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 George Clair, Jr. Tooker  (1920 - 2011)

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Lived/Active: New York/Vermont / Spain      Known for: surreal genre and figure painting-social commentary

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George Tooker
from Auction House Records.
Coney Island
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Following is the obituary of the artist by William Grimes, The New York Times, March 29, 2011.

George Tooker, a painter whose haunting images of trapped clerical workers and forbidding government offices expressed a peculiarly 20th-century brand of anxiety and alienation, died on Sunday at his home in Hartland, Vt. He was 90.

The cause was complications of kidney failure, Edward De Luca, director of the D C Moore Gallery in Manhattan, said.

Mr. Tooker, often called a symbolic, or magic, realist, worked well outside the critical mainstream for much of his career, relegated to the margins by the rise of abstraction.  As doctrinaire modernism loosened its hold in the 1980s, however, he was rediscovered by a younger generation of artists, critics and curators, who embraced him as one of the most distinctive and mysterious American painters of the 20th century.

He specialized in eerie situations with powerful mythic overtones.  Luminous and poetic, his paintings often conveyed a sense of dread, but could just as easily express a lover’s rapture or spiritual ecstasy. Whatever the emotion, his generalized figures, with their smoothly modeled sculptural forms and masklike faces, seemed to dwell outside of time, even when placed in contemporary settings.

The harried figures in The Subway (1950), gathered in a low-ceilinged passageway, could be characters in a Greek tragedy, stalked by the Furies.  In Landscape With Figures (1965-66), the disembodied heads of despairing office workers peep out of a maze-like set of cubicles, like the damned in a modern version of the Inferno. T he men and women in Waiting Room (1957) simply wait, catatonically and existentially, as if they were extras in a play by Beckett or Sartre.

“These are powerful pictures that will stay in the public consciousness,” said Thomas H. Garver, author of the monograph George Tooker.  “Everyone can say, ‘Yes, I’ve been in that faceless situation,’ even if it’s just standing in line waiting to apply for a driver’s license.”
Mr. Tooker’s lyrical, poetic paintings were no less enigmatic than the angst-filled works he called his “protest paintings.” In Sleepers II (1959), wide-eyed heads, swaddled in a cloudlike blanket, stare fixedly upward, like souls captured midway between death and transfiguration.
“His narratives are so mysterious that viewers have to look deeply into the paintings,” said Marshall N. Price, chief curator at the National Academy Museum in New York, which organized a retrospective of Mr. Tooker’s work in 2008. “You cannot look quickly at a Tooker and then turn away. And the work is filled with so many references to Renaissance painting, there is so much mysterious iconography, that for art historians it’s just fascinating.”

George Clair Tooker Jr. was born on Aug. 5, 1920, in Brooklyn and grew up on Long Island, in Bellport, where he studied painting with a local artist.  To please his parents, he entered Harvard after attending Phillips Academy in Andover, Mass. At Harvard he studied English but continued to draw and do watercolors.

After graduating in 1942, he enlisted in the Marine Corps’ officer candidate school, but the psychological stress of bayonet drill reactivated an old intestinal complaint, and he was discharged from the service on medical grounds.

Mr. Tooker began studying with Reginald Marsh at the Art Students League of New York. There he met the painter Paul Cadmus, who introduced him to egg-tempera technique, which enforced a slower style of painting much more congenial to Mr. Tooker’s contemplative nature.  Working on wood panels or Masonite board, Mr. Tooker painstakingly built luminous matte surfaces, inch by square inch; soft, powdery colors complemented the rounded forms and fabrics of the paintings.

Mr. Cadmus’s exuberant use of homosexual themes in his work also encouraged Mr. Tooker to address that aspect of his identity in paintings like the terrifying, Bruegel-esque Children and Spastics (1946), in which a group of leering sadists torment three frail, effeminate men.
Equally influential was Jared French, part of Mr. Cadmus’s intimate circle, whose interest in Jungian archetypes and in the frigid, inscrutable forms of archaic Greek and Etruscan art inspired Mr. Tooker to take a more symbolic, mythic approach to his subject matter.

“Symbolism can be limiting and dangerous, but I don’t care for art without it,” Mr. Tooker told the writer and cultural critic Selden Rodman in 1957. “The kind that appeals to me the most is a symbolism like a heraldic emblem, but never just that alone: the kind practiced by Paolo Uccello and Piero della Francesca.”

At the same time, he fended off attempts to define him as a surrealist or a magic realist. “I am after reality — painting impressed on the mind so hard that it recurs as a dream,” he said, “but I am not after dreams as such, or fantasy.”

At the insistence of Lincoln Kirstein, who was Cadmus’s brother-in-law, the curator Dorothy C. Miller included Mr. Tooker’s work in the “Fourteen Americans” show at the Museum of Modern Art in 1946, and his work also appeared in exhibitions at the Whitney Museum of American Art and other major museums.

With his partner, the painter William Christopher, Mr. Tooker moved into an illegal loft on West 18th Street in Manhattan, making custom furniture to supplement his art income.  By the late 1940s he had developed his mature style and settled on the themes that would engage him for the rest of his life: love, death, sex, grief, aging, alienation and religious faith.  Working in isolation in rural Vermont after 1960, he produced from two to four paintings a year.

Mr. Tooker’s magical images were drawn from mundane experience.  The bureaucratic shuffle he experienced when trying to get city permits to renovate a house in Brooklyn Heights led to Government Bureau (1956).  One of his best-known works, it depicts disconsolate supplicants being stared at, impassively, by workers behind frosted-glass partitions, only their noses and eyes visible.  Across the street from his home, the open windows in a Puerto Rican rooming house provided the raw material for his Windows series of the 1950s and ’60s, like the young man strumming a guitar while his female lover sleeps behind him in Guitar (1957).

In 1973 Mr. Christopher died in Spain, where the two men had been living for six years, plunging Mr. Tooker into a spiritual crisis that he resolved by embracing Roman Catholicism. (He grew up in an Episcopal home but had become nonreligious.)  In Mr. Tooker’s later work, marked by a new sense of compassion, he often addressed specifically religious themes, notably in The Seven Sacraments (1980), an altarpiece he produced for the church of St. Francis of Assisi in Windsor, Vt.

Mr. Tooker, who is survived by a sister, Mary Tooker Graham of Brooklyn, was notoriously reticent about the meaning of his work. “I don’t examine it myself, and I don’t want to,” he once said. But he did reflect on the change in his later work. “I suppose I don’t paint such unpleasant pictures as I used to,” he told American Art magazine in 2002. “I got to be known for unpleasant pictures. I think my pictures are happier now, with fewer complaints.”


This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Born and raised until age seven in Brooklyn, New York and then in Bellport, Long Island in genteel upper class surroundings, George Tooker became a figure painter whose work reflects both his privileged circumstances and understanding of those less comfortable.  His subjects, frequently of mixed sexual and racial features, are often obscured by heavy clothing and appear sagging and shapeless, trapped within their own dull worlds.

Some critics have described his style as "magic realism," but he was not interested in the illusionary effects that many of the painters of that style espouse.  He has regarded himself as more of a reporter or observer of society than an interpreter.

He took art lessons from Barbizon style painter, Malcolm Frazier, a friend of his mother and then attended Phillips Academy, a prep school, in Andover, Massachusetts where he had his first experience with lower classes because of his visits to the nearby textile community of Lawrence and Lowell.

He went to Harvard University where he studied English Literature but spent much time at the Fogg Art Museum.  He was also active in socialist conscious organizations and distributed literature for radical political groups.  In 1942, he graduated from Harvard and then entered the Marine Corps but was discharged due to a physical problem.

He studied at the Art Students League in New York City, beginning 1943 with Reginald Marsh. He also studied with Kenneth Hayes Miller and Harry Sternberg and in 1946, began spending time with Paul Cadmus as friend and pupil. Cadmus encouraged Tooker to work with tempera rather than the transparent wash technique taught by Marsh.

Tooker subsequently adopted a method of using egg yolk thickened slightly with water and then adding powdered pigment, a medium that was quick drying, tedious to apply, and hard to change once applied.

Fascinated by geometric design and symmetry, he works slowly, completely about two paintings a year because he spends much time searching for the underlying idea.

From 1965 to 1968, he taught at the Art Students League but has lived the later part of his life between Hartland, Vermont and Malaga, Spain. His first one-man exhibition was at the Edwin Hewitt Gallery in New York in 1951.

Source:
Richard J. Boyle, "American Revival of Tempera Painting", American Art Review, April 2002.


Biography from Vered Gallery:
George Claire Tooker, Jr. was born August 5, 1920, in Brooklyn New York.  He was the first child of a Cuban-American mother and a father who was a municipal bond broker. 

Shortly after his birth the Tooker family moved to the more rural Bellport in south-central Long Island, some fifty miles east of New York City.  Here Tooker's father worked for a group of banks and achieved modest prosperity.

The trajectory of his life began to manifest itself from the age of seven, when he began taking painting lessons from Malcolm Fraser, a family friend whose oeuvre was in the Barbizon tradition.

Tooker began high school in Bellport; however, his parents weren't much impressed with the quality of the school, and he spent his last two years at the more rigorously academic Phillips Academy, in Andover, Massachusetts, north of Boston.  He gravitated instead toward the school's art studio, where he worked at landscape drawing and watercolors.

By virtue of its location, Andover did furnish some additional, if unintended education:  Tooker became aware of effects of the Depression on the mill towns north of Andover.   After graduation from Phillips in 1938, Tooker went on to Harvard, where he majored in English literature.  Yet he spent much of his time at the Fogg Art Museum, and in the towns surrounding Boston, where he made watercolor sketches of the urban and rural landscapes.  The Fogg's holdings include early Italian Renaissance, pre-Raphaelite and 19th-century French art.  He also took up with some radical political organizations, but soon found them doctrinaire and boring.   Nevertheless, it was during this time that he first became interested in the potential of art as a tool for social justice.  Especially inspirational was the work of Mexican painters, especially David Alfaro Siqueiros ("Echo of a Scream") and Jose Clemente Orozco ("Gods of the Modern World").

Securing his parent's support, he enrolled in the Art Students League in New York.  Here he studied with Reginald Marsh ("Tatoo and Haircut") who worked in egg tempera, Kenneth Hayes Miller ("Shopper by an Awning") who also taught Edward Hopper, and Harry Sternberg  From the standpoint of influence, it cannot be entirely coincidental that all three of these artists were social realists who expressed their concerns in their world.

In 1944 Tooker met the painter Paul Cadmus.  Cadmus was another painter who worked with egg tempera (using traditional Renaissance techniques), and transmitted this expertise to Tooker, whose use of this medium marks his mature style.  Cadmus encouraged Tooker to work with tempera rather than the transparent wash technique taught by Marsh.   Tooker subsequently adopted a method of using egg yolk thickened slightly with water and then adding powdered pigment, a medium that was quick drying, tedious to apply, and hard to change once applied.

In 1949 Cadmus and Tooker spent six months traveling in Italy and France; and in the same year George met painter William Christopher, who was to become his life partner until Christopher's death in 1973.

In 1950 Tooker and Christopher moved to W. 18th St.  Here, in order to support themselves, they made custom furniture.   However, Tooker was beginning to earn both recognition and income from his art:  the Whitney Museum bought his best-known painting, The Subway, that year; he had a one-man exhibition in New York City in '51 at the Hewitt Gallery.  In '54 he received a commission to design sets for an opera; and in '55 there was another one-man show.  With greater means as their disposal, the two first bought and renovated a brownstone on State Street in Brooklyn Heights (1953); in the late 50s, he and Christopher built a weekend home near Hartland, Vermont; from 1965 to 1968, he taught at the Art Students League but has lived the later part of his life between Hartland, Vermont and Malaga, Spain.

The one-man shows in New York galleries picked up speed, taking place in 1960, '62, '64, and '67.  Then it was time to give something back:  he returned to the Art Students League to teach from 1965 to 1968.  However, at the end of this period, Christopher's health was beginning to deteriorate to such an extent that Vermont winters were too severe for him.  They began a search for a home in Europe where they could winter over, and ultimately found an apartment in Malaga, Spain.   Christopher died in Spain in 1973.  The same year, a major survey exhibition of Tooker's work was organized by the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. That exhibition traveled to Chicago, New York, and Indianapolis.

Works by George Tooker are in many major museums including: Addison Gallery of American Art; Boca Raton Museum of Art; Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; National Academy of Design; National Gallery of Art; Oklahoma City Museum of Art; Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts; Sara Roby Foundation; Smithsonian American Art Museum; Columbus Museum of Art; and Whitney Museum of American Art.

Exhibitions
2001
Cadmus, French, Tooker, Columbus Museum of Art Columbus, OH
2000
Making Choices 1929-1955, The Museum of Modern Art New York, NY
2000
George Tooker, Hart Gallery at the Guild Art Centre Northhampton, MA
1999
The American Century 1900-1950, Whitney Museum of American Art New York, NY
1998
George Tooker, DC Moore Gallery New York, NY
1997
Civil Progress: Images of Black America, Mary Ryan Gallery New York, NY
1997
Views from Abroad: European Perspectives on American Art 3 - American Realities, Tate Gallery London
1996
Reality and Dream: The Art of George Tooker, Ogunquit Museum of American Art Maine
1992
Tooker's Women, Marisa Del Re Gallery New York, NY
1990
Cadmus, French & Tooker: The Early Years, Whitney Museum of American Art at Philip Morris New York, NY
1989
George Tooker: Paintings and Drawings, 1946-1989, Marsh Gallery, University of Richmond Richmond, VA
1987
George Tooker: Working Drawings, Robert Hull Fleming Museum, University of Vermont Burlington, VT
1985
Surreal City, 1930-1950, Whitney Museum of American Art at Philip Morris New York, NY
1982
Homo Sapiens, the Many Images, Aldrich Museum of Contemporary Art Ridgefield, CT
1974
George Tooker: Paintings 1947-1973, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco San Francisco, CA
1969
Annual Exhibition of Contemporary American Painting, Whitney Museum of Art New York, NY
1964
Durlacher Brothers New York, NY
1963
Paintings from the Museum of Modern Art, New York, National Gallery of Art Washington, DC
1960
Robert Isaacson Gallery New York, NY
1958
Festival of Two Worlds, Spoleto, Italy
1953
Annual Exhibition of Contemporary American Painting, Whitney Museum of American Art New York, NY
1951
Edwin Hewitt Gallery New York, NY
1949
Painting in the United States, 1949, Museum of Art, Carnegie Institute Pittsburgh, PA
1946
Fifteen Americans, Museum of Modern Art New York, NY

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George Tooker is also mentioned in these AskART essays:
Modernism

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