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2008 Catalog > 25. Cook, Fiesta

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25. Howard Cook. “Fiesta” (“Fiesta Taxco”), 1933. Etching on India paper. Edition of 50 (30 printed). 10 3/4 x 14 1/4" at plate mark. Sheet size: 12 x 16". Signed and annotated in pencil, l. r.: Howard Cook imp./Mexico. Notation of planned edition size and titled in pencil, l. l.: 50 [in a circle]/Fiesta. Fine condition. An exceptional impression.

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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 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 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. His efforts resulted in his first fresco mural, Fiesta—Torrito, which he 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 print Fiesta is likely 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 not only a sensitive depiction of local customs, 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 image . . . .” The mural-like composition is a brilliant application of spatial principles favored by Rivera and Orozco. Flint notes that against “a framework of intersecting diagonals, 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.” Although Cook has abstracted his figures into idealized shapes 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.

Fiesta 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. 23 (illus. in text), 36–37, 124 (illus.), cat. no. 173.

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