Update: The Howard Cook print featuring the Chrysler Building sold for $10,625.
What you see: Chrysler Building, a print by Howard Cook. Swann estimates it at $10,000 to $15,000.
Who was Howard Cook? Born in Springfield, Massachusetts, Cook created watercolors and WPA murals but is best known for his prints. He earned Guggenheim Fellowships twice, in 1932 and 1934, and his works are in the collections of the British Museum, the Smithsonian Art Museum, Harvard University, the Whitney, and the Met, among others. Though he was enamored of the American southwest and ultimately settled there, he spent the late 1920s and early 1930s in New York City. He died in 1980 at the age of 78.
How popular is Cook among collectors, and how prolific was he? “He’s very popular. When it comes to those who collect 20th century prints and American views, he’s one of the top artists. That’s been true since American prints began to flourish at auction 25 years ago,” says Todd Weyman, vice president at Swann and director of prints and drawings. “He made over 225 different prints in all media–woodcuts, lithographs, etching. He was prolific compared to Grant Wood, who made 20 lithographs, and Edward Hopper, who made maybe 50 different etchings.”
How sought-after are Cook’s New York images? “Very. They’re the top of his market,” he says. “His views are either panoramic views or singular buildings.”
How does Cook’s choice of subject matter–the Chrysler Building–affect the value of this print? “It’s great. It’s an iconic building. The print dates from the year of the completion of the building . It’s just what collectors want,” he says. “It’s from the Art Deco period, so it’s less static than the Empire State Building.”
Is Chrysler Building a stand-alone print, or is it part of a series? “Of the 225 images he printed in his career, he did 30 views of New York,” he says. “All were stand-alone. Cook was not a serial printmaker.”
What would he have based this print upon? Did Cook take a photograph of the Chrysler Building from this angle? Did he stand on the street and make sketches? “We don’t know of him as a photographer,” he says. “My thinking is he sketched it in person, and he knew it from photographs. But he was not known for working from photographs.”
Is this Cook’s only depiction of the Chrysler Building? Yes. “He did other skyscrapers in New York more generally,” he says. “We have another one in the sale, the lot before this one, of Wall Street, and there are skyscrapers in it, but it’s not the sort of grand, isolated building view [like the Chrysler Building].”
How involved was he in the creation of his prints? Did he pull them himself, or did he oversee the work of professional printmakers? “Cook was very much involved in making his prints, from start to finish,” he says, noting that the only time he relied on others was when he created lithographs. “He would come up with the idea for the print, he etched it, and he pulled it on his own press.”
The lot notes for the print say this was an ‘edition of 50 (from an intended edition of 75),’ and also that it is ‘numbered ’75’ in pencil.’ I’m not sure I understand what’s going on here. Could you explain? “When he worked on editions himself through his gallery, the Weyhe Gallery in New York, he would propose an edition number, and would print them in batches of maybe ten or 20 at a time and deliver them to be sold on his behalf,” he says. “Over a period of a couple of years, he was able to sell only so many. He never reached his printing goal of 75. We know this through the artist’s notes and gallery sales records.”
So what does the number ’75’ actually mean here? “That was what he hoped the edition would be,” he says. “These prints were not numbered in the traditional sense. He would intend for an overall edition at the start of the process and would deliver batches at a time to the gallery. It’s not like they were sequentially numbered. Chrysler Building was going to be an edition of 75 until he couldn’t sell more than 50 or so. We know it wasn’t 75.”
Sometimes, when there’s a large press run of an art print, the early ones look better and crisper than the later ones. Does the batch printing approach that Cook took with Chrysler Building affect the quality of the prints? Is their quality consistently high? “Each was printed more or less identically,” he says. “It’s not like number one is more or lesser than number twenty. Because they’re smaller editions, there’s such attention to detail and quality. He didn’t let anything of lesser quality out to the gallery.”
How often does this print come to auction? “It’s a scarce one. We’ve seen less than ten at auction in the last 30 years,” he says, noting that the number might not represent ten individual prints–the same print could have gone to auction twice or more in that time. He adds that the auction record for Chrysler Building was set at Swann in November 2015 when one sold for $17,500, and four of Cook’s top ten most-expensive lots at auction have been Chrysler Building prints; first place belongs to a 1930 panoramic New York City scene called Harbor Skyline.
Was Chrysler Building a tricky print to make? “If you look at the imaging, look at the lines, they’re very detailed, almost hairline in the shadows,” he says. “That requires great attention to detail, and it [the ink] would have been hand-applied to the block. To have the blacks as rich as they are in the shadow areas, with no breaks or wear, is stunning. It looks like photographic perfection when you see it.”
What makes this print stick in your memory? “You can see the craft in it,” he says. “It has such a precision to it, on such a small scale–it’s only 10 1/8 inches by 6 3/4 inches–but he’s able to show the grandeur of the city. You really get the sense of a soaring city in such a small format.”
Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Swann Auction Galleries.
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