The Denis Cohn Gallery


What sort of people start dealer galleries? It has been said a person would have to be crazy to start one up in New Zealand in these difficult times. Denis Cohn, who opened the Denis Cohn Gallery in Auckland last year, considers you would have to be crazy to start dealing in contemporary art in any sort of times. just the same, it is something that he felt he had to do.

Denis Cohn with painting by Maddox
(Photograph by Robin Morrison)

Denis Cohn's long-held interest in painting started at the age of fourteen, with the 'revelation' of a Matisse and Picasso show held in the Manchester Art Gallery at the end of the War. He still remembers with awe and delight a Matisse Odalisque and Picasso's Three Musicians. He at once became a precocious collector: picking up anything of interest that he could find in junk shops.

At seventeen - in the London of John Lehmann's New Writing and all its associated artists - he used to pass by a balcony in Belsize Park where a painter was working. Somebody told him it was Keith Vaughan - an artist whose work he had much admired. Plucking up courage he went and knocked on the door, was admitted, and found himself within walls packed with the' paintings of John Minton, Robert Colquhoun, Robert McBride and John Craxton.

As his first real entry on to the collecting scene, he asked if he could buy a modestly-priced work. Vaughan showed him one of his prints: but he eventually settled for a small and typical gouache of a man sunbathing on cliffs. It cost £20, and he paid it off at a pound a week. To this he later added two Hockney lithographs, which he was able to buy before Hockney's American success.

When Denis Cohn came to New Zealand six years ago he found that he could buy important New Zealand painters at prices within his range. He decided to start out by acquiring mainly works on paper. He found McCahons at around $60; bought paintings by Mrs Tjuane Tibbo. He was impressed by the Illingworth Survey Show and put down quite a sum of money on a canvas. In swift succession he discovered Hanly, Maddox, Walters, Clairmont, Chilcott and Fomison. He tried to cover New Zealand painting from the 'thirties on (through an exhibition at the Auckland City Art Gallery he discovered Lois White.)

CHRISTINE MATHIESON, Final Meeting of Organ Grinder and Fou Fou's Plant,
mixed media, 700 x 920 mm. (Denis Cohn Gallery)

Working as an industrial journalist, Denis Cohn discovered that his interests all centred in the arts here: most of his friends were artists, and he was mixing in the arts social scene generally, going to all the gallery openings. He realised it had become his principle interest in life. With this came the conviction that what he most wanted to do was to run a dealer gallery on his own terms.

For one thing, he felt that there was a lot of young talent around not really being catered for. The schedules of the existing galleries were crowded with long-established artists. This left younger artists without a place to go. He was ready to provide space for them alongside a few better-established people he found were available. At the same time he was making discoveries of some totally unknown painters, some of whom had been working away quietly for years, with little or no publicity.

The other thing he wanted to do was to make works available to those who were just beginning to collect. A visit to an opening party at Outreach, the new Auckland City Cultural Centre, made him realise that there was a whole new and young public who.yere on the verge of becoming collectors, but who were scarcely being catered for. Although contemporary art in New Zealand is relatively inexpensive, the majority of the works seemed beyond the range of the younger public. Denis Cohn's aim is to remedy this if he can.

As a first solo exhibition, the Denis Cohn Gallery showed the work of Christine Matheson. On this page is illustrated one of the paintings from that show.

Originally published in Art New Zealand 12 Winter 1979