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2008 Catalog > 24. Cook, Acapulco Girl (Cocoanut Palm)

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24. Howard Cook. “Acapulco Girl (Cocoanut Palm),” 1932. Wood engraving. Edition of 30. Signed and dated in pencil, lower right. Image: 10 1/16 x 8". Sheet: 12 x 10". Duffy: 172. Strong impression in fine condition with beautiful tones of black and white.

Price: SOLD.

Although Howard Norton Cook developed a national reputation as a painter and muralist during his lifetime, he is perhaps even better known today as one of the premier American printmakers. His printmaking spanned five decades, but his best work, as well as the greater part of his output, was made in the 1920s and 1930s, the period to which the present print belongs. The print’s skillful execution and exquisite play of light and dark 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 quaint village of Taxco, where he and his wife, the artist Barbara Latham, settled after a brief stay in Mexico City, provided the perfect setting. While there, Cook fell 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 career. The American had up to this time created mostly abstracted cityscapes and occasional landscape prints, but under the influence of the muralists, he now applied modernist principles to the human figure.

In Taxco, Cook produced numerous drawings of both individuals and groups in pencil, ink, and chalk, as well as painting them in watercolor. He made dozens of portrait studies from locally hired models and became a keen observer of the colorful village life and its exotic customs, notably indigenous religious festivals, many of which were held in the town plaza.

Acapulco Girl offers a fine example of Cook’s period of Mexican portraiture. Here Cook applied the lessons he learned from observing “Rivera’s skill at combing large groupings of figures and organic plant forms into a balanced, decorative schema,” writes Richard Cox. Cook poses a village girl, her head covered by her white rebozo, before a “delectable southern Mexico tropical landscape.” In the deep background, Cook includes a charming vignette in which tiny inhabitants, a pig, and a dog make their way through the narrow streets of the girl’s village.

Cook achieves not only a sensitive depiction of both individual personality and the local way of life, but also 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

. . . .” Although Cook has abstracted his figure into an idealized shape with powerful tonal contrasts, he has not abandoned a genuine sense of human warmth. 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.

Acapulco Girl is one of Cook’s figural masterpieces, an exquisite work by the great master of American Modernist printmaking.

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. 36–38, 124 (illus.), cat. no. 172.

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