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Thomas Cohn. Photo by Sofia Borges

Thomas Cohn


Sofia Bullrich

On the evening of Monday, February 5, my dear friend Thomas Cohn died at the age of 83. After two years of fighting cancer, his departure left behind an important cultural and spiritual legacy.

Born in Beuthen (in Bytom), an industrial city that until 1945 was part of Germany and today belongs to the southeastern region of Poland, Thomas Michael Siegried Cohn was forced to flee his hometown with his mother and cousins at the tender age of 5 as result of Nazi anti-Semitic pressure. He moved to Uruguay where he lived for 23 years. In October of 1962, he left for Brazil with his first wife (and current gallery associate), Myriam Tenenbaum, first moving to Rio de Janeiro and then to São Paulo. Cohn first delved into the art world as collector and eventually as gallery owner.

Brazil awoke in Thomas a love for art. He would say that his "passion for the visual arts was a product of Brazil." In the early 1960s, a timely recommendation by Antonio Días, then a young 19-year-old artist from Rio de Janeiro, led Thomas to purchasing works of art by artists from Días's generation. Back then, Brazil offered a rich international cultural platform with its 1965 and 1967 art biennials, which, in combination with Días's recommendations, developed Thomas's knowledge and interest in art. His frustration with not having a strong enough "influence" in the market as a collector led him to his next professional role as a gallery owner that sought to develop international collections in Brazil. In March of 1983, Thomas Cohn opened the gallery named after him in Rio de Janeiro's Ipanema neighborhood. It was then when the gallery entered into contact with young artists like Leonilson,  Adriana Varejão, and Leda Catunda, among others who would go on to become part of the 1980s generation. Thomas would work to develop their careers in Brazil and their projection abroad at international museums and collections, also pushing for their participation in international fairs like ARCOmadrid, Düsseldorf, FIA, Caracas and arteBA, Buenos Aires, among others.

"The gallery's intention was always to change things, to reject the status quo […]. The incorporation of Leonilson marked the innovative path taken by the gallery," explained Thomas during a recent interview when addressing the decision to add the then 25-year-old Brazilian artist. Considering that it was only 1983, the move represented a very early bet on the careers of young artists. It became a modus operandi that Thomas would follow his entire life. And he advised friends and collectors to do the same, forging in the process a legacy as a gallerist that nurtured the careers of many artists. In 1997, the gallery was moved to São Paulo.

Thomas's vision and actions are undoubtedly his greater legacy.

He always opposed marginalization as well as the lack of criteria and passion for art. Passionate about all artistic expressions, particularly the visual arts, film, and jewelry, Thomas spent his entire life looking for perfection, innovation, and beauty that did not necessarily have to be "beautiful." He travelled to remote cities to personally meet the artists that he would represent, with the goal of getting to know them and learn from them so he could properly convey their visions; qualities inherent to a gallerist that in his case came naturally. In 2012, he decided to close his gallery after 30 years of activity because, in his own words, "The choice was clear: to follow or not for the rest of my life a formula that used to be positive but that now has become repetitive […]." Loyal to traditional supports and to a, now booming, market that he no longer identified with, he instead opted to focus on the commercialization of designer watches and contemporary jewelry, transforming his gallery into the first one of its kind in Latin America.

"Contemporary jewelry has been developing for the last 40 years. It has a history, a bibliography, and evolves alongside visual art. Most creators of jewelry are women and some of the pieces created are worthy of the best galleries […] I toured Europe (Switzerland, Germany, Belgium, and The Netherlands), met gallerists and jewelry artists (mostly women)… and the result was very good. After months of round-the-clock research, I compiled a list of artists who, in my opinion, are responsible for the most important proposals in the area […] my goal is to position jewelry within the visual arts context (where it belongs), and to incorporate it in the activities of the art world, including the art fairs. If museums collect jewelry and do not discriminate, then why does the art market?" explained Thomas the day he began his new project on August 3, 2013.

He worked until the last days of his life and enthusiastically planned his next professional steps, supporting with his vision a group of very talented artists from around the world. He is already irreplaceable for those of us who had the opportunity of knowing him, and for those that did not I recommend the recent interview recorded by his daughter, Vivian Gandelsman, on her homepage Artload. The only thing left to say, for now, is goodbye my dear friend!




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