Shades of Leonard Cohen


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When Leonard Cohen famously turned his back on the music industry in 1994, he retreated to a Zen monastery more than 6,000 feet above sea level on Mt. Baldy, in the San Gabriel Mountains near Claremont McKenna College. The musician took the name Jikan — meaning “the Silent One” — and devoted himself to an ascetic lifestyle and to the study of Rinzai Zen philosophy.

His five years in seclusion left a gaping lacuna in the musician’s eclectic career. Few people know why Cohen, born to a Jewish family in Montreal, ensconced himself in the monastery’s regimen of meditation and reflection. But “Drawing From the Heart,” a new exhibition of Cohen’s art at Claremont McKenna, throws light on that chapter of his life.


With more than 50 prints of Cohen’s paintings and drawings, the show is a broad survey of his work during the last 40 years. Recurring motifs include the female nude and self-portraits of the artist’s wizened face. But there are also cryptic, slyly comic references to his time on Mt. Baldy.

In one work, “Dear Roshi,” Cohen depicts a nude goddess ...

... alongside a brief letter to his elderly monastery instructor. In the letter, Cohen calls himself “a useless monk” and asks Roshi’s forgiveness for meeting (and presumably falling in love with) a woman.

“Leonard has a wry sense of humor. There’s a clarity and tremendous cutting humor in his work, even amidst the brokenness,” said Bob Faggen, the organizer of the show and a friend of Cohen.

Concurrent with the exhibition is the Southern California premiere of Philip Glass’ song cycle “Book of Longing,” based on Cohen’s 2006 volume of poetry. Glass will perform on keyboard with eight musicians and four singers. (The Feb. 25 through March 1 concerts are at the Garrison Theater, a few blocks from the art show at the Marian Miner Cook Athenaeum.)

Glass said the idea for the song cycle originated in a long conversation he had at Cohen’s L.A. home. The project was put on hold when Cohen entered the monastery but was revived after the publication of his book. “People don’t read poetry books chronologically, and I wanted to replicate that experience, as if the listener was subjected to random shuffling,” said Glass. The song cycle takes 22 poems and arranges them into thematic chapters dealing with love, Dharma, ballads and Cohen’s biography.

Like his visual art, Cohen’s poems make direct references to his reclusive Zen period. In the song “I Came Down From the Mountain,” he writes about his exodus from the monastery and his moment of self-realization: “I finally understood / I had no gift / for Spiritual Matters.”

Cohen, 74, was recently in Australia on a world tour and didn’t respond to requests for an interview. Apparently, Jikan the Silent One lives on.

-- David Ng

“Drawing From the Heart,” Marian Miner Cook Athenaeum, 385 E. 8th St., Claremont. 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Mondays through Fridays; runs indefinitely. Free.

“Book of Longing,” Garrison Theater, 231 E. 10th St., Claremont. 8 p.m. Feb. 25 through March 1. $40 to $50.

Top: Leonard Cohen’s self-portrait ‘It Was the Hat’; bottom: Cohen’s ‘The Little Bird’; credit: Original art by Leonard Cohen / Claremont McKenna College