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  Howard Cook. "Cocoanut Grove,"
Cook, Cocoanut Grove
Howard Cook. “Cocoanut Grove” (“Cocoanut Palms”), 1932. Etching. Edition of 30. Signed in pencil, lower right: Howard Cook imp. Sheet size: 9 5/8 x 12 1/2". Fine condition.


Until the early 1930s, Howard Cook had focused primarily on architectural studies and landscapes as the subjects of his powerful prints. A Guggenheim Fellowship to Mexico in 1932 provided a decisive turning point in his career, initiating greater interest in the human figure, as well as an expansion of his technical knowledge. While there, Cook fell under the pervasive spell of the Mexican muralists. This was especially true of the work of Rivera, whose skill at combining large groupings of figures and organic plant forms into a balanced, decorative schema impressed the American printmaker. Cook’s work, however, took on a more sublime, individual tone since he was not as interested in the political emphasis of the Mexican painters as he was in their aesthetic and stylistic experiments.

During his year and a half in Taxco, the mountain village where he lived with his wife, the artist Barbara Latham, Cook drew individuals and groups in pencil, ink, and chalk, as well as painting them in watercolor. He produced dozens of portrait studies from locally hired models and became a keen observer of the colorful village life and its exotic customs.

Cocoanut Grove represents one of Cook’s innovative works of this period, a rhythmic interpretation of a harvest scene in Acapulco. The aesthetic power of the composition derives from the geometric patterns created by the dancelike frieze of harvesters, the repetition of tree trunks and flattened palm fronds towering over the figures, the pleated hillsides in the distance, and the dramatic contrasts of light and dark.

Complementing the formal aspects of the print, Cook introduced a new human warmth and almost iconic intensity to his subjects, despite his Modernist tendency to abstract the figure into idealized shapes defined by a palpable chiaroscuro. Consequently, the formal innovations of Cook's Mexican phase and his deep reverence for the Mexican culture combine in a happy balance of form and content.

A fine and striking image by the great master of American Modernist printmaking.

Refs: Richard Cox, “Yankee Printmakers in Mexico, 1900–1950” in Aspects of American Printmaking, 1800–1950, ed. by James F. O’Gorman (Syracuse University Press, 1988), p. 218; Janet A. Flint, “Comments on Howard Cook’s Graphic Work,” in The Graphic Work of Howard Cook, by Betty and Douglas Duffy (Bethesda: Bethesda Art Gallery, 1984), pp. 36–37; no. 175 (illus.).

Copyright 2003, William R. Talbot