Steve Cohen never thought he could be a painter.
“I’ve been painting with light my whole life,” said Cohen, who has been Billy Joel’s lighting director for the past 40 years or so and has designed the lighting for concert tours for everyone from Blake Shelton to Britney Spears. “I was always interested in painting, but I didn’t think I could do it.”
It took a 50th birthday present of oil paints, canvases and an easel from his now-husband, Curtis Cox, that showed Cohen that he could. Then, it took years of encouragement from friends, including Joel and fellow painter John Mellencamp, for Cohen, now 64, to feel ready for his first art show. It will be at White Room Gallery in Bridgehampton, opening Wednesday, with a reception on Saturday night.
“It was just a private expression for me and my creativity,” said Cohen, calling from his studio in Springs, which he happily notes is near the house of one of his inspirations, the late Jackson Pollock. “But people would come over to the house and see them and I’ve been poked and prodded to show them to other people . ; . This will be the first time I’ve gone public with this work.”
Some of Cohen’s abstract paintings utilize Pollock’s drip painting technique. Others are more influenced by Wassily Kandinsky, the Russian artist whose work moved him when he visited Russia on Joel’s groundbreaking tour there and then later in the play “Six Degrees of Separation.”
“Russian art is in my DNA,” he said. “Their constructivist architecture still drives my set design.”
Cohen says that he feels like more of an “experimenter” than a painter. “I’m completely untrained,” he said. “I have no preconceived rules.”
He often finds himself drawn to his studio following a concert, painting while “The West Wing” series plays in the background. “It’s as much a meditative practice as it is something I plan,” he said. “It’s going to be strange having my own work out there.”
Cohen said he hasn’t decided whether his painting, “The Wedding Present,” which he painted for Joel and wife, Alexis, to celebrate their wedding in 2015 will be in the exhibit, “It’s a piece that’s not for sale,” he said, adding jokingly, “Knowing Billy, he would just tell me, ‘Paint me another one!’ ”
WHO Steve Cohen
WHEN | WHERE Aug. 22 to Sept. 10, The White Room Gallery, 2415 Main St., Bridgehampton
INFO Free; 631-237-1481, thewhiteroom.gallery