2009 Winter Catalog, William R. Talbot Fine Art, Antique Maps & Prints Home

2009 Winter Catalog > 11. Cook, “Taxco Market.”

11. A Superb and Rare Example by the Master of American Modernist Printmaking.

Howard Cook. “Taxco Market” (1932–1933). Etching and aquatint on japan paper from an edition of 30. 8 7/8 x 11 7/8" at plate mark. Signed in pencil l. r.: Howard Cook. Fine condition.

Price: SOLD.

The skillful execution and empathetic mood of this rare and charming print make for a fine summation of Howard Cook’s printmaking achievements during a sojourn in Mexico, a time when his best work was accomplished. Cook created the print in 1932–33 during his first trip to Mexico, which was financed by a Guggenheim Fellowship. He had been recommended for the fellowship by print dealer Carl Zigrosser and architect William Spratling. After a brief stay in Mexico City, he and his wife, the artist Barbara Latham, settled in the quaint village of Taxco in a small house overlooking the cathedral. Very few Americans had yet discovered the charms of Taxco, although Cook’s neighbor Spratling by this time had established a salon of sorts in his nearby hacienda. Members consisted mostly of North American intellectuals, but they occasionally also included the artists Diego Rivera and José Clémente Orozco, who were, with David Alfaro Siqueiros, the leaders of the Mexican mural movement.

Cook quickly fell under the powerful spell of the Mexican muralists. This was especially true of the work of Rivera, whose aesthetic and stylistic innovations inspired a turning point in Cook’s career. Cook had up to this time created mostly cityscapes and occasional landscape prints. In Mexico, he focused, as the muralists had, on the human figure, and like them he attempted, as he wrote in 1942, “to realize a portrayal of the serenity and beauty of the lives of the common Mexican people.” Indeed, while in Taxco, Cook concentrated on figural studies, drawing 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.

In Taxco Market, Cook endows his subjects with a dignity and monumentality that result not only from his sensitive depiction of peasants engaged in their daily routine but also from his masterful manipulation of formal elements. As Janet Flynt 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 . . . invoking a presence that is both humble and hieratic.” The mural-like composition is a brilliant application of spatial principles favored by Rivera and Orozco. Flynt 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.”

Complementing the formal aspects of the print, Cook introduces a new human warmth and almost iconic intensity in his subjects, despite his Modernist tendency to abstract the figure into idealized shapes and powerful tonal contrasts. 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. This is a delightful work by the great master of American Modernist printmaking.

Ref.: Duffy, The Graphic Work of Howard Cook: Catalogue Raisonné (Bethesda Art Gallery, 1984), pp. 36–37; cat. no. 181.

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