Saturday, November 27, 2010

George Tooker

George Tooker, Self-Portrait, 1947

George Tooker 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 bond broker. 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, Long Island; 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, north of Boston. He developed an intense dislike of the straight-laced school, with its orientation toward business and finance, and its concern that its students learn to hide their emotions. Tooker gravited 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. He was angered by the sharp contrast between the comfortable lifestyle of the children of the economic elite who attended the academy, and the many unemployed.

George Tooker, The Artist’s Daughter, 1955

After graduation from Phillips in 1938, Tooker went on to Harvard, where he majored in English literature, that having been the only academic subject of interest to him at Phillips. 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. He also took up with some radical political organizations. 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 like David Alfaro Siqueiros and Jose Clemente Orozco.

George Tooker, Coney Island, 1947

Graduating from Harvard in 1942, Tooker decided to pursue his long-standing desire to study art. Securing his parent's support, he enrolled in the Art Students League in New York. Here he studied for two years with Reginald Marsh, Kenneth Hayes Miller (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 men of social conscience who expressed their concerns in their work.

George Tooker, Bathers, 1950

In 1944 Tooker met the painter Paul Cadmus. Cadmus was a painter who worked with egg tempera (using traditional Reanissance techniques), and transmitted this expertise to Tooker, whose use of this medium marks his mature style. A year later he moved to a flat on Bleecker Street in Greewich Village, New York. In 1949 Cadmus and Tooker spent six months travelling in Italy and France. In the same year Tooker met painter William Christopher, who was to become his life partner until Christopher's death in 1973.

George Tooker, The Waiting Room, 1959

In 1950 Tooker and Christopher moved into an illegal loft located at 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. With greater means as their disposal, the two first bought and renovated a brownstone on State Street in Brooklyn Heights (1953), and then, in the late 50s, he and Christopher built a weekend home near Hartland, Vermont.

George Tooker, Subway, 1950

During the 1950s, Tooker painted some of the 20th century's most memorable images of modern angst. In Cornice, a young man on a high building ledge apparently contemplates escaping life's complexities for good. With its lost souls haunting the New York underground Subway (above) envisions modernity as a spiritual prison system. The Kafkaesque Government Bureau (below) pictures an office of seemingly infinite extent, where people wait like penitents at the windows of terminally unresponsive bureaucrats.

George Tooker, Government Bureau, 1956

In the wonderfully weird Highway (below), a man dressed entirely in black except for the red jewels dotting his belt holds up a gloved hand like a traffic cop to halt three strangely bulbous cars. In his other hand he wields a circular red reflector on a pole, hiding his face from our view. A set of white arrows on posts point straight downward, directing our thoughts, maybe, to the underground energies of the unconscious. 

George Tooker, Highway, 1953

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 return to the Art Students League to teach himself 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, and Tooker spent most of 1974 there, wrapping up disposition of his estate. Also in '73, 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. Tooker still lives and works in Harland, Vermont.

George Tooker, Ward, 1970

Why Tooker never achieved the status of, let's say. Jackson Pollock is a puzzling problem. The obvious answer is that he was crowded away from the center stage of the New York art world by the sweeping success, critical and commercial, of Abstract Expressionism during the 1950′s and early 1960′s. Abstract Expressionism was extolled by Nelson Rockefeller as “free enterprise painting.” As the United States confronted the Soviet Union during the Cold War, the CIA-sponsored Congress for Cultural Freedom and other American cultural organizations promoted AbEx and jazz music to combat the Soviet’s Socialist Realism schools of art and literature. Some writers like Frances Stonor Saunders, in her book Who Paid the Piper?: CIA and the Cultural Cold War, contend that the CIA actually sponsored exhibitions of AbEx art in Europe.


  1. This is a great blog. For me Tooker is much more interesting than Pollock. Will check out Saunders book. Thanks for posting.