Live Fast, Die Young

Mirit Cohen was a talented young Israeli artist who seemed destined for a stellar career. Why did she take her own life, and why is her work almost forgotten today?

Dakia Karpel
Dalia Karpel
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Dakia Karpel
Dalia Karpel

In the studio of art collector Benno Calev can be found a selection of splendid drawings and works on plywood by Mirit Cohen from the 1970s. Viewing them is an exciting experience. I promised not to reveal the precise number of works, but there were enough to serve as a reflection of the life of an artist who is gone and nearly forgotten.

The plywood panels look all battered and nicked, as if Cohen slashed them up in a burst of violence. In a 1990 poem, Yaakov Besser described how he and Mirit celebrated her 24th birthday at a cafe in Tel Aviv. Afterward they went to her studio apartment, which was her all-purpose space: studio, bedroom, dining room. Besser watched as she placed a rectangular piece of plywood on the table and began stroking it. First with one hand and then with both before she squeezed it with an iron hand: "She unsheathed her fingernails and chiseled away with them until drops of blood dripped into the scratched-out cracks, and the pale, pale plywood, interwoven with white strands, turned redder and redder. And the cracks deepened in her face, too, which was frightened. When she raised her wet hands, she pressed them to her chest as if clutching in them the fist-like muscle of her fervent heart ... "

Mirit Cohen, 1980

Mirit Cohen is a wonderful artist who remained unappreciated, and her contribution as a key creative force is not recognized nowadays on the local art scene. But the old-timers among us remember her, from her exhibitions in the 1970s and the memorial exhibition entitled "Kesher Shever" that was presented at the Israel Museum four years after her death. Bella Cohen, her sister, who lives in New York and oversees her estate, says that for a decade now the Tel Aviv Museum of Art has been planning to hold a comprehensive exhibition of her works. Curator Ellen Ginton, who is supposed to oversee the show, said this month that no date has yet been set.

On May 3, 1990, Mirit bought a bouquet of flowers, went up to the roof of a building not far from the La MaMa Theater in New York, and leaped to her death. She was 45. She left a letter for her sister, asking for forgiveness. "I wake up, eat, sleep, stand, drink, walk. I don't have the strength to go on." She asked to be buried in a Jewish cemetery and not outside the fence, and suggested that her death be attributed to her having been a chronically ill person who wasn't in her right mind at the time. Her request was fulfilled: She was buried in a Jewish cemetery in Queens. Mirit's life took a convoluted path. She was destined from birth to be an artist, and art filled her life, but the creative passion couldn't assuage the sting of loneliness. It was a grave, incurable loneliness. Eight years after her death, a solo exhibition of her works was presented at the Ulmer Museum in Germany, and an accompanying catalog was published that included an essay by Donald Kuspit, a leading American art critic, who wrote of the broken and shattered forms in Cohen's drawings. She created a sign language, he wrote, describing her expressionist drawing and the way she covered the page with signs and shapes that are at once physical and metaphysical. This tapestry, Kuspit wrote, creates the feeling that it had just been spun by a drunken spider who has lost all sense of reality. Kuspit saw a Morse code of dots and lines in the drawings, and called it an archaic language. In her unique language, he wrote, Cohen revealed the existential terror of her life and the terrible void felt by someone he defined as a Holocaust survivor - because she born at the end of World War II in Uzbekistan and wandered around Europe with her parents and sister for three years until they finally came to Israel in 1948. The sense of isolation and their difficulties adjusting to life here led her parents to feel all alone in the world. Therefore, argued Kuspit, the figures in Cohen's drawings are isolated, standing behind an impenetrable hedge.

Marx in Petah Tikva

Copper Snakes, Mirit Cohen, 1982

Mirit's father, Haim Cohen, was a yeshiva graduate who worked as a machinist in a sock factory in Lodz, Poland. When World War II broke out, he fled with his sister to Russia, but their plan to get the rest of the family out failed because the German army had already reached the border. His sister, who fell in love with a young Russian and remained with him, was killed at Babi Yar, while Haim escaped to Siberia. When he came down with typhus, he was sent to a hospital in Andijan, in eastern Uzbekistan, where he met Rivka Zeidenberg, who was working there as a volunteer.

Rivka was born in Odessa and worked in a factory there. She and her friends fled to Andijan as the Germans approached the city. She married Haim and in 1943 their daughter Bella was born. A year and a half later came Malka Menya, later known as Mirit.

At the end of the war, they took their two small daughters and boarded an Italian ship en route to Mandatory Palestine. When they arrived in Haifa, they were arrested by the British and sent to a detention camp in Cyprus. After the state was founded, they came to Israel, where Haim took part in battles in the Latrun and Sha'ar Hagai areas, and was wounded.

The family lived in a cabin in the Pardes Rosenblum transit camp, which eventually became part of Givat Shmuel. At first, Haim worked in a large factory. After his communist beliefs got him dismissed, he found occasional work at other small factories. The small cabin in the transit camp had one room and a small kitchen area. The lavatory was outside and shared by a number of families.

In the early 1950s, when immigrants from Eastern Europe began leaving the transit camp to "get along in life," the camp became densely populated with immigrant families from North Africa. The Cohen family, left behind with its Yiddish language and its communism, had hardly any connection with the society around it.

Mirit did not like the description that Nessia Shafransky in her 1983 book "Farewell, Communism," gave to the transit camp that was her childhood home. Mirit had fond memories of those days, as a time of freedom and happiness in the open fields, and the vegetable garden her parents kept, where they also had chickens and rabbits. Shafransky, who was a friend of Bella and Mirit, recalled their parents as having warm feelings for the Soviet Union, which had saved their lives. She saw piles of Russian books and magazines in their home. "It wasn't a home where they just struggled to get by. There was respect for the world of ideas and for education and culture," says Shafransky.

Because of the family's limited means, the girls were sent to kibbutz schools, each one on a different kibbutz. In seventh grade, the older girl was sent to Kibbutz Dan, but she returned home after a short time. In 1956, at age 11, Mirit was sent to Kfar Masaryk, and came home for visits just once every three months. "It was hard for her at the kibbutz," says Bella. "She pleaded to return home, but Dad didn't have work and Mom was barely supporting us with sewing jobs. When I went to the kibbutz to see her I found out that she was being harassed and laughed at."

Nessia and Mirit wrote to each other all the time. "We exchanged experiences about the leftist literature we read, like Gorky's Mother,' Nikolai Ostrovsky's 'How the Steel was Tempered,'" and more, says Shafransky. Although she didn't find her place among the kibbutz children, Mirit was an outstanding student and athlete. In 1958, her teacher Hava Ratzon, noticing her talents, sent a drawing of hers to an international competition for children's drawings in Japan, and it won first prize.

After three years on the kibbutz, Mirit returned to her parents' home and began attending ninth grade at a high school in Bnei Brak. Then she also joined the communist youth movement in which Bella and her friend Nessia were members. In her book, Shafransky, who now lives in Pennsylvania, described the rundown state of the youth movement clubhouse on Shtampfer Street in Petah Tikva, where they spent many hours. Pictures of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin adorned the walls, and a ping-pong table, the main attraction of the place, took up most of the room. The kitchen was piled with fliers and placards and stacks of the party bulletins - Kol Ha'am and Kol Lano'ar. The only incentive to clean up the place was the hope of finding a hidden Shin Bet listening device.

The girls were sent out to distribute fliers in workplaces and bus stops in the city's industrial zone in the early morning hours. They tried to sell the party bulletins on Petah Tikva's main street. "Go to Russia!" people would shout at them, but they were not deterred; they would stand there and argue with passersby about the party's just ideology.

At the clubhouse they studied Marxism, read the Communist Manifesto and listened to political coverage of events in Israel and the world. The girls wrote down every word in notebooks, but when they got bored, they also doodled. Nessia recalled this week that she always drew a woman's form but that even then, "Mirit was always drawing abstract figures."

Because of her talents, Mirit was given a scholarship to attend the Tichon Hadash in Tel Aviv for 11th and 12th grades. There she saw for the first time what a home untouched by poverty looks like. That was also her rebellious period: She and her sister refused to join the founding group of Kibbutz Yad Hana and left the Communist Party. That's also the time when she changed her name to Mirit. Along with their political activity, the friends shared the trials of adolescence.

"At 15, Mirit fell off her bike and broke her tooth," says Shafransky. "And her parents didn't have the money for a doctor." It was years before she was able to get her teeth fixed. "She also had a problem with facial hair that was always a big issue. What made it worse was that her sister was really pretty, and Mirit wasn't pretty like her."

Mirit enlisted in the IDF (and in her letters to Nessia she said that during basic training the others treated her like a weirdo ), and served in Kiryat Malachi as a soldier-teacher. "Even after the army, she wasn't yet talking about her dream of becoming an artist," says Shafransky.

Facing the sea

The sisters moved to Tel Aviv, where Bella studied dance and Mirit learned to type and got a job at the Israel Export Institute in the Textile and Fashion Department. The sisters stayed in touch with friends from the Communist youth movement and went to cultural events at the Ahva Club.

Nessia also moved to Tel Aviv. "Our relationship was close, but there were also problems sometimes," she says. "Mirit had a very thin skin, and sometimes she'd get offended when I didn't mean anything. You had to be careful with her."

After a while, Mirit announced that she wanted to study art and theater. She enrolled at the Beit Zvi School of the Performing Arts, but art was her first priority. In 1966 she started studying with Aryeh Margoshinsky at the Higher School of Arts in Tel Aviv (later the Kalisher Art Academy ). Bella says that on Saturdays they would go to Jaffa and Mirit would paint the landscape in watercolors: "She told me: 'One day you'll be my Theo Van Gogh.' That was her hope. How odd to think that she felt that was her fate even then."

Amnon Zaban shared a rented apartment with Mirit on Zerubavel Street. "She was a skinny girl, ascetic and introverted," he recalls. "She didn't work in any regular way and everything about her was poor. And she was desperate for love." Zaban studied at Tel Aviv University and was deputy editor of a literary journal that served as the first platform for Hanoch Levin. Levin and producer Danny Tracz and others used to come to the apartment.

Tracz remembers that Mirit "was a little strange and had a genuine inner non-conformism about her and a need to do what was in her head. There were some people in the communist youth movement that were thought of as artists, and she was one of them. At literary evenings at Menachem Binetzki's place she would recite poetry. The artist Michael Druks and Hanoch Levin and others used to come there."

In 1968, Mirit studied with Yehezkel Streichman at the Avni Institute of Art and Design and in 1969 she began studying at the Midrasha, a school for art teachers that was located in the Beit Histadrut Hamorim building in Tel Aviv at the time. The artist Michal Naaman studied with her in the same class. "She was already a master and knew what she wanted," says Naaman. "And I was a little girl from Lod and six years younger than her. She had amazing green eyes, an iron will and a hot temperament, and she could be very pleasant."

Rafi Lavie was her painting teacher. Cohen demanded that he recognize her as an artist, but Lavie refused. "There was fire and brimstone between them," says Naaman. "He refused to recognize her originality, even though it was clear she was amazing. What I saw was the clash of two people with iron wills. She demanded a higher status and he said, 'You're a student and you'll learn from me.' "She was doing pastel drawings then that related to Arie Aroch, and they were dense and lively and there was something very emotional in them, and Rafi wasn't about to heap effusive praise on them." Naaman recalls that Mirit was thought of as "crazy" back then. "Everything touched her and she was extreme and intense. There was that mustache she was always fighting and those incredible eyes; she was a very sexy woman, too." Later on, Mirit would say that Rafi Lavie destroyed her in those years, that she needed his recognition and he rejected her.

"Lavie claimed that she was crazy and he wasn't about to have a connection with crazy women," says Naaman. Benno Calev also says that Lavie told him Mirit had mental problems. And when Rafi Lavie, who at the time had begun to develop his guru image at the Midrasha, said what he did, it sealed her fate to a large extent.

In 1970, Amnon Barzel was the art critic for Haaretz and a curator. "Mirit Cohen came to me with a portfolio of her works and showed me her paintings, whose nature never changed," he says. "Drawings that reminded me of the works of Aviva Uri. I recommended to Julie Mamon that she show her works at her Julie M. Gallery. They were highly charged works, very electric, and I though Mirit was a real discovery and an extraordinary artist, with a special sensitivity to line and an inner world that was brimming with much suffering. I tried to get close to her. I thought that an art critic should try to help an artist."

Mirit Cohen's first solo show was held at the Dugit Gallery in May 1972. The review in Haaretz said it "showed a strong artistic personality with real heft and expressiveness." The Davar newspaper said that Mirit was an artist who "would yet be talked about." A year later she had another show at Dugit and then at Julie M., as well as at several other galleries in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

Yona Fisher, who was a curator at the Israel Museum, included one of her works in a group exhibition, and in 1974 also acquired for the museum a work on wood and two drawings she called "brain-drawings." Other works were purchased by collectors, and Bertha Urdang took some of Mirit's works to her gallery in New York. The future looked bright.

But then Mirit stumbled. She had an affair with a younger man. There were drugs around. She came out of her first LSD trip all right, but the second one, she told her sister, happened when the drug was put into her drink without her knowledge. It led to a psychotic attack; she was hospitalized and treated with medications.

Bella remembers that Mirit was violent and paranoid: She thought electricity was passing through her body. She hallucinated that messages were being broadcast to her through the metal plate used to fix her front teeth, and she yanked it out. She also shaved off her thick hair.

Amnon Barzel visited her at Abarbanel Hospital. When he inquired as to when she would be released, the psychiatrist treating her replied: Have you seen her drawings? "He said that someone who drew the way she did couldn't be released from the hospital," says Barzel. "He didn't know anything about art and wasn't familiar with her unique language. But that was always her art."

When she got out of the hospital, Mirit returned to her parents' home in Givat Shmuel. Barzel went off to Europe "and our relationship faded. I've felt guilty for leaving her."

Labyrinths of New York

Eight years after Mirit Cohen's death, Adam Baruch wrote in his Maariv column that in 1975, art critic Meir Agassi had left him in the editorial office of the art journal Musag with Mirit Cohen, "who'd brought with her pencil drawings sewn with colorful threads ... The drawings made me think of the nervous system of a person whose skin has been stripped from him so that everything beneath is revealed. And after half an hour, Meir came back in the room and touched Mirit lightly on the head, and she said - I want you to show the sewn-drawings next week at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. Her face was illuminated for a moment and you could see the veins of her forehead, the black of her eyelashes. She got up and danced a little in the room with just herself and then she danced a little in front of Meir who smiled at her, swaying his body a little ... and then she gathered up her sewn-drawings and Meir escorted her to the therapist who was treating her. He waited for the session to end and then he escorted her to the bus."

That same year, 1975, Mirit received a scholarship from the America-Israel Cultural Foundation. In May she wrote to Nessia Shafransky, who was already in America: "I got a scholarship, I sold a few works and I'm not afraid anymore to be without a penny. Finally I have enough. The Israel Museum bought a big wooden work from me, and the Richter Gallery also called me. But you shouldn't write about this to people in Israel. They know more than enough about me and what they don't know they're better off not knowing ... It's also not so easy for me to accept successes."

Mirit was on her way to a three-month tour of Europe, her first trip abroad. Later on in that letter to Nessia she wrote about how happy she was to be getting away from Israel, "from the suffocating atmosphere and the publicity here. Because I've become a rather well-known personality in certain circles and I'd rather this wasn't the case. I want to work and do things without the consequences of the publicity as much as possible, but at the same time I'm also trying to have my work shown as much as possible and at the most prestigious places. I have a recognition complex, of course. And why not? It's human."

In September of that year she arrived in New York and began studying at the School of Visual Arts. She slept on a mattress on the floor, moving among friends' apartments, but she wrote to Nessia that she felt reborn. The city made her happy, but some say that her decision to leave for New York was what kept her from fulfilling the promise she had in the Israeli art world. Or perhaps even more than that. In November she again wrote to Nessia and told her about her troubles acclimating in the city, but said the hours she spent at school were wonderful. She wrote about the teachers, about guest artists she would never have met elsewhere.

In March, 1976 she kept writing about New York: "Despite my loneliness I do not wish to be anyplace else. Actually, I was always lonely. We are all lonely and perhaps that is the reason we choose to be artists." She was studying for a master's degree, but most of the other students were younger; she wrote that she had yet to meet a suitable man, but that she would be patient. She added that she missed the recognition as an artist she had had in Israel, and that she missed Amnon Barzel, who had loved her work in a way no one else ever had.

About a year after Mirit went to New York, Bella also arrived there on a dance scholarship to study at the Merce Cunningham studio. In October 1976 they rented an apartment together, but the arrangement didn't even last a month. "We'd always been close, but we didn't get along well in terms of ego and there was a terrible blow-up," says Bella. "She was making works out of iron and pieces of glass that she shattered with her bare hands." She called these works "mental metal." In 1977 Mirit finished her studies. She and Bella were living in separate apartments, close to one another, in the East Village. The following year, she showed her installation "Metal, Mental, Melted Metal" at the Clocktower Gallery in New York and had a solo show at Julie M. in Tel Aviv, which got good reviews. A year later she had a show at the PS1 Gallery in New York called the "Broken Vessels" project. Throughout those years, Mirit struggled financially and worked at various jobs.

She wrote to Nessia: "I'm about to drown from the burden that I'm carrying. I don't know how to bring people to my studio. They simply don't come. I am becoming aggressive in my demands. One French artist was impressed by my work and promised to introduce me to the right people, but he never called again. All my encounters with people end like that. I don't have anything to offer them except my work."

Michal Naaman met Mirit in New York when she was living there from 1978-1980. "She said she was happy," she recalls. "And for a moment it seemed like New York was listening to her."

Naaman is not sure it is accurate to say that Mirit was an artist who was missed out on. "She always had ties to people of high standing and power and she had power herself. There was a point when it was apparent that she was establishing herself as an artist and I don't quite understand why this stopped. Perhaps she was too easily lumped together with Aviva Uri. And with Uri, too, there was ongoing discrimination."

In 1981, a work by Mirit reached the final stage of a competition for an exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum. The curator Peter Frank called her a bold talent, but in the end her works were not displayed. Frank wrote a flattering piece about her in National Art Guide, but still she was disappointed.

One disappointment followed another. Her relationships with gallery owners in New York did not go well. She didn't like to go along with the customary practice of an artist leaving works in a gallery until they were sold, and would come and ask for them back for fear they would be stolen. She fought with Bertha Urdang, who represented her, and even consulted a lawyer; Urdang ended up returning all her drawings to her.

The artist Joshua Neustein was a friend of Mirit's, and he says she reminded him of Frida Kahlo - "Both in terms of her vital sexuality and as a woman who forged her way in the art world and was alone and not always completely sane. She wasn't depressive," he says. "She had paranoias and there were some sharp contrasts in her. She had a fantastic sense of humor. When she talked to me I didn't feel that the tragic side came from a lack of recognition for her work. A lot of great artists didn't achieve fame in their lifetimes. She did, but just a little."

In the early 1980s, Bella got divorced, became very religious and moved to Crown Heights, the Lubavitch stronghold in Brooklyn. Mirit spent weekends with her sister, and there she met Michael Disant; they were married not long after. But within a year, what started out as love developed into a violent relationship.

Disant was a colorful jack-of-all trades. He was a writer as well as a movie actor. He published short stories and wrote about sports. In his younger days he was a sailor and when he returned to New York he got into meditation and also worked as a hypnotist. Mirit was apparently part of the chapter in his life that was devoted to religious penitence. Nessia Shafransky recalls that after their arguments, Mirit ran away from him and went to her, in North Carolina.

"I broke up with Mickey for good three weeks ago," she wrote to Nessia in February 1982. "I feel a sense of relief and I'm working very intensively. Still without success, still without a possibility of exhibiting the works, but people are coming to see me and I know that one day it will happen, that I'll meet the right person and that I'll connect with the public."

The marriage enabled her to get a Green Card and government assistance that helped her keep her head above water. The option of returning to Israel also came up periodically. "After the divorce," says Bella," Mirit felt like nothing was happening with her art. So she created her 'Woman with Copper Snakes' performance piece and went around to all the prestigious galleries in New York, but no one offered her an exhibit space."

Bella and Mirit's mother died in 1987. It was another tough blow for a fragile soul. But Bella says, "Her depression didn't derive just from Mother's death. Mirit wasn't able to form a close connection either through her art or through friends. Her relationships with men were quick. She was sensual and passionate, and it shows in her works, but she didn't have love. Her loneliness was something internal, and she hoped that through he works she would make a connection with the world."

At one point, Mirit became fanatical about healthy nutrition. She and her sister ate macrobiotic food and Mirit became hooked on vegetable juices and on fasting that was meant to cleanse body and soul. Then she started having hallucinations. Her sister would bring her food, but Mirit wouldn't open the door and the food remained outside. Bella called the police, who came and broke down the door, and Mirit was hospitalized in a psychiatric ward.

"She was there for a month," says Bella. "She ate and took her medications and seemed okay, but she said that the doctors and nurses were Nazis. She continued to be treated with medications after she left the hospital, but they hurt her ability to wor,k so she stopped taking them. I wasn't worried that she would kill herself. She always told me: I would never kill myself."

Flowers in the sky

In her last years, Mirit started signing her works with her given name, Malka Menya. She studied Talmud, read poetry and avant garde literature and, according to her sister, filled notebooks with Hebrew poetry. Her small apartment was crammed to the gills and Mirit felt suffocated living amid all these works that no one wanted. Sometimes she would pack up a few things, wander the streets and go to museums, in the hope that she'd find a bed for the night with a friend somewhere. In the late 1980s, the Guggenheim Museum put on a large show by the German artist Anselm Kiefer, and seeing his works upset Mirit. Bella remembers that she was envious of him and also angry at him "because of the history of my father's family, most of whom were killed in the Holocaust." She accused the German artist Joseph Beuys of Nazism, too.

Mirit planned her death beforehand. She showed her friend Geula Attar where she kept $1,500 hidden in her apartment. She paid her rent for a year in advance to give her sister time to organize the hundreds of works in the apartment. In her will, she requested that her sister handle her artistic estate and added that if this proved too difficult for her, she should donate the works to a museum. But Bella is still looking after her sister's estate, and about six months from now a selection of works will be shown at the Gordon Gallery in Tel Aviv.

"She knew deep down that she was great and real and that she went all out in her art," says Bella.

In May 1990 Bella was preparing to remarry in Israel and have a very small wedding. Her husband-to-be was an only child and wanted to bring cheer to his ailing mother, who was in Hadassah Ein Kerem Hospital. "The wedding was held in the hospital," says Bella." "I explained the situation to Mirit, but she was furious that I hadn't invited her. I told her that she could come to Israel, but she already felt hurt and rejected. Looking back, of course I'm sorry that I didn't press her to come."

A few days before the wedding, Mirit leaped to her death. She knew that an exhibition was being planned for her at the La MaMa Theater, a show that later came to the Israel Museum.

This is what curator Joshua Neustein wrote in the essay that accompanied the exhibition: "The attempt to view her suicide as the necessary and unchangeable focus of her existence would be melodramatic and banal. The flowers that she bought before jumping explain her art to us more than the fact of her suicide. It was a marvelously delicate gesture. Her Chagall-like figure flying through the air, in her hand a bunch of flowers, her dark Byzantine face, her Hasidic hardening - all of this forged an escape path for her from the fire of a life that was all forced and unnatural."



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