An immigrant printmaker and painter gives color and light to Depression-era New York City

Max Arthur Cohn was a prolific 20th century artist of many mediums. But whether a silkscreen print, oil painting, mural, or lithograph, Cohn’s work imbues nuanced scenes of midcentury New York City with bursts of color and Ashcan-inspired realism.

(“Rainy Day/Victor Food Shop,” date unknown, seriograph)

His early years echo those of so many early 20th century immigrants. Born in London in 1903 to Russian parents, Cohn and his family settled in America two years later, moving to Cleveland and then Kingston, New York. At 17, he landed his first art-related job in New York City: making commercial silkscreens.

(“New York Street Scene,” 1935, oil)

Silkscreening seemed to become Cohn’s creative focus. At the Art Students League—where he studied under John Sloan—he’s thought to have made his first artistic screenprint, according to the Annex Galleries. In 1940, he founded the National Serigraph Society (a serigraph is another word for a silkscreen print) and exhibited his prints in New York galleries.

Cohn, who spent much of his long life residing in Gotham, is also credited with teaching a young Andy Warhol the silkscreening process in the 1960s, according to Sotheby’s.

(“Washington Square,” 1928, oil)

During the Depression, Cohn found employment at the Works Progress Administration. The small stipend the WPA paid to artists must have been welcome support during these lean years of national financial uncertainty.

“In 1934, as part of the New Deal, he was selected as one of the artists for the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP) and from 1936-1939 the Works Progress Administration (WPA) Easel Project,” states arts agency fineleaf.net.

(“Hooverville Depression Scene,” 1938, oil)

The work featured in this post don’t reflect Cohn’s later artistic style, which became more abstract. Instead, they reveal an artist with a sensitivity to New York City’s rhythms and moods from the 1920s to 1940s.

I’ve read a fair amount about Cohn, and what strikes me most is that he doesn’t seem to belong to any one school. Art historians have described him as a pointillist, modernist, and American scene artist. I see the influence of the post-Impressionists and the Ashcan School, sometimes with a Hopper-esque quality as well.

(“New York City Subway,” 1940s, oil)

There’s no need to categorize him. However you’d describe his style, Cohn—who died in 1998 at age 95—gives us a long-gone midcentury Manhattan of oil drums, el trains, and corner gas stations bathed in magical color.

[First, second, and third images: Invaluable; fourth image: Milwaukee Museum Mile; fifth image: 1stDibs]

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21 Responses to “An immigrant printmaker and painter gives color and light to Depression-era New York City”

  1. Mykola Mick Dementiuk Says:

    The first print looks like 6th Ave & Waverly is it? (Sorry I can’t print up a photo comp went haywire.)

    • ephemeralnewyork Says:

      It could be, but the subway entrance throws me. I can’t remember where the West Fourth Street subway entrances and exits actually were, it’s been so long since I’ve lived in the nabe!

  2. beth Says:

    nice!

  3. Greg Says:

    Love the Victor Food shop image.

    Not sure what is happening in the one where we are looking south from Washington Square Park down Thompson St past the Judson at . . . an elevated train on West Third Street??

  4. Tom B Says:

    Is there a comparable PWAP or WPA in this progressive administration? I don’t see any of this depression era artwork being done anymore. There is no lack of homeless people in this era or am I missing something?

  5. velovixen Says:

    I love the light in the store and building windows of the first image. And he gives workers and industrial buildings dignity without romanticizing him. Put him in whatever “school” you like: I’m glad he’s here.

  6. Bob Says:

    https://ephemeralnewyork.wordpress.com/2008/11/10/john-sloan-and-the-sixth-avenue-el/

    “Sixth Avenue Elevated at Third Street” matches the angle of 1929 photo.

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