Every dealer dreams of finding rare and precious works of art in some old New England attic.
But it actually happened to American print dealers Betty and Douglas Duffy of the Bethesda Art Gallery. Three months ago their phone rang, and it was artist Howard Cook's widow, Barbara, now 90, saying, "I need help. We've just found this box of Howard's prints in his sister's attic!"
Howard Norton Cook (1901-1980) isn't exactly a household name. But since the Duffys first resurrected his prints 10 years ago -- when both the artist and his huge graphic output were all but forgotten -- he has become one of the most eagerly collected of early 20th-century American printmakers, especially for his energetic and romantic views of the New York skyline in the 1930s.
As a result, his best known images are hard to find, and by 1983, on the occasion of the Howard Cook retrospective at the National Collection of Fine Arts (for which the Duffys published a catalogue raisonne' of the artist's prints), the Bethesda Art Gallery's thin memorial show reflected the dwindling supply. "I never dreamed there would ever be enough material for another show," says Betty Duffy. "But serendipity, and we have Howard Cook prints that we haven't seen in years."
The treasure-trove of some 100 etchings, lithographs and wood engravings -- discovered by a curious grandchild who'd been sent to the attic to look for something else -- had been forgotten since Cook carefully stowed them in his sister's attic in Belmont, Mass., in the mid-'30s. He and his wife had sold their pots and pans and other belongings (no one would buy the prints) and headed for Texas, where he had a WPA commission to do a post office mural. The works remained in perfect condition in that wooden box for 50 years. "So much for climate control!" says Duffy.
Though the resulting show, now on view at the Bethesda Art Gallery, looks much like the first one in 1976, major changes have taken place, not the least of which is that prices have multiplied tenfold or more for the most sought-after images, such as "Chrysler Building," "Times Square Sector" and "Financial District."
But there have been more subtle changes as well, including our own newly expanded ability to look at early 20th-century American art and subject matter -- most of it scorned until a decade ago. We are now able to see how wonderful these images can be, not only in the way they reflect the exuberant spirit and boundless optimism of the times, but also in the way they reflect Cook's splendid ability to romanticize the throbbing, smoky city by day, with its exaggerated skylines (to which he often added his own fantasy skyscrapers), and the magical, glittering city after dark, so lovingly portrayed in the shimmering "New York Night."
For those who are late in discovering Cook, it should be noted that many of his smaller, less popular -- if no less fine -- subjects, such as his sylvan "New England Landscape," "Morning Smokes" at the Taos Pueblo, and the bold and rather spectacular "Grand Canyon" woodcut are all still very modestly priced. The show -- surely the last of its kind, unless another miracle happens -- will continue at 7950 Norfolk Ave. in Bethesda through July 25. Hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays.
Susan Crowder at Kornblatt
Susan Crowder is a versatile artist who can wrest a palpable sense of place from any medium or subject, from charcoal drawings of haystacks in a Scottish field to bronze sculptures of little houses in the woods.
Th colorfully patinated pedestal-size bronzes and related drawings in the current show at Kornblatt deal with variations on a single subject: a small, generic house (of the Monopoly game variety) snuggled among evergreen trees shaped like towering scoops of frozen custard.
Unlike the Scottish landscapes shown earlier, these little environments refer to no specific place. Yet there is an enveloping sense of intimacy and nostalgia about them -- a strange feeling that you've been to that cool, inviting pink "Summer House" and seen the fantasy "Dream House" in your sleep.
Crowder's ability to translate mood from one medium to another is also remarkable. The bronze "First House," for example -- though necessarily minus the moonlit, starry sky sketched into the related drawing -- still somehow sustains the sense of a silvery, windless night. This is achieved partly through simplified forms seemingly distilled out of real time and partly by the effective use of colored patinas to reinforce mood. All of this -- plus dramatic lighting -- helps transform these small works into large presences.
Crowder, who also has shown trompe l'oeil marble carvings of folded blankets at Kornblatt, will be featured through June 18. Kornblatt is at 406 Seventh St. NW. Hours are 10:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays.
Foon Sham at Mateyka
Whimsical Washington wood sculptor Foon Sham, who made such an impressive debut last year, has gotten a bit too literal and far too cute in his new show at Marsha Mateyka. Though his gift for carving laminated wood into handsomely textured, curving shapes has by no means been lost, he seems to have run out of interesting subjects and ideas, opting for the obvious instead.
The wall-hung "Caught in the Middle," for example -- a carved walnut pear caught between two wavy planks of laminated oak -- is the worst offender, nothing more than a literal rendition of a shallow visual pun. Though grander in scale, the free-standing floor piece titled "Tree Trunk Connections" is similarly without larger esthetic purpose, as it offers for contemplation only that it is made by reconnecting parts of the same tree after their textures have been altered. Sham seems to have spent the year making objects that do little more than fulfil the shallow challenge of their titles.
"Cloud in Triangle" is the single satisfying exception. It consists of a small slab of laminated cherry seemingly caught in the jaws of a tall, triangular column of intuitively carved, laminated wood. In its implications of abstract energy and movement, it recalls the sort of work that made his last show such a treat. This show continues through June 14 at 2012 R St. NW, where monotypes by Matt Phillips and Miklos Pogany are also on view. Hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays.