular music. He wrote unconventional, confessional pieces, often with very little instrumental backing, so it’s no surprise to learn he started off as a poet (and wrote a few novels along the way). It might seem strange that someone who laid bare so much on the page and in verse—frank talk about spirituality, sex and vulnerability—would have an exhibition dedicated to him that has nary a shred of personal memorabilia nor physical remembrances of the artist at work, but the Jewish Museum’s Leonard Cohen: A Crack in Everything still has an intimate, personal feel.

Rather than notebooks and marked-up lyric sheets under glass, beat-up guitars or famous blue raincoats to admire, the exhibition offers an immersion in the music Cohen made, interviews he gave and art he inspired. It surrounds you, in all kinds of forms and media, thanks to the artists who have created Cohen-related installations. Read on for a look at some of the standouts.

George Fok, "Passing Through," 2017. Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Frederick Charles

The Breadth of a Ladies’ Man

The closest thing to an exhibit introduction is the ground floor’s Passing Through, a looped hourlong video installation from George Fok that offers wall-to-wall screens of performance footage and appearances through the years. (It’s also worth catching some of Kara Blake’s video piece next door to hear Cohen’s pithy observations on the creative process.) You can watch seamless clips of Cohen singing the same song while transforming from youngish bohemian folkie to dapper elder statesman. The pillows on the floor are a bit of a motif throughout the exhibit—each stop is a place to sit, get comfortable, take in your surroundings and contemplate what you’re seeing and hearing.

Ari Folman, "Depression Chamber," 2017. Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Frederick Charles

You Want It Darker

Ari Folman’s Depression Chamber could represent the apotheosis of how to listen to, commune with and get wrapped up in a song. Sign up to enter: Folman’s exhibit can only be “viewed” by one person at a time. Once inside the darkened room within a room, you lie down on a cushioned platform. A projection of yourself appears on the ceiling above and Cohen’s “Famous Blue Raincoat” begins to play. As it does, the lyrics appear on the walls, with the letters morphing into assorted shapes and icons (a Jewish star, fish, a woman’s body). By the end of the song, those images cover your entire body on the ceiling. You’ve been buried alive in Cohen’s words.

Candice Breitz, "I'm Your Man (A Portrait of Leonard Cohen)," 2017. Courtesy of the artist. Photo: Frederick Charles

He’s Your Man. So Are They.

The connected rooms in Candice Breitz’s I’m Your Man are two sides of a coin. The first space shows a projection of the Shaar Hashomayim Synagogue Choir, all in the same outfits and very cohesive, performing just the backup vocals to the entirety of Cohen’s 1988 comeback album, celebrated in the piece’s title. Walk behind the screen to find a room with 18 separate videos of 18 different men—some swaying, some with eyes closed, some looking just a bit disheveled, but all very committed—simultaneously singing the leads to the same songs.

Daily tous les jours, "I Heard There Was A Secret Chord," 2018. Courtesy, Daily tous les jours. Photo: Frederick Charles

From Your Lips, Draw the Hallelujah

Thirteen microphones hang from the ceiling in a second-floor area, the conduits for you to participate in I Heard There Was a Secret Chord from design studio Daily tous les jours. Hum along to “Hallelujah,” perhaps Cohen’s best-known song, and you’ll not just feel connected with those around you but also be broadcast to listeners online—a digital readout reflects their number.

Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, "The Poetry Machine," 2017. Courtesy of the artists; Luhring Augustine, New York; Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco; and Gallery Koyanagi, Tokyo. Photo: Frederick Charles

Words in a Room

If you want to hear the man’s poetry in a new light, veer into Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller’s The Poetry Machine, a spare room in which an old tricked-out Wurlitzer sits in front of an array of mismatched speakers. Take a seat in front of it, press a key and Cohen’s rich voice begins to recite verse from his Book of Longing. Press multiple keys at the same time to hear an overlapping clamor of Cohens.

Leonard Cohen: A Crack in Everything is on display at the Jewish Museum through September 8, 2019. A program of concerts, talks and tours accompanies the exhibition.