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George Tooker - Biography and Legacy

American Painter

Born: August 5th, 1920 - Brooklyn, New York
Died: March 27th, 2011 - Hartland, Vermont

Biography of George Tooker


George Tooker was born on August 5th, 1920 in Brooklyn to George Clair Tooker and Anela Montejo Roura. He had one sister named Mary. His father was of English and French descent and his mother was a mixture of German, English and Spanish-Cuban heritage. His family lived in Brooklyn until he was seven years old, after which his family moved to Bellport, Long Island. He was brought up as a member of the Episcopal Church and was of a middle class background.

Tooker began taking painting lessons at age seven under professional artist Malcolm Fraser, who was a family friend. Fraser painted in the Barbizon style, and Tooker regarded his work as a "an important early influence," saying that his "ambition" to be an artist was "reinforced by him." Tooker attended Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, where he spent most of his time writing poetry or painting, neither of which awarded him course credit, as they were considered 'unacademic.' Nevertheless, Tooker continued with both poetry and painting, and gave away his finished pieces from a small shop in Belleport, which helped people in the Depression. He also visited nearby towns that had been hit hard by the Depression, which fostered a feeling of political obligaition within him. This feeling was especially significant for Tooker, because of his multicultural background and separation from his upper-class schoolmates because of his middle-class status. This resulted in a resonating socialist leaning and disdain towards the lack of the current societal and economic environment.

Tooker attended Harvard University in 1938, where he graduated with a degree in English in 1942. While he did not take any art classes in college, Tooker spent much of his time at the Fogg Art Museum, where he was able to study Medieval and Renaissance painting. This became a crucial step in his artistic career, as he later accredits the Renaissance masters as significant influences on his own artistic style. He also became a member of the Young Communist League at Harvard, embracing the liberal political school of thought that he had been exposed to at Phillips Academy. After graduating from Harvard in 1942, Tooker joined a training program for the U.S. Marine Corps, but was discharged because of ulcerative colitis. The same year, the U.S. army had decriminalized homosexuality, adopting a more inclusive approach. However, although openly gay, Tooker stated that he never disclosed his homosexuality during his time in the Marine Corps, because he was never asked about it.

Early Training and Work

After recovering from colitis, Tooker began studying at the Art Students League in New York City from 1943 to 1945 under American painter Reginald Marsh. He also studied with Kenneth Hayes Miller and Harry Sternberg, both of whom also taught at the Art Students League. As a monitor in one of Marsh's courses, Tooker met then sixteen-year-old Paul Cadmus, who became his lover, lifelong friend, and major artistic mentor. Cadmus was heavily engaged with satirical and sexualized depictions of high society; scandalizing images of sailors and sex workers, as well as sensitive drawings of male nudes. Tooker particularly identified with Cadmus' liberal thinking and subversive narratives of life in New York, assimilating them into his own work. During this time, Tooker also met artist Jared French, who had been a lover and mentor of Paul Cadmus, and also became a lifelong friend of Tooker. Cadmus and French encouraged Tooker to working with egg tempera, a method of using an egg yolk and water with pigment to paint, which became his primary medium. It was through these artists that Tooker was assimilated into a wider circle of artists, writers, dancers and composers, including W. H. Auden, Monroe Wheeler and Christopher Isherwood.

During his time in New York, Tooker was also exposed to Urban Realism, also known as the Ashcan School or "The Eight." The American tradition had become prominent in the early 20th century, depicting the provincial lives of ordinary people. While earlier works in the movement gave little representation to the suffering of the people during the Depression, Kenneth Hayes Miller and other artists of the 1940s produced art that depicted a more realistic urban struggle, shifting Urban Realism into an increasingly socially conscious realm. Owing to Tooker's radical egalitarian beliefs, he drew on Urban Realism to produce political and social commentary in his art, while adding elements of spirituality and abstraction.

Mature Period

In 1946, Tooker was included in Dorothy Miller's exhibition "Fourteen Americans" at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, which had a major effect on his career. He then spent six months travelling with Cadmus in Europe in 1949, where he was exposed to a plethora of artists and their styles. In Paris, he visited the Louvre and became fascinated with the work of French Neoclassical painter Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. He was especially captivated by the Renaissance masters and their techniques, such as Duccio, Mantegna, Botticelli, Bellini, Bronzino and Giotto. This exposure had an extremely significant impact on Tooker, and elements of Renaissance composition and technique can be seen in his work.

After his return, Tooker applied the combined influence of Cadmus' contemporary exposé, Urban Realism's portrayal of the everyday, and the technique of the Renaissance masters to produce art of his own unique style. Tooker's socially provocative paintings depicted images of the prosaic, which he abstracted into unsettling, almost dystopian scenes. They recognized and deconstructed socially appropriate behavior and identification. As an openly gay man, Tooker's work during his mature period is rife with commentary about identity during the mid-20th century. Specifically, they provide a leftist illumination about sexuality as a national security issue predating the Civil Rights movement. Many of his artworks during this time feature an element of surveillance, which was especially significant to members of the LGBTQ community during this time, because of the shifting of stereotypes and violence toward the community. He studied and praised the works of social realist painters David Alfaro Siqueiros, Diego Rivera, and Jose Clemente Orozco, and applied a similar surrealist twists in his works. He took part in the "Symbolic Realism" exhibition in 1950, organized by writer and connoisseur Lincoln Kirstein, who became a fervent supporter of Tooker's work throughout his career. Tooker's work in this exhibition led to his categorization as a Magic Realist, as it incorporated surrealist and spiritual elements within a realist setting. However, Tooker never personally identified with this such categorization, saying of both symbolic and Magic Realism, "Oh, I hate those terms." In the same year, he produced on of his most famous works, Subway (1950), which was procured by the Whitney Museum of American Art. He then had his first solo exhibition at the Edwin Hewitt Gallery.

During the late 1950s, after becoming increasingly frustrated with urban life, Tooker and his then partner, painter and civil rights activist, William Christopher, began building a house in Hartland, Vermont, where they permanently relocated in 1960. Although no longer living in New York, Tooker was an active member of the Civil Rights movement. In 1965, he marched alongside Martin Luther King in Selma, Alabama. This continued advocating for community and justice for the subjugated was reflected in his artwork, which continued to constantly challenge preconceived norms about sexuality, race, and class. Tooker also taught at the Art Students League from 1965 to 1968, which required regular trips to New York. In 1968, Tooker was elected to the National Academy of Design, an honorary arts organization. However, in 1968, Tooker and Christopher started to spend winters in Spain as an escape from the Vermont weather. They purchased an apartment in Malaga, Spain in 1968, which they spent long periods of time in, and that Tooker had for decades following.

Late Period

Following Christopher's death in 1973, Tooker underwent a personal crisis. As a result of this, he became increasingly isolated and spiritual, and he converted to Roman Catholicism, becoming a member of the St. Francis of Assisi Church in Windsor, Vermont in 1976. His increasing involvement with his local church was present in his works during this time, as they display more personal subject matter with a profound and overt sense of spirituality. It is at this time that his works also shift to the representation of more 'private' subject matter, rather than the more 'public' urban scenes in his previous works. His works also became more sentimental in nature, portraying the tenderness of human connection. He even produced art for the altarpiece at St. Francis of Assisi, titled The Seven Sacraments (1980), which features seven panels of a Catholic procession. While he was openly gay, Tooker did not feel that he needed to reconcile his sexuality with his religion, as he maintained celibacy since the death of his partner Christopher. Although having fallen out of the public eye, Tooker continued to paint privately in his studio in Vermont, and had his first solo exhibition in 1998 at the DC Moore Gallery. He painted up until the mid-2000s, and died of kidney failure on March 27th, 2011 at his Vermont home at the age of 90.

The Legacy of George Tooker

Tooker is regarded as a preeminent modernist American painter, and received the National Medal of Arts in 2007 from President George W. Bush. He remains an integral player in the development of American Magic Realism and social realism in painting alongside Paul Cadmus and other artists. Although his works remain separate from those of Abstract Expressionists such as Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock, they had some similarities in their abstract figuration and developed somewhat simultaneously, with a lasting influence on postmodernism. He was also influential as a postmodern artist, because of his unwavering use of egg tempera, a Renaissance technique, to produce highly modern paintings rife with social commentary. His unique and eclectic combination of a Renaissance technique and modern political commentary with transcendental themes left Tooker with a legacy of being an artist who produced work on his own terms.

Tooker also remains a role model for the LGBTQIA community as an openly gay painter in the mid-20th century, leading a lifestyle that was extremely progressive for the time. He also advocated justice for the subjugated by challenging the dominant norms in his artwork. His paintings projected a radical narrative that is still potent today, remaining relevant in their reflection on the anxieties and alienations of modern society. This attitude, very present in the artworks during the mid 20th century, began a tradition of using art as a medium to question contemporary society, which has had an incalculable effect and changed the role that art plays in the modern world.

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Content compiled and written by Charlotte Davis

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

"George Tooker Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Charlotte Davis
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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First published on 20 Sep 2018. Updated and modified regularly
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