`A clean, journeyman job is the artist's concern'
THE San Francisco artist Gordon Cook, a Midwesterner by birth and upbringing, came to think of his adopted home as a magical place. He felt especially moved by San Francisco Bay, which was not only a subject for his art, but also an important part of his life. For more than 20 years, Cook belonged to the Dolphin Club, a group devoted to swimming and rowing in the bay, and he served as its president for part of that time. The club became one of the central features of his life. Its athletic activities offered him the exhilaration to be found in hard physical exercise, and its social life allowed him to talk with men devoted to simple pleasures. The bay and the Dolphin Club were refreshing by comparison with the San Francisco art world, in which Cook was never completely at home.
Cook felt that the fashionable art world was eager for surprise and innovation, however superficial, whereas what he had to offer was a high level of craftsmanship and a serious attitude. During the 1960s, he taught printmaking at the San Francisco Art Institute, and he made it clear that in his opinion the school was better at teaching laziness and aimless avant-gardism than it was at giving its students any kind of solid artistic discipline. In the end, he left the art institute in a blaze of recrimination.
As a graduate student at the University of Iowa, he had gotten the best education in etching and engraving that America had to offer. But he knew that simply by choosing printmaking as his primary medium of expression he had condemned himself to obscurity. Even in the print world, the most successful artists of the 1960s - Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, for example - were primarily painters or sculptors.
Cook reciprocated the art world's rejection. When he first moved to San Francisco, he supported himself as a typographer, and in the years that followed he seemed to prefer the company of skilled workers to that of artists. Like Cook himself, those workers had learned a craft but were not very well rewarded for it.
One point of contact with the art world was a weekly figure-drawing group that Cook attended for years. It brought together some of the best-known artists in northern California, along with others who never made large reputations. In general, Cook did not show his drawings to the other artists; what he wanted from them was a kind of family feeling rather than criticism or suggestions for improvement.
For Cook, there was never anything carefree or Mediterranean about drawing from the model. ``Dealing with the human figure with any degree of respect is the most dangerous thing I've ever done,'' he once said. ``I feel so frightened and so responsible.''
Retreating from that expression of sensitivity into the shelter of craftsmanship, he went on to say, ``I'm not concerned with the personality of the sitter. I'm certainly not concerned with probing his or her condition of being. I don't think penetration is the artist's concern, any more than art is that artist's concern. I think a clean, straightforward journeyman job is the artist's concern.''
In that respect Cook resembled other American men who feel deeply but remain uneasy about expressing their feelings; making art, or even talking about it, seems dangerous because it may reveal emotion. As much as Cook enjoyed eating and swimming and other natural pleasures, he never outgrew the puritan outlook that made it necessary for him to present himself as a journeyman doing a plain job of work.
Nevertheless, his art was at times more lighthearted than his attitude toward being an artist. Swimming and boating led him to feel at home in San Francisco Bay. Looking at the water and the surrounding hills, he was able to transcend his everyday fears, bringing pleasure and craftsmanship together.
The ``Headland'' etchings are a record of spiritual delight. Although the San Francisco Bay Area is crowded and metropolitan, Cook has reduced the human presence in this scene to a few tiny indications, such as a sailboat in the water. The rest is nature. Like many another northerner, Cook seems to have been more comfortable with nature and inanimate objects than with his fellowman. In this etching he has transformed painstaking, realistic detail into delight.
Gordon Cook was a fundamentally shy man who was proud of his hard-won technique. In moments of freedom, however, he became a visionary artist comparable to the best America has ever produced.