San Francisco

Gordon Cook

Oakland Museum; Charles Campbell Gallery

Gordon Cook died in 1985 at the age of 57. The current traveling show of his work, organized by the Oakland Museum, concentrates on his paintings, which he turned to seriously in his early 40s with some prescience that they would be accepted as more “big time” than his prints. His paintings are beautiful—many of them achingly so—but his prints are great, especially the etchings done in his mid 30s and those of the last two years of his life, when he renewed his fascination with the printing process after a nine-year hiatus. The privileges of paint are materialistic, even though paintings depend for their excitement on things happening immaterially a little in front of and and a little behind the painted surface. There are more great works on paper without paint than there are paintings in the world.

Black-and-white etching is the static medium par excellence. From the first, even in his youthful studies with Stanley William Hayter and Mauricio Lasansky in the Midwest, where he grew up, Cook found in the control and precise, shifting values of intaglio a vehicle for a vision that was by turns stately and delirious. Taking in hand its capacities for denoting adjacent contours and for bringing out flash areas of what he called “printed white,” Cook added mystery elements of discrepancy in scale and speed. He shows you how thoroughly the delineations of a thing can look like what they’re supposed to represent and yet keep tugging suggestively at the possibility of their representing something else. For example, in Headland V, 1964/85, the sandstone and brambles of a coastal promontory are rendered to show every vein, complexly; the image’s resultant shagginess seems about to bestir itself, poking its rude snout irritably into the surf (which bears a tiny sailboat in its outer reaches) for relief. Cook worked such plates directly at his landscape sites. The “clean, straightforward journeyman job” he prided himself on ended up, more often than not, a piece of magic.

Like his etchings, Cook’s paintings advance the transforming powers within everyday things along with those of the medium at hand. (In some of his paintings, the weave of linen support, though brushed with a solid scrim of color, shows through, becoming part of the realism of the scene.) His best-known paintings are unconditional still lifes—or, rather, still lifes of objects that, in the process of being observed, make their own conditions. Solitary hats, bottles, jars, a blood sausage and other comestibles, and toys pose in the midst of fastidious tonal gray or mauvish settings. Like Wayne Thiebaud’s settings, Cook’s are horizonless and moot. But Cook’s specimens from the world of things don’t project tension or duress the way Thiebaud’s do, nor do they present themselves as essentially manipulable. Quickened by a shadow whose force lines seem independent of the object’s center of gravity, the emotion in each image is specific: a militant, spoilsport rage in Party Hat, or Wood Foot’s incipient glee (both ca. 1975); or the gentle, upside-down self-doubt of the watercolor Top, ca. 1977.

The degree of technique Cook mastered for his oil paintings looks limited, erratic, but no less suited to his themes (or, mostly, he suited his themes to it). His late pictures were represented in the gallery show in their variable strengths. Although the drawings he did of stick figures from 1983 on are charming, the paintings of the same series appear to have given him trouble (they’re overextended, like official portraits)—probably because their models for once were objects not just noticed but devised by him. The best of the late works center on the cylindrical Point Richmond gas tank visible in the folds of coastline across the bay from Cook’s home on Russian Hill. A kind of guardian spirit of the bay, shimmering and swelling and flattening with changes of light and weather, the Richmond tank served as the ultimate mooring for Cook’s eye—for his alertness to the coherent life of things apart from human purposes.

Bill Berkson