In Memoriam, Alexander Cooper, O.D (1934 – 2020)

COOPER

(From right) Alicia Brown, Alexander Cooper, Roxanne Silent, and Ann Cooper at the 2017 Jamaica Biennial

The National Gallery of Jamaica (NGJ) joins the visual arts community to reflect on the passing of renowned and respected Jamaican painter, Alexander Cooper, O.D, who died on March 10, 2020. Among the most beloved of Jamaica’s visual artists, Mr. Cooper is described as a figurative painter with an interest in abstraction and contemporary styles of painting (Petrine Archer). 

Born Joshua Alexander Cooper in Enfield, St Mary 1934, he realised his innate talent as a young boy at Elletson Elementary School in East Kingston (now the Vauxhall High School) though creating illustrations of Bible stories, requested of him by his teachers. Cooper’s talent also drew the attention of his family and friends who supported his journey into the artistic domain. The validation he received fuelled his passion to pursue the visual arts in a serious way. While growing up, Cooper admired and was inspired by the works of other Jamaican painters such as Albert Huie and Ralph Campbell. Following in their footsteps, Cooper excelled at painted genre scenes which documented the everyday happenings of Jamaican city and rural life (Petrine Archer).

74-042-i62-cooper-alexander-port-royal-tower-1961-ngj

Alexander Cooper – Port Royal Tower, 1961

At the beginning of his journey as a professional artist, Cooper was awarded a government scholarship and matriculated to the Jamaica School of the Arts (now the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts) where he received a substantial part of his training as an artist, graduating in 1959. Cooper then expanded his vision towards a more international perspective, when he moved to New York in 1963 to study at The Art Students League and the School of the Visual Arts. After receiving formal training from among the best internationally, he returned to newly independent Jamaica in 1967 to contribute to the national development of his nation through visual arts.

Cooper was accurately described by Petrine Archer as an artist that emerged “… from a generation of painters that were the children of a newly formed Jamaican nationalism”. Upon his return, “… he set about continuing the work of Edna Manley and the pioneers and, along with fellow artist Osmond Watson began mounting exhibitions and passing on their knowledge at the School of Art (1970s) and other institutions of learning, including Kingston College” (Jamaica Observer 2020). 

Alexander Cooper has received numerous awards for his outstanding contribution to the development of visual arts in Jamaica. He was the recipient in 1962 and in 1964 of first prize in the Jamaica National Fine Arts Competition. Listed among his achievements, in 1965, at a very controversial time in American history for people of African descent, Alexander was the first Jamaican artist to be invited to hold an art show at the U.S. State Department in Washington D.C. (Olympia Gallery). He was presented with the Prime Minister’s Award in 1993 and the Institute of Jamaica’s Silver Musgrave Award in 2001. In 2016, Mr. Cooper was conferred with a national honour – the Order of Distinction (Officer rank) – by the Jamaican Government for his “outstanding contribution to the arts”. In 2017, the NGJ organized a tribute exhibition in honour of his career achievements, featured as part of the Jamaica Biennial of that year. In the accompanying article for the tribute exhibition, Monique Barnett-Davidson (then NGJ Assistant Curator) stated that, 

“Cooper has painted numerous portraits of local and international public figures, including key figures in the Jamaican art world. Alexander Cooper is renowned and indeed beloved for producing genre paintings that present a nostalgic, gently humorous view of Jamaican life, as well as for his portraiture and landscapes”.  

cooper-alexander-old-kings-street-1988

Alexander Cooper – Old King Street (1988), Collection: Bank of Jamaica

Mr. Cooper was well known for his love of displaying the richness and vibrancy of Jamaican life – its people, the landscape and moments in everyday life, both past and present. During his lifetime, Mr Cooper – while representing the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts and the Arts Craftsmen Guild – served as part of the subcommittee used for the adjudication of annual exhibitions at the NGJ.

Alexander Cooper is celebrated as a well accomplished exhibitor locally the 1960s and has during his career, participated in most of the Annual National and Biennial exhibitions at the National Gallery of Jamaica. He has also exhibited internationally, including in New York, Mexico, Canada, London, and Germany. His latest exhibitions such as Celebrating Mothers 1999 and The Village 2002 demonstrated his interest in traditional values and using painting as a medium for social reform. These themes have also made his work attractive to collectors abroad such as Sidney Poitier, Ruby Dee and Angela Bassett, collectors of African American Art who recognize the same strains of race pride in his work (Petrine Archer). One of his most notable exhibitions was his anniversary exhibition entitled 50 Years–Then and Now (2012), at the Mutual Gallery in Kingston, Jamaica (Barnett-Davidson 2017). 

In this light, the NGJ’s Board of Directors, management and staff, honour Mr. Alexander Cooper – one of the founding fathers of the local art community – for his outstanding contribution to the national development of visual arts in Jamaica. 

Sources: 

Archer, Petrine. “Alexander Cooper.” Art  History, News and Reviews. n.d. http://petrinearcher.com/index.php/artist-bio/alexander-cooper

Barnett-Davidson, Monique. “Jamaica Biennial 2017 – Tribute to Alexander Cooper.” National Gallery of Jamaica Blog. 2017. 

https://nationalgalleryofjamaica.wordpress.com/category/alexander-cooper/ 

George A Smathers Libraries. “Alexander Cooper.” Artist Catalogue. n.d. http://exhibits.uflib.ufl.edu/aboutface/artists.html

Olympia Gallery. “Alexander Cooper.” n.p. n.d. http://www.alexandercooper.com/about.html

Jamaica Biennial 2017 – Tribute to Alexander Cooper

Here is the text for the second tribute exhibition in the Jamaica Biennial 2017, which opens this weekend with several events. The Alexander Cooper tribute is on view at the National Gallery of Jamaica in Kingston.

Alexander Cooper was born in St Mary, Jamaica in 1934. In 1954, he received a Government scholarship to attend the Jamaica School of Art (now the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts), from which he graduated in 1963. He also attended the Art Students League in New York and the New York School of the Visual Arts. He spent a number of years teaching at Kingston College and the Jamaica School Art, following his return to Jamaica after his studies in the USA. Alexander Cooper has been a regular exhibitor locally and internationally since the 1960s, and has participated in most Annual National and Biennial exhibitions at the National Gallery of Jamaica. One of his most notable was his anniversary exhibition entitled 50 Years–Then and Now (2012), at the Mutual Gallery in Kingston, Jamaica. He has received several awards for his contributions to visual arts in Jamaica, including the Prime Minister’s Award (1993) and the Institute of Jamaica’s Silver Musgrave Award (2001). In 2016, he was conferred with the Order of Distinction (Officer Class) by the Government of Jamaica. Cooper lives and works in Cooper’s Hill, St Andrew, Jamaica.

Tribute

Today, Alexander Cooper is renowned and indeed beloved for producing genre paintings that present a nostalgic, gently humorous view of Jamaican life, as well as for his portraiture and landscapes. However, throughout his career, he has explored a surprising range of aesthetic approaches which have included abstract and expressionist styles and a variety of subject matter. Cooper regularly credits Jamaican artist Ralph Campbell—his tutor at the Jamaica School of Art—for providing crucial insights on the development of images in paint. He has also credited American painter Robert Brackman—his tutor at the Art Students League of New York—who helped him to refine his figure painting technique.

The types of paintings, prints and watercolours that he produced as an emerging artist during the 1960s, coincided with an ethos adapted by the likes of Eugene Hyde, Milton Harley and Karl Parboosingh, who applied elements of modernist abstraction to Jamaican subject matter. Even before going to New York to study around 1963, Cooper’s paintings showed a clear desire to move beyond the foundations of his post-impressionist beginnings, into a more gestural engagement with paint as a medium, as well as line, shape and colour as compositional elements.

By the time he returned to the island a few short years later, he continued his exploration of expressive painting, eventually towards the point of abstraction. Stevedore (1967) is a highly stylized depiction of a male figure, which has been rendered almost exclusively by a multitude of slashing lines of varied intensities. The result is not a static human form but one that appears to be in motion, as the bow of its legs anchors it to the base of the composition. Cooper continued his sojourn in the possibilities of abstract compositions with his Children’s Series of the mid to late 1970s. Here, Cooper attempts to mimic the naiveté of a child’s drawing or scribble, juxtaposed with minimal yet emotive colour palettes.

From the late 1970s onwards, Cooper started focusing on representational paintings, featuring more realistic depictions of people and environments. Though more conservative than his previous canvases, Cooper continued to experiment with various approaches to expression in terms of subject, composition and colour. His erotic line drawings of the early 1980s stand out because of their elegant simplicity and more daring subject matter, although the curvilinear, dynamic approach to line and composition ties in those works with the rest of his oeuvre.

Cooper however began to settle for a more recognizable style and subject matter around that time, which is evident in the painting Hide and Seek (1979), which depicts children at play in a garden. This work is quite colourful but is united by a subtle series of blue tonalities evident in the complexion of the children and the surrounding environment. This approach to palette—with particular regards to the use of blue undertones—has become one of the signatures of an Alexander Cooper painting. Though he still practices realist portraiture, Cooper’s genre scenes have acquired a gently caricatural quality which adds a humorous element to his loving depictions of what he regards as vanishing but valuable aspects of Jamaican life. He has also continued to explore his interest in architecture, in a series of series of historical scenes of Kingston inspired by archival photographs and landmark buildings.

Cooper has painted numerous portraits of local and international public figures, including key figures in the Jamaican art world. There are also paintings and prints that are more surrealist in nature and tie into themes of memory and aspiration.  His Symbol of Life (n.d.) combines both subject areas and is his tribute to the surrealist Jamaican-Australian painter Colin Garland.

Alexander Cooper is one of the most prolific artists of his generation and he is certainly one of the most versatile. We hope that this small tribute will generate greater awareness of the quality and range of his artistic practice.

Monique Barnett-Davidson
Assistant Curator

National Gallery of Jamaica Congratulates Dr David Boxer, Other Associates on their National Honours

Dr the Hon. David Boxer, OJ, with artist Hope Brooks, at the conferment ceremony at his home on August 9, 2016

Dr the Hon. David Boxer, OJ, with artist Hope Brooks, at the conferment ceremony at his home on August 9, 2016

The Board, Management and Staff of the National Gallery of Jamaica wish to express their delight at the announcement that the following artists and associates of the National Gallery are among the recipients of the 2016 National Honours, which were announced on Independence Day, August 6. They are: Dr David Boxer, CD, who is conferred with the Order of Jamaica; Senator Thomas Tavares-Finson, QC, Cecil Cooper, and Basil Watson, who are receiving the Order of Distinction (Commander class); and Alexander Cooper, who is receiving the Order of Distinction (Officer rank).

Dr David Wayne Boxer, CD is an eminent Jamaican art historian, curator, artist and collector. He was educated at Cornell University and the Johns Hopkins University, where he obtained his PhD in Art History. Dr Boxer joined the National Gallery of Jamaica in 1975 as Director/Curator and held this position until 1991, when he became Chief Curator. He retired from the National Gallery in 2013. During Dr Boxer’s tenure, the National Gallery developed from a fledgling institution to what is now the largest and most prominent national art museum in the English-speaking Caribbean, with an extensive collection of Jamaican and other art and an active and diverse exhibitions programme. Dr Boxer is widely recognized for his scholarship on Jamaican art, particularly on the work of Edna Manley, the Intuitives and early Jamaican photography, on which he has published extensively. Dr Boxer is also an internationally recognized artist, whose mixed media work addresses postcolonial politics and existential angst by means of complex references to art history and visual culture. Dr Boxer is conferred with the Order of Jamaica for his “invaluable contribution to the National Gallery of Jamaica and the development of Jamaican art.” He was previously conferred with the Order of Distinction (Commander class), and is also the recipient of the Gold Musgrave and Centenary Medals of the Institute of Jamaica. Dr Boxer, who has been ailing, received the Order of Jamaica today, Tuesday, August 9, at a special ceremony at his home.

Senator Thomas Tavares-Finson, CD, QC, Chairman of the NGJ

Senator Thomas Tavares-Finson, CD, QC, Chairman of the NGJ

Senator Thomas George Lewis Tavares-Finson, QC, is a noted Jamaican politician, attorney-at-law and art collector. He was educated at McMaster University; the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London; and the Honourable Society of the Middle Temple. Senator Tavares-Finson has been a nominated commissioner of the Electoral Commission of Jamaica since 2006 and previously served as a member of the Electoral Advisory Committee from 2005-2006. Senator Tavares-Finson is presently the President of the Senate and was called to the Inner Bar earlier this year. He was recently appointed as the Chairman of the National Gallery and had also previously served on its Board. Senator Tavares-Finson is conferred with the Order of Distinction (Commander class) for his “distinguished contribution to the Electoral Commission and the legal profession.”

Cecil Cooper at his studio in November 2015 (photograph courtesy of Donnette Zacca)

Cecil Cooper, CD, at his studio in November 2015 (photograph courtesy of Donnette Zacca)

Cecil Harvey Cooper is a noted and influential Jamaican painter, art educator and singer. Cecil Cooper was educated at the Jamaica School of Art, now the Edna Manley College, and also attended that Art Students League and the School of Visual Arts in New York City. He served as the head of the Painting department of the Edna Manley College from 1981 to his retirement in 2009. He has exhibited widely in Jamaica and internationally and his work is represented in major art collections, including the National Gallery of Jamaica collection. Cecil Cooper is also a classical tenor, renowned for his powerful voice and operatic delivery. He has previously served as a Board member of the National Gallery of Jamaica and was recently reappointed to the Board. Cecil Cooper is conferred with the Order of Distinction (Commander class) for his “invaluable contribution to the arts.”

Basil Watson CD

Basil Watson, CD

Basil Barrington Watson is an internationally recognized Jamaican sculptor who was educated at what is now the Edna Manley College. Basil Watson, who is also a superb draughtsman, is acclaimed for his daringly balanced, dynamic depictions of the human form. His many public and private art commissions in Jamaica including the statues of Merlene Ottey and Herb McKenley at the National Stadium; the sculpture “Balance” at the Doctors Cave Bathing Club in Montego Bay; and various sculpture commissions for the Petroleum Corporation of Jamaica, including “Emerging Nation” in Holruth Park. Mr  Watson has previously served on the National Gallery Board. He is the son of the late Prof. the Hon. Barrington Watson, OJ, Jamaican master painter. Basil Watson is conferred with the Order of Distinction (Commander class) for his “outstanding contribution in the field of Jamaican art.”

Alexander Cooper, OD, at this studio

Alexander Cooper, OD, at this studio

Joshua Alexander Cooper is a major Jamaican painter who emerged during the Independence period. He was an early student of the then Jamaica School of Art and Craft in the 1950s and also attended the New York School of Visual Art and the Art Student League. While his diverse oeuvre also includes gestural abstractions, Alexander Cooper is today best known for his whimsical depictions of street life in Downtown Kingston in times past. Mr Cooper has previously served on the National Gallery Board. Alexander Cooper is receiving the Order of Distinction (Officer rank) for his “outstanding contribution to the arts.”

The Board, Management and Staff of the National Gallery of Jamaica extend their heartfelt congratulations to Dr David Boxer, Senator Tom Tavares-Finson, Cecil Cooper, Basil Watson and Alexander Cooper on their well-earned National Honours.