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2010/11 Winter Catalogue > 1. Cook, “Howard Cook’s Incomparable Image of a Mexican Fiesta

1. Howard Cook’s Incomparable Image of a Mexican Fiesta

Howard Cook. “Fiesta” (“Fiesta Taxco”), 1933. Etching on India paper, from a proposed edition of 50, 30 were printed. 10 3/4 x 14 1/4" at plate mark. Sheet: 12 x 16." Signed and annotated in pencil at l. r.: Howard Cook imp. 1933. Note at l.l.: 50 prints. Very fine condition. An exceptional impression.

Price: $20,000. [ Order ]

In his lifetime, Howard Norton Cook (1901-1980) developed a national reputation as a painter and muralist. Today, however, he is better known as one of America’s premier printmakers. His printmaking spanned five decades, with his work of the 1920s and 1930s considered to be his finest. The skillful execution and lively mood of this Taxco scene make for a fine summation of Cook’s printmaking achievements during a sojourn in Mexico—a time when he produced many of his strongest images.

Cook traveled to Mexico in 1932–33 on Guggenheim Fellowship in order to pursue “a pictorial study of a civilization unaffected by the machine age,” as he wrote in his application. “To make a series of drawings and prints in etching, wood-engraving and lithography depicting the people of Mexico, their occupations and crafts, their peaceful and self-reliant lives.” The village of Taxco provided the perfect setting. He and his wife, the artist Barbara Latham, settled there after a brief stay in Mexico City. By then, Cook had fallen under the spell of the Mexican muralists, especially the work of Diego Rivera, whose aesthetic and stylistic innovations inspired a turning point in Cook’s work. Up to this time, Cook had created mostly abstract cityscapes and some landscape prints, but under the influence of the muralists, he now applied modernist principles to the human figure. During his year and a half in Taxco, he made countless portrait studies from locally hired models and became a keen observer of the colorful village life and its customs. While Cook abstracted his figures into idealized shapes with powerful tonal contrasts, at the same time he maintained a genuine sense of human warmth. The artist became a keen observer of the colorful village life and its exotic customs, notably indigenous religious festivals. His first fresco mural, Fiesta—Torrito, was painted in 1933 over a doorway in the lobby of the Hotel Taxqueño. It depicts a raucous display of fireworks in the village plaza, held as part of a series of fiestas.

The subject matter of the etching titled Fiesta is perhaps related to that of the Taxqueño mural, although its atmosphere is more ordered and serene. Here, merrymakers, vendors, and animals fairly overflow a densely packed scene of calm conviviality. A musician strums a guitar and sings; imbibers crowd up to a canopied cantina; men jostle for glimpses of wares offered in nearby booths; and a woman in the foreground sells roosters. Cook achieves a sensitive depiction of local customs with a masterful manipulation of formal elements. As Janet Flint observes, Cook’s figures are “delineated with strong draughtsmanship and intense, sculptural contrasts of dark and light. The dark tones, composed of many fine, sensitively etched and inked lines are not opaque, but richly luminous. Indeed, light seems to pervade the image . . . Cook has simplified and grouped his figures in rhythmic arrangements of interlocking planes and angles. As in his murals, realistic space has been virtually eliminated in favor of maximal use of planar space.” The formal innovations of Cook’s Mexican phase and his deep reverence for the Mexican culture combine in a wonderful balance of form and content. Fiesta is one of Cook’s figural masterpieces—an exquisite work by the great master of American Modernist printmaking.

Original imprints such as the one offered here are held in a number of important permanent collections including the Brooklyn Museum of Art, the Library of Congress, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Smithsonian Institution, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Yale University Art Gallery.

Refs.: Richard Cox, “Yankee Printmakers in Mexico, 1900–1950,” in James O’Gorman, Aspects of American Printmaking (Syracuse University Press, 1988), pp. 218–222 (illus.); Janet A. Flint in Duffy, The Graphic Work of Howard Cook: Catalogue Raisonné (Bethesda Art Gallery, 1984), pp. 23 (illus. in text), 36–37, 124 (illus.), cat. no. 173.

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