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Twenty-five years in the life and art of Sally Cook

Waltzing with Hofmann

Cook’s Clothed by Art in the Garden of Creativity has clear references to magic realism.

Images courtesy of the artist and Eleven Twenty Projects


City of Dreams

Through June 29

at Eleven Twenty Projects, 1120 Main Street

eleventwentyprojects.com, 882-8100


Sally Cook sat in a booth at the legendary Cedar Tavern in New York City with Franz Kline and Jack Kerouac. It was the early 1960s, and the three were “exchanging trite, muttered remarks,” while casually sketching on napkins and scrap paper. Cook drew the two men, and they drew her. For some reason, the lights in the bar abruptly went out, and, when they blinked back on, the drawings had vanished—except for Cook’s. “I was devastated,” she says thinking back, “yet it made sense. I didn’t yet have the status where my drawings were worth stealing.”


More than fifty years later, gallerist/collector John Fatta hopes to elevate Cook’s status; he thinks the time is right to reexamine her work in a contemporary context. He met Cook in 2012 through another collector, in her Silver Creek home, where she has lived with her husband since moving from Allentown in 1989. “When I walked into her living room,” says Fatta, “I felt compelled to exhibit her work and bring it to light. Honestly, it was that encounter, when I first saw her paintings, that inspired me to open a gallery and get her the exposure and recognition she deserves.”


It took longer than Fatta anticipated, but City of Dreams: a survey of work from 1960 to 1985, is on view now at Eleven Twenty Projects (1120 Main Street) through June 29.




The big curve

Cook’s career arc is one of proximity to fame, Sisyphean struggle, and unwillingness to bend to art world expectations. She was born and raised in Angola, and attended the Albright Art School in the early fifties. Her instructors—notably Peter Busa and Seymour Drumelevich—would become University at Buffalo professors. Busa encouraged his talented student to head to New York City, where the abstract expressionist movement was in full bloom. She immersed herself in the fabled Tenth Street cooperative gallery scene, residing in a large unheated loft on the Bowery with fellow artists, a moonlighting boxer, and his pregnant girlfriend. It was the quintessential New York starving artist story, at one of the most exciting cultural moments in US history.


Cook found herself in the presence of the famous and wannabe famous. Her hangout of choice was Cedar Tavern, which she describes as possessing a Kafkaesque atmosphere, but it was a necessary retreat for anyone hoping to survive the brutally competitive New York art scene. “We watched and listened for clues to the next round of exhibits,” she recalls, “which gallery was looking for artists, what they liked, which magazine or TV program might be planning an article or special, and when they might be photographing in the vicinity, as they regularly did.” Most artists and poets could afford only one or two beers, she says, “unless Kline or de Kooning were buying, or someone had inadvertently sold a painting.”


Cook did fashion modeling for Jack Smith, later turning down an offer to star in his avant-garde film, Flaming Creatures (dodging a bullet in this critic’s view), as she was unwilling to appear nude. She was invited to become a member of the Eighth Street Club, an intellectual and social gathering place for noted artists. Henry Miller’s Paris art teacher invited her to speak on color. David Rosenberg (brother of Harold and director of the Camino Gallery) once hung one of her paintings upside down, and, when she pointed it out, responded, “So what?” He wouldn’t dare say that to one of the prominent action painters, she thought, and changed it when he wasn’t looking. She danced with Hans Hofmann. Though the renowned artist spoke almost no English, they communicated through movement. “He would often come up to me at parties, bow, click his heels, extend his hand, and we would go waltzing around the room to some Strauss,” she recalls.


Gorky-and-I-Exchange-Pleasantries, Sally Cook


An iconoclast among conformists

It’s fair to say that Cook was not impressed with the political climate of the New York art scene, with its prescribed look, manner, and aesthetics. In a community where women artists were expected to wear black and have long straight hair, Cook kept her hair short and curly and donned colorful clothes. More unforgivable, she didn’t conform to the narrow Rosenberg/Greenberg aesthetic precepts. “I was able to see around a corner just enough,” she remembers, “to know that abstract expressionism was dying from lack of imagination.”


Home to new ideas

“The day came when the scales fell from my eyes,” says Cook, “and I had to ask myself what possible benefit there could ever be for me to continue sitting night after night in a beer-soaked bar, waiting for some powerful person to notice me.” It was time to go, and Buffalo seemed “a good answer.”


Cook earned an MA from UB in 1974 and found regional success among the Allentown art community of the seventies, with representation through Martje More of Gallery Without Walls. She then turned to hard-edge geometric painting, while gradually developing her unique magic realist style, which she continues to work in today.


Sally Cook’s In the Forest of the Night belongs to her abstract expressionism period; Liver of the Roses


The Art of Sally Cook


Cook believes that “the senses can cross over from one discipline to another. We are all capable of ‘hearing’ shapes and sizes and perhaps even ‘tasting’ sounds.” Whether this is genuine synesthesia, or practiced sensitivity, is unclear. The exhibition covers three distinct phases of Cook’s artmaking career.


Abstract expressionism

Cook always had an interest in figurative painting, but in New York in the late fifties, abstract expressionism was the prevailing style. Liver of the Roses (top left) masterfully builds rich layers of colors, drawing viewers into its intensely focused center.


Hard edge painting   

Perhaps influenced by her professors at UB, Cook shifted to geometric abstraction in the early seventies. Works like Illusion Mousetrap (top right) are powerful nonobjective color explorations, with subtle references to real life. Given Cook’s figurative impulses, many of her hard-edge paintings hint at subject matter.   


Magic Realism

Some time in the seventies, Cook’s signature style bubbled to the top, and she has never looked back.


Magic realism focuses on the mystical, the internal, and the fantastic, often employing a meticulously realistic style. In contrast, Cook’s flattened forms, distorted proportions, and skewed perspective can seem like naïve art, but these are faux naïve paintings made by a skilled artist, combining intense attention to detail, references to art history, and symbolic imagery. What results are mystery-infused observations of everyday life, meant to evoke emotional responses.


Wallpaper and rugs, flowers, grass, trees, and animals, all pulsate with rhythmic marks. Watermelon seeds line up to form patterns, and there are patterned clothes, rugs, and tablecloths. Texture and pattern are so essential to Cook’s work, they cannot be contained within the canvas, spilling out onto the artist’s hand-made frames, adding another layer of visual complexity.


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