Standing in front of a painting by Richard De Cosmis – in his studio, improvised from a garage of his house in Weehawken, NJ – was a revelation to me.
Broken turbulent lines depicted a figure of a man, his torso bent, placed against an abstract background. It was reminiscent of the contorted bodies in the work of Michelangelo and Francis Bacon. But the painting I was looking at had its own unique style and emotional intensity. Who is this artist? And why we haven’t heard of him?
Richard De Cosmis was a police officer. He died last year, leaving behind a large collection of paintings and drawings, as well as a mystery yet to be solved, on the over 100 paintings he produced, in seclusion, over the last 25 years.
I had the honor to be one of the few people to see the collection while it was catalogued by the family, who still didn’t know what to do with all these works.
A series of paintings in which figures are huddled together, positioned off balance, slumping over the other’s shoulder, or even as if floating weightless in mid air, were particularly striking.
His family reveals, that De Cosmis began painting after retiring his 30 year service as a police officer and was a self taught painter, a total outsider in the art world.
However, a great amount of books, sketches, and notes scattered in the studio suggest that he was very conscious about what it was he was trying to achieve.
I look through some handwritten notes: “Traditional out. Paint: or quit!”, “Essentials: mood, emotions, tension” , “Forget realism”, “Reduce Definitions”, “Negative space needs movement.”
In one he also admits being influenced by the New York School of Art and Bay Area Figurative Painters, but yet not following any formal academic principle in painting.
“He was quick to destroy his painting if he didn’t like it,” says his son Richard De Cosmis Junior, who is also a police officer. He tells me that his father would spend most of his day in the studio painting, but no one in the family could really comprehend what was motivating him.
He showed his works to few, mostly his family. He didn’t visit museums. He didn’t interact with any other artists. Apparently art books were his only point of reference, and there are plenty of them in the studio.
His son also reveals that De Cosmis, while being very serious about his works, never looked for public recognition.
“He had one man show once,” he explains “and then he never wanted to be exhibited again. He had many offers to sell his paintings then, but he refused to put a price on them or to part with them.”
Asked what he sees in his father’s works, he said “things he dealt with as a police officer.”
In the studio of the painter all the brushes and tools are still on the table. A collection of art books- De Kooning, Kokoschka, Francis Bacon, Matisse, Muybridge’s “Human Figure in Motion” resting on the bookshelves. And one unfinished painting still on the wall.
I am stricken by the fact that such a profound collection was created without any academic training, any creative surrounding and no direct interaction with other artists.
And I am truly wondering if this man, a former police officer, and a father of five children, might at some point be recognized as a great American painter.