Saturday, October 29, 2011

Gordon Cook

Eastside Road, October 29, 2011—
IT'S TOO LATE to tell you about it; the show closed today; but the work of Gordon Cook has found its way to a new home in San Francisco's George Krevsky Gallery.

Born in Chicago in 1929, Cook came to San Francisco in his very early twenties, working at first exclusively as a realist printmaker specializing in botanical subjects, moving on to figure drawing, finally, after his marriage to the painter Joan Brown, developing his unique qualities as a painter.

It does him no disservice to mention that his paintings inescapably bring Chirico and Morandi to mind. His palette, lighting, edges, scale, and composition refer to their sense of dramatic realism, enigmatic statement, quasi-enchanted awareness; but the subjects — boats in the low Sacramento Delta light, gas tanks at the Richmond refinery, even the featureless Amish dolls — all convey a sense of specific place.

Guston is here too, in the curiously vulnerable, clearly humanistic content of his images, at first encounter utterly removed from subjective emotion, later growing in sympathetic resonance.

I once had a heated discussion with Cook: I was trying to persuade him of the possibility of painting from imagination, thinking up forms, even subject-matter, that didn't exist in fact. No, he said, That would be absolutely immoral; one can't legitimately paint objects that one hasn't actually seen.

So in order to paint his stick figures, men rowing boats, silhouetted kissing couples, he first actually made them, using thin wood, cardboard, glue, and paints of course. His sculpture is in fact maquettes made for posing for their portraits: he brings the concentrated gaze of the figure-painter (and, even more, draftsman) to the contemplation of the bulk, edge, directionality, even purpose of these three-dimensional inventions.

On another occasion, shortly before his early death in 1985, I sat in on a talk he gave to a number of graduate painting students at Mills College. One asked him about the repeated canvases depicting that gas tank in Richmond: why did he paint it over and over again?

My dealer asks me that too, Cook replied. Then, more seriously: I'm just trying to get it right.

What I love about the painting of the San Francisco Bay region, at its peak, among other things, perhaps most of all, is its morality, its ethics. Gordon Cook was among the most persuasively pure practitioners of any of them. His work, like his example, is haunting, and it's good to see it out there again. An artist of enormous presence and import, clear-thinking, poised, whose work has the compact kind of energy we usually call power. The exhibition has closed; images remain on view here.

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