Steve Cohen: A Painter With Light Takes Up the Easel

From lighting arena and stadium concerts to painting on canvas
For Steve Cohen, a lighting designer, painting is an extension of the work he has provided for performing musicians for more than four decades.

When Steve Cohen attended concerts by rock ’n’ roll’s classic artists — Jimi Hendrix, Jethro Tull, Emerson, Lake & Palmer among them — the music was not the only aspect that made an impression. “I would hear the songs,” he said, “but would see whatever the lighting guy would want me to see: a red stage, a blue stage. The next time I’d hear one of the songs, I’d recall that visual.” 

Mr. Cohen is a pioneering lighting designer in the concert-touring industry, a discipline that grew alongside and within the touring industry itself. As rock ’n’ roll became a multimillion-dollar business, its artists filling clubs, then theaters, then arenas, and finally stadiums, sound and lighting technology evolved to augment it. 

As Billy Joel’s lighting director for more than 40 years, he has provided the visual component to the Piano Man’s concerts from Manhattan to Moscow and beyond. He has also designed tours and events for top artists including Elton John, Reba McEntire, Tim McGraw, Lenny Kravitz, Blake Shelton, Justin Timberlake, *NSYNC, Britney Spears, Mariah Carey, Hall and Oates, and Paul Simon, and is at present working with the Eagles, resurrected with Vince Gill and the late Glenn Frey’s son, Deacon, on guitar. He designed and directed “Star Wars: In Concert,” a series of performances featuring a symphony orchestra and choir along with footage from the films, and co-produced the documentary “The Last Play at Shea,” depicting the final concerts at Shea Stadium in Queens before its demolition. 

More recently, he has turned to another visual art: painting. A 50th birthday present — a set of paints and an easel — was the catalyst for this second act, and today, a Springs resident at 64, he is living and working where Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock did before him. “I was drawn to Springs for a reason I didn’t know,” he said. 

His premier exhibition, in August and September at the White Room Gallery in Bridgehampton, which Mr. Joel attended, was a success. A solo exhibition at the Eric Buterbaugh Gallery in West Hollywood, Calif., happens from Nov. 8 to 18, followed by another at Aqua Art Miami, during Art Basel, from Dec. 5 to 9. 

None of this was in mind in 1974 in Los Angeles, when a 20-year-old Mr. Cohen was cold-calling recording artists’ managers from a directory in Billboard magazine. “The first two our little company got meetings with were Earth, Wind & Fire and Billy Joel,” he said. “We had one lighting system. The Billy Joel act had to be covered, so I rented gear from a theatrical rental supply place, cobbled together a small system, and went to work for Billy, flying by the seat of my pants.” 

While he loaded gear into a truck after the concert, “the sound engineer drove up and said, ‘Billy wants to speak to you.’ I was sure I was getting fired.” But back at the Holiday Inn, Mr. Joel poured him a drink. The sound, the musicians, and the set list were the same as on previous nights, he told Mr. Cohen, yet the audience reaction was completely different. “ ‘By process of elimination, we figured it was the lights,’ ” he recalled Mr. Joel saying. He was hired. 

As the musician’s success grew, so did his touring budget, and his staging grew more elaborate. Mr. Cohen’s reputation grew in tandem. “As Billy got more popular, other artists were interested in hiring me,” he said. “My career evolved.” 

Painting, he said, is “a visual extension of the stuff I was doing” as a lighting designer. “I’ve been painting with light for 45 years, and I’m very fortunate to have worked with artists who have given me free rein to execute my vision.” He described that work as “imprinting visual memories on people who’d hear the music again later.” 

Painting was also a way to “make something not so ephemeral, more permanent,” Mr. Cohen said. Diving in with no expectations, “It was a meditative process for me,” he said. “I knew there was something about the Abstract Expressionist movement, what evolved here in the time before the commercialization of that stuff, that era between the late ’30s through the early ’50s. There was something about the lack of figurative work that resonated with me.” 

Russian art also resonated, he said, a discovery made in the U.S.S.R., where Mr. Joel performed in the 1980s, and later at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in Manhattan. “I’m Russian in my DNA,” he said. “I liked something about the Russian version of constructivism. It seems to be in some of the painting I do.” Recent work, he said, “is very much a sort of free-form thing. I let the painting tell me what it wants.”

The White Room show was thrilling, he said, and an opportunity to bond with Mr. Joel in a new way. “I came up to him in the middle and said, ‘It’s pretty strange being the object of people taking pictures, asking questions about your work.’ He said, ‘Pretty cool for a while, isn’t it?’ He’s humble and very happy, but pinches himself every day, like I do. The response was great, with a lot of support from the community. A lot of people I know had no idea this is what I do.”

This second foray into visual art, he said, demonstrates that “there is always an opportunity for growth, and if you’re open to it and have a connection to something that can spur you on, you can do all this. I never thought it would be possible, and then when I did it, I never thought anyone would see it.” The public has not only seen his work, his creations are now featured in private collections. 

Mr. Cohen continues to work as a lighting designer. Mr. Joel’s residency at Madison Square Garden seems set to continue indefinitely (he will perform there on Oct. 27, Nov. 10, and Dec. 19), the Eagles are booked into July, and he takes on occasional special events. “It’s a little different for me now. I don’t find the necessity to go out and beat the bushes, but I keep myself in the business. I like to do work with people who inspire me.”

But with two exhibitions approaching, and hopes for more in 2019 on the South Fork and in London, he is spending more time before a canvas than a stage. “For the first time in my life I feel like I belong someplace,” he said. In Springs, “the creative juices are in the air, in the light, in the silence by the water. I don’t really have any expectations other than I want to be able to have the resources to have the time to paint. If people like it, they’ll want it, and I’ll do more.”

Above are examples of his lighting design for Billy Joel (top) and Andrea Bocelli.
Steve Cohen’s “Circo,” an oil on canvas painting, is another example of the lighting designer’s visual art.