Photo by Norma Holt. Copyright Provincetown Art Association and Museum.
Here is a film clip from the 1960s: a party at Sal’s Place, a popular restaurant then (and now) among Provincetown’s artists and hangers-on. There are many people, tables loaded with food and wine bottles, much merrymaking, many toasts, and general hilarity; at some point the action is out on the deck, and people are jumping off into the water or being thrown off.
And who was filming this scene? Arthur Cohen, who was rarely without a camera.
Arthur did not arrive in Provincetown until 1960, but after that he never spent a summer anywhere else. He returned to New York every winter and loved the city too. Provincetown “fed him,” according to his widow, Elizabeth Rodgers, whom he met in 1968, but New York was sustaining too. (Their famous New Year’s Day parties also reveal that they spent some wintertime in town as well).
His first two summers he stayed in Frenchie’s shack out in the dunes, hiking into town for necessary companionship. In many ways a loner, he also longed for human connection—but not just any human: Arthur had high standards and stuck to his own crowd. That meant, for the most part, the Beachcombers Club, which was a second home to him. Fellow club members remember Arthur walking down the beach from his East End home and ascending the steps to the waterfront club, to sit for hours talking, reminiscing, and always sketching, sketching, sketching.
Arthur is widely known for his beautiful landscapes, particularly of the Provincetown waterfront and harbor. (“That’s an Arthur Cohen sunset,” you might hear somebody say while gazing out at the wharf.) Those who go back far enough will remember his iconic blue Toyota, seemingly permanently parked along the shoulder across from the Holiday Inn (now the Harbor Hotel). If you could have had a look inside, you would have seen that the vehicle was completely decked out with contraptions to allow him to paint: a palette over the steering wheel, places for his paints, shades on the windows, a towel rack, tool box, rigged lights, and a radio tuned to classical music. It was a studio on wheels. You might have been discouraged to approach, however, by a sign on the door: BEWARE OF HOSTILE PROTUBERANCES.
The Toyota was only one example of Arthur’s tinkering proclivity. He was a bit of Ben Franklin crossed with Rube Goldberg. My wife, writer Deborah Minsky, in a Provincetown Banner appreciation, called him “Mister Gadget,” and described his small cottage and studio in the East End as full of “functional pulleys and levers” to facilitate painting and living in such a small space. There was a quiet intensity to Arthur. He was a man of opposites. His friend and collaborator Patty Burke describes him as “so delightful … a great man” and a “curmudgeon” in the same sentence. “He was so many different people in the space of a minute,” Elizabeth says. Deborah notes his “rambunctious tendency to argue,” but there was also his hearty laugh—“Ha!”—in response to the absurdities of the world, and his delight in reminiscing and telling stories. I can still see his wry smile. And while he did have a temper, his very close friend Sal Del Deo describes him “as always a gentleman.” All who knew him recognized his high standards and integrity. Arthur cared deeply about many issues, and it was not unusual to get an eight-page handwritten letter from Arthur when you least expected one.
Gone now over ten years, what does Arthur Cohen leave us, beyond his beautiful paintings, etchings, photographs, and films? Patty Burke describes Arthur as “a genius at catching the moment.” Elizabeth says that some of his works “reflect a kind of peacefulness that he never had as a person but found when he looked at something.”
Dennis Minsky has been a waiter, a seashore biologist, a dune tour driver, a whale watch naturalist, and a conservationist. He is also a writer whose work has appeared in the Provincetown Banner, the Provincetown Independent, Provincetown Arts, and on WCAI radio.