Gordon Cook (1927-1985)
A Retrospective of Real Magic
March 13 - April 25, 2010
Curated by Barbara Janeff
Gordon was a large, handsome man, very direct with a sly sense of humor. He was open to the world but critical of fancy art world nonsense and pretentiousness in general. He came out of Chicago. He arrived in San Francisco in 1951 as a well-educated artist specializing in intaglio printmaking. He supported his family as a journeyman typographer, Local 21, while making etchings of flowers and San Francisco landscapes after work. In the sixties he taught at the SF Art Institute where he met Bay Area Figurative painters Richard Diebenkorn, Elmer Bischoff and Joan Brown. On Halloween, 1968 (1969?) he married Joan Brown and made a commitment to painting. At first he focused on still life: a hat, a bowl, food, mundane objects. Quiet, direct paintings with powerful reductive forms were patiently created. Some likened him to Morandi or as a continuation of American 19th century illusionism (visit the John Frederick Peto paintings at the deYoung).
Later he turned to landscapes (especially of the Delta area) which resemble his simple still-lifes in their tableaux-like settings. They have a mystical and dreamlike quality reminiscent of Morandi (again) and de Chirico. In 1977, he married Liadain O’Donovan and moved to a Russian Hill apartment with a view that included the Point Richmond gas tower. This plain industrial tank inspired a series resembling Monet’s haystacks or Cezanne’s Mont Sainte-Victoire painted in varying light and weather and time. His final works are of Amish dolls and stick figures. “Special” twigs found in Golden Gate Park with his daughter, Kate, he formed into “little” stick figure sculptures, which were finally used as props for astonishing portrait paintings.
Gordon’s paintings are hushed with restrained color and meditative grey grounds. They are intimate with a sense of wonder emanating from a compressed monumentality. He painted real things, not ideas or abstractions, with economy and directness. He patiently labored on his own to “just get it right”. Using the language of paint he translated his observations and feelings into illuminated reveries on canvas. His works are hard-won celebrations of what is. They are real magic.
– Barbara Janeff, Curator
About Gordon Cook
I first met Gordon in 1962 on a reconnaissance trip to the S.F. Art Institute. In ’63 I enrolled there and signed up for night and Saturday etching and engraving classes with him. At the time, Gordon was still working as a journeyman hand typesetter and taught part-time. Soon his magnetic and singular personality led me to drop lithography and concentrate on learning classical intaglio techniques.
Gordon’s aesthetic was absolutely unique. His extreme seriousness about making art (though he disdained such a loaded term) was balanced with a great wildcat humor. His erudition included a deep appreciation for a wide range of endeavors and he loved finding qualities disparate fields shared with our chosen medium. Once, he came to class talking about an article he’d read about oboe players. The nuances of breath control necessary to master that instrument often caused people to faint and fall off their stools. This delighted him. It paralleled the extreme meticulousness and sensitivity required by etching and engraving.
For him, printmaking had a hermetic soul. The medium’s idiosyncrasies and unique challenges—its indirect approach to achieving a successful result, rife with potential failure every step of the way—attracted and bred a number of eccentric practitioners throughout history. Cook enthusiastically related weird tales of great printmakers. One of these (perhaps apocryphal) was of Rodolphe Bresdin, Redon’s teacher. Too poor to engage a publisher, he would print his fanatically detailed and visionary plates by jumping up and down on them with his massive weight.
All of Gordon’s unpredictable, subtle enthusiasms and observances were wed to a disdain for the pomposity and affectation so endemic to the art world. He detested phoniness and grandstanding and prized straightforwardness and determination. He had what Joe Strummer famously called a bullshit detector.
Gordon abhorred any romanticizing about being an artist. His blue-collar approach is a dramatic contrast to today’s repellent climate of “stardom.” To him, picture making was a job of work and he treasured the demands of the craft of printmaking and painting. Transcendence achieved or transmitted in the work was mysterious and unpredictable, not something that should ever be calculated or aimed for.
Artists he admired covered a wide range of styles, mediums, geography and eras. Their common ground was a sincerity of intent and unswerving dedication that resulted in a highly unique vision.
He approached his work—drawing, printmaking, and painting—with the gravity of a life-and-death situation, without the melodrama. “Get it right” was his motto. In terms of drawing from nature, it meant maintaining extreme focus and attention. By focusing on the perceivable world with such intensity, one became aware of the strangeness of it all: hyper-reality mutates into unreality. The hallucinatory result of close attention affected the outcome of the picture. On the other hand, he recognized the value of the mind state of doodling while on the phone. By shutting off conscious intent, you lose yourself in the picture and gain something greater.
Cook had a deep understanding of, and was profoundly influenced by Asian thought. In 1965 he introduced me to a text published by the poet Cid Corman in the small literary magazine Origin, then based in Kyoto. This was a treatise on acting by the 15th century father of Noh drama, Zeami. Gordon’s comment, after having me read it, was, “It’s about everything.” His attention to these realms included a tacit understanding that true awareness was not something to be trumpeted about. He once gleefully repeated a comment made by a fellow San Francisco painter that “(So and so) walks around with his dharma (Buddhist teaching) hanging out of his pants.” This empathy for Asian thought enhanced the subtlety of his work. His appreciation of how everything is interrelated allowed him to imbue inanimate objects with personality, not in a coy or sentimentally anthropomorphizing manner, but with dignity.
Overall, the effect of having him as a mentor permanently changed the way I view the world. As with Morandi (the supreme artist for Gordon,) once one sees things his way, compositions, instances, and acts crop up daily that are a “Gordon Cook setup.” These share elements of tenderness, mystery, and humor that cannot be put into words.
Living with his works for more than forty-five years and thinking of him daily reinforces my appreciation of the simultaneous ordinariness and grandeur of everyday life.
– Don Ed Hardy
Bolinas Museum Director Lucy Van Sands (Vandy) Seeburg had dreamed of doing an exhibition of Gordon Cook’s work when, in conversation, Barbara Janeff suggested the same idea. And so it unfolded. Previously Janeff curated the Bolinas Museum’s exceptional Bay Area. She knew Cook and his collectors from her years of working with legendary gallery owner Charles Campbell. Now, Janeff as curator and Director Seeburg, are presenting a remarkable selection of Cook’s work in West Marin.