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Ira Cohen, poet, filmmaker, counterculture icon

Ira Cohen appeared to have the ear of a sculpture of Shakespeare at London’s Albert Memorial. Ira Cohen appeared to have the ear of a sculpture of Shakespeare at London’s Albert Memorial. (Ira Landgarten/ File 1982)
By Douglas Martin
New York Times / May 3, 2011

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NEW YORK — Ira Cohen made phantasmagorical films that became cult classics. He developed a way of taking photographs in mesmerizing, twisting colors, including a famous one of Jimi Hendrix. He published works by authors like William Burroughs and the poet Gregory Corso. He wrote thousands of poems himself. He wrote “The Hashish Cookbook’’ under the name Panama Rose. He called himself “the conscience of Planet Earth.’’

But his most amazing work of art was inarguably Mr. Cohen himself. NY Arts magazine in 2008 called his life “a sort of white magic produced by an alchemist who turned his back on the establishment in order to find God, art, and poetry.’’

He died of renal failure in Manhattan on April 25 at age 76, his family said.

Mr. Cohen made his Lower East Side loft an artists’ salon, then left to spend many years on pilgrimages to Marrakech, Katmandu, and the banks of the Ganges. He hung with Beats but rejected being called one. He was an entrepreneur of the arts who didn’t care about money.

Clayton Patterson, a photographer and historian of the downtown scene in New York, suggested that if Mr. Cohen couldn’t be easily summed up, that was pretty much the whole idea: “On the one hand he was part of everything, but on the other he was an outsider to everything,’’ Patterson said in an interview.

In certain artistic and literary circles, Mr. Cohen was a touchstone. “Ira was a major figure in the international underground and avant garde,’’ Michael Rothenberg, the editor of Big Bridge magazine, an Internet publication, said in an interview. “In order to understand American art and poetry post-World War II, you have to understand Ira Cohen.’’

Mr. Cohen was born in the Bronx on Feb. 3, 1935. Both his parents were deaf, as were most of their friends, and he learned early to communicate with signs. “I grew up constantly surrounded by these wonderful, loving people with strange voices like doves cooing in the eaves of a country house,’’ he said.

He graduated from the Horace Mann School at 16 and attended Cornell, where he took a class taught by Vladimir Nabokov. He smoked marijuana and imagined how wonderful certain great writers might have been had they had the opportunity. He dropped out of Cornell, then enrolled at the School of General Studies of Columbia University but did not graduate.

He married Arlene Bond, a Barnard student, in 1957, and they had two children. By the early 1960s they were divorced, and he had taken the same Yugoslavian freighter to Morocco that Jack Kerouac had jumped a year earlier. In Tangiers, he lived and worked with Burroughs and Paul Bowles, the composer and author. He started a literary magazine called Gnaoua, ostensibly dedicated to exorcism. A copy can be seen on the mantelpiece on the cover of Bob Dylan’s 1965 album “Bringing It All Back Home.’’

In the late 1960s, he returned to his loft and perfected his technique of photographing reflections on the surface of a polyester film with the trade name Mylar. Jimi Hendrix, of whom Mr. Cohen made a famous picture, likened the effect to “looking through butterfly wings.’’

In 1968, Mr. Cohen made a 20-minute film using the Mylar technique, “The Invasion of Thunderbolt Pagoda,’’ which has steadily risen in popularity. The original drummer of the Velvet Underground, Angus MacLise, improvised the score, a smorgasbord of Tibetan, Moroccan, and Druidic trance music. A Village Voice reviewer said one left the film “perched full-lotus on a cloud of incense, chatting with a white rabbit and smoking a banana.’’

In the 1970s Mr. Cohen went to Katmandu, Nepal, where he started a hand-operated press to publish manuscripts, some on black rice paper with red ink flecked with gold powder. Corso had left a poem in Katmandu, and Mr. Cohen published it.

He returned to New York in 1981 and moved in with his mother in an Upper West Side apartment. In 1982 he married Carolina Gosselin; they divorced seven years later. After his mother died in 1993, he remained in the apartment until his own death.