Upon graduating in 1942, Tooker enlisted in the Marine Corps. He entered Officer Candidate School, but was soon discharged for health reasons. Returning to New York, he enrolled at the Art Students League and studied with Reginald Marsh in 1943 and 1944. He also took courses with Kenneth Hayes Miller and Harry Sternberg. While he was a monitor in one of Marsh’s classes, he met Paul Cadmus, who in turn introduced him to Jared and Margaret French, artists who became lifelong friends. Although Tooker had begun to experiment with egg tempera through Marsh, it was Cadmus and French, in particular, who encouraged him to adopt it as his primary medium. They also introduced him to their wider circle of friends, an accomplished group of writers, composers, dancers, and artists, including Lincoln Kirstein, W.H. Auden, Christopher Isherwood, Monroe Wheeler, and George Platt Lynes.
Tooker moved from his family’s home in Brooklyn to an apartment on Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village in 1945. A year later, upon Kirstein’s suggestion, he was included in Dorothy Miller’s exhibition, Fourteen Americans, at the Museum of Modern Art, which had a major impact on his developing career. In 1949, he traveled in Europe with Cadmus for six months, visiting museums, churches, and historic sites in Italy and France.
In 1950, Tooker participated in the exhibition, Symbolic Realism, organized by Kirstein, which brought him increased recognition but also resulted in his being categorized as a “Magic Realist,” a term that he never felt applied to him or his art. That same year, the Whitney Museum of American Art acquired Subway, his first painting to enter a museum collection. His first solo exhibition followed at the Edwin Hewitt Gallery in 1951.
After a fire damaged the loft on West 18th Street in which Tooker and his partner, William Christopher, were living in 1953, they bought and renovated a brownstone on State Street in Brooklyn Heights. A rooming house across the street inspired a number of his paintings in the years that followed, including his windows series. In 1954, Tooker received a commission to design the sets for Gian Carlo Menotti’s opera, The Saint of Bleecker Street, again thanks to Kirstein’s recommendation.
In the late 1950s, Tooker and Christopher began building a house on property that they had purchased in Hartland, Vermont, not far from Jared and Margaret French’s summer home. They permanently relocated from Brooklyn in 1960. Tooker returned to New York quite often, though, and taught at the Art Student’s League from 1965 to 1968. He also continued his involvement with the Civil Rights Movement, to which he had been committed for many years. In 1965, he traveled to Alabama to take part in one of the pivotal Selma to Montgomery marches with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
In order to escape the harsh Vermont weather, Tooker and Christopher began spending winters in Spain. They bought an apartment in Malaga in 1968, which Tooker maintained for the next two decades. A few years after Christopher died in 1973, Tooker converted to Catholicism and became deeply involved with his church in Windsor, Vermont. He painted an elaborate seven-panel work, The Seven Sacraments, which was installed in the church in 1981.
In the years that followed, Tooker increasingly focused on his art and spiritual life in the relative solitude of his Vermont home. He typically followed a daily pattern of attending early Mass, returning home to paint in his studio until late afternoon, and then often sketching in the evening. In 1998, he had his first solo exhibition at DC Moore Gallery. He died at home in April 2011.
Tooker had several major museum exhibitions during his lifetime, including a retrospective, George Tooker: Paintings, 1947-1973, organized by the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, California, in 1974; George Tooker: Paintings and Working Drawings at the Marsh Gallery, University of Richmond, Virginia, in 1989; 50 Years of Painting and Study Drawings at the Addison Gallery of American Art in Andover, Massachusetts, in 1994; and George Tooker: A Retrospective at the National Academy Museum, New York, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, and Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio, in 2008-09. He received the prestigious National Medal of Arts in 2007.
George Tooker A Purveyor of Modern Alienation and Despair
March 15, 2018
By: Wendy Gray
When the American figurative painter, George Tooker died in 2011, The New York Times said of his 1956 painting, Government Bureau, “was inspired by his maddening encounter with the New York City Building Department. Most people who waste hours in line just end up with sore feet and headaches. Mr. Tooker, who died on March 27, emerged with one of the best-known depictions of modern alienation and despair.”
Tooker, who was born in Brooklyn in 1920, was greatly influenced by his friend and teacher, Paul Cadmus who encouraged Tooker to use the Renaissance medium of tempera in his works. The luminous quality of the paint helps to create a world that is real, yet not. It is understandable, when you study the works, that Tooker was classed a painter of magic realism. However, the works that clash with this description are the ones that show the alienation and despair that the modern world was seemingly encouraging during the 1950s and 60s and when this is where Tooker comes into his element.
Mechanisation and production line working became the norm in 1950s America. In these paintings, Tooker reveals the darker side of the American Dream; the world of alienation, monotony and bureaucracy.
The homogenous faces behind the screens reflect the mundane life of the office clerk, “Good morning, sir/madam. How may I help you today?” The round lights above their heads are in rigid lines and reflect the circular apertures that the clerks look out of at their customers. Their world is very small and repetitive. The customers line up neatly, calmly, waiting their turn.
Blank, staring faces, monotonous tasks. The same dreariness, day in, day out. Alienation and despair are personified in this work. Boxed in, no one can change anything about their lives. In Landscape with figures; Tooker shows how the office worker is trapped within the setting; almost dehumanising. There is no way in and no way out. All of the workers face the same direction. Two of the employees raise their heads to look straight out of the canvas, staring directly into the eyes of the viewer. They are so cowed by their situation, that their faces show very little emotion, but their eyes fix on ours as if to ask for help to escape. Behind them, the boxes fan out into infinity. There is no escape!
No eye contact is being made in Lunch; not with the viewer or with their fellow diners. The dining area is cropped close to give a claustrophobic feel to this. By reducing the colour palette in this way, Tooker creates a sense of connection between the diners, almost as if they are in uniform and work in tandem with each other. However, the fact that they do not acknowledge each other adds loneliness to the scene; that dreadful feeling of being alone in a crowd.
George Tooker: The Subway 1950 Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase, with funds from the Juliana Force Purchase Award 50.23. Courtesy of the Estate of George Tooker and DC Moore Gallery, N.Y.
Of all of his work, this iconic image has so much to say in such a tightly composed work. The woman is central in this scene and the men fan out behind her. Her face, full of distress gives this a sinister feel. The composition is dominated by diagonals. People are trapped behind grids; standing in openings and the alienation of modern life is so beautifully captured here. No one makes eye contact with anyone, yet they are linked by the limited colour palette, just like the diners in Lunch.
In Waiting Room, the people all seem connected by the colour palette but also by the languid positioning of the figures. The two men seated are sleeping, weary from their long wait. The pose of the man with his head back gives the impression that he is likely to be snoring. Perhaps the man in the bottom right is looking at the embarrassing display in front of him.
It is difficult to place this waiting room, hospital, doctor’s surgery, department store. The cubicles are numbered, men and women are together, coats are left hanging up and the whole scene seems chaotic and untidy. Our man on the left looks out at us as if to ask what we are doing here.
The monotony of waiting seems to be a real strength of Tooker’s: we have all been in that situation and the way in which he anonymises his figures make them ‘every’ man and ‘every’ woman. At no point do any of the people represented in these works appear angry at their waiting, they are so used to the despair they feel that it becomes the norm; an aspect of our busy daily lives, that we seem unable or unwilling to lose.
This final work differs from the previous, but the sense of alienation is strong here. The geometric interlocking boxes are in gradients of blue/grey which chill the viewer. As we look deeper into the boxes, we see a figure with its back to us. Faceless, anonymous; it could be any one of us. The symbolism here leads us to think of the end; the passage into the ‘light’. Was all life simply leading to this moment? In an interview with Justin Spring in American Art Magazine in 2002, Tooker said of this painting: “I was thinking of it as reversible space, a corridor and boxes coming toward you. It’s about a state of shock … about how I felt at the time of my mother’s death.”
George Tooker’s artistic output spanned decades and changed in style but what he excelled in never changed: exploring the human condition and the way our environmental impacts on the way we interact with the world; a world full of alienation and despair.
George Clair Tooker, Jr. (August 5, 1920 – March 27, 2011) was an American figurative painter. His works are associated with Magic realism, Social realism, Photorealism and Surrealism. His subjects are depicted naturally as in a photograph, but the images use flat tones, an ambiguous perspective, and alarming juxtapositions to suggest an imagined or dreamed reality. He did not agree with the association of his work with Magic realism or Surrealism, as he said, “I am after painting reality impressed on the mind so hard that it returns as a dream, but I am not after painting dreams as such, or fantasy.” In 1968, he was elected to the National Academy of Design and was a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Tooker was one of nine recipients of the National Medal of Arts in 2007.
George Tooker was born on August 5, 1920 in Brooklyn where he spent the first six years of his life. He was raised by his mother, Angela Montejo Roura, who was of English, German and Spanish-Cuban descent and his father George Clair Tooker who was of English and French descent. His religious upbringing was in the Episcopal Church. During the Great Depression, the family resided in Bellport, New York. He had one sister, Mary Tooker Graham.
He took art lessons as a child and spent much of his young adult life at the Fogg Art Museum. He attended Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts and graduated from Harvard University with an English degree in 1942 and enlisted in the Officer Candidates School (United States Marine Corps), but was discharged for medical reasons.
Tooker spent the late 1940s and early 1950s in Brooklyn. He studied at the Art Students League of New York under Reginald Marsh from 1943 to 1945. Kenneth Hayes Miller influenced Tooker’s work by encouraging the emphasis on form rather than expressive emotion to convey a painting’s meaning. Tooker regarded Harry Sternberg a good teacher at the League due to his pointed, challenging questions. Upon reading Daniel V. Thompson’s The Practice of Tempera Painting, Tooker began to paint in the traditional Renaissance painting method. Tooker appreciated its slow manner of application in particular.
Tooker acknowledged the need for other art to support his development process. He spent much of his free time reading painting and sculpture books, studying the works of antiquity up to 20th-century art in an effort to augment his artistic vision. He was particularly interested in Classical sculpture, Flemish painting and sculpture, Italian Renaissance painting and sculpture, Dutch Golden Age painting, 17th-century French art, Neue Sachlichkeit art, and Mexican art of the 1920s and 1930s. Some individuals that influenced Tooker include Italian artists Paolo Uccello and Piero della Francesca; American artists Jared French, Edward Hopper, Paul Cadmus, Honoré Desmond Sharrer, and Henry Koerner.
Early in his career, Tooker’s work was often compared with painters such as Andrew Wyeth, Edward Hopper, and his close friends Jared French and Paul Cadmus.
His most well known paintings carry strong social commentary, and are often characterized as his “public” or “political” pieces. Some of these include: The Subway (1950), Government Bureau (1955-1956), The Waiting Room (1956-1957), Lunch (1964), Teller (1967), Waiting Room II (1982), Corporate Decision (1983), and Terminal (1986). These works are particularly influential, because they draw from universal experiences of modern, urban life. Many portray visually literal depictions of social withdrawal and isolation. In many ways, these images reveal the negative side of the subject matter celebrated in Impressionism. Modernity’s anonymity, mass-production, and fast pace are cast under an unforgiving, bleak, shadow-less light that conveys a sense of foreboding and isolation. The use of many strong straight lines culminates in oppressively ordered, rectilinear architecture. This precise geometric architecture, constructed to serve the subjects, physically dominates them. Tooker saw modern society as behaving in this same way. Modern life becomes a prison of soulless ritual devoid of individuality in Landscape with Figures (1966). Space is often compressed, as in Ward (1970-1971), with patients’ beds lined head-to-foot with very little walking space, such that humanity is confined to strictly organized grids. These images convey a sense of overwhelming silence in the lack of control each individual portrayed has over their depicted situation. The people Tooker depicts are rarely overcome by emotion, never strut, and seldom convey individuality. Rather, they shuffle along in heavy, uniform clothing and seem to act not based on individual will, but based on social conditioning. In Supermarket (1973), nondescript shoppers are surrounded by brightly packaged consumables as easily replicated as the people themselves.
While Tooker’s “public” imagery is hostile and solemn, his “private” images are often more intimate and positive. Some of these include the ten images of the Windows series (1955-1987), Doors (1953), Guitar (1957), Toilette (1962), and the Mirror series (1962-1971). Many of these images juxtapose beauty and ugliness, youth and age, in the analysis of the female body. The space is often compressed by a curtain or close-up wall, so that the viewer is confronted by the symbolic identity of the protagonist. Paper lanterns are also a common motif in Tooker’s “private” works, often being shared amongst individuals, beacons of soft, warm light that present a pleasant mood to the entire scene. See Garden Party (1952), In the Summer House (1958), and Lanterns (1986). Tooker’s style of person is notably recognizable. Often they resemble skeletons and seem frozen in time and space, though certainly not flat. See Divers (1952) or Acrobats (1950-1952). Even as the people depicted in these images are more individualized than those of the “public” pieces, people in a single image are often depicted as variations of the same face, with similar hair colors and physical features that unify and highlight commonalities.
Even these “private” images held social commentary. Voices I (1963) depicts two men, physically identical, separated by a thin door yet unable to communicate. He was deeply concerned with the apparent failure to understand and communicate within American society. While Tooker’s figures’ facial expressions are rarely particularly emotional, these images carry heavy emotional tones, through the gestures, symbolism, and lighting. See Door (1969–70), Man in the Box (1967), and Night I (1963).
He also created religious works. His elaborately painted seven-panel piece The Seven Sacraments is located in his local church in Windsor, Vermont. Supper (1963) depicts a black man praying over a loaf of bread in front of two white men, easily recognizable as a modern update on the Last Supper. Girl Praying (1977), Orant (1977), Lovers (1982), and Embrace II (1984) are uplifting in their portrayal of genuine spiritual connection. The juxtaposition of emotions in these four images suggest the gravity of spirituality and love for Tooker.
Tooker’s first exhibition was “Fourteen Americans” at the Museum of Modern Art in 1946. In 1974, the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco organized a retrospective called “George Tooker: Paintings, 1947-1973.” In 1989, the Marsh Gallery at the University of Richmond held an exhibition dedicated to Tooker. The Addison Gallery of American Art, the National Academy Museum, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, the Columbus Museum of Art, and the Whitney Museum of American Art all held exhibitions dedicated to George Tooker. The DC Moore Gallery represents his Estate.
Thomas H. Garver, who wrote a monograph on the works of George Tooker wrote, “These are powerful pictures that will stay in the public consciousness. 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.” His works are particularly impactful because they are so simple and relate to everyday experiences in such a way that the viewer is forced to become more critically aware of their existence.
In the late 1940s and 1950s, Tooker’s work was widely appreciated, but fell out of the spotlight when Abstract expressionism gained popularity. For several decades, Tooker painted with little recognition, completing one to three paintings each year. In the 1980s, he was rediscovered and celebrated as one of the most unique and mysterious American painters of the 20th century.
His artistic theory is evident in the quote: “I don’t really think I’m a creator. I feel that I’m a passive vessel, a receptor or translator…The fascinating thing about painting is the discovery.” He methodically mixed his colors by hand, using water, egg yolk, and powdered pigment. Each painting was not only painstakingly executed, but deeply intellectually considered. Tempera is a quick-drying, tedious method of painting that is hard to change after being applied, and this deliberate method suited Tooker’s disposition and artistic theory. Tooker spent four to six intensely focused hours each day, six days a week, for roughly four months fine-tuning each piece, slowly and deliberately building up color and dimension.
While the themes of his works are simple, the overall impact of each is ambiguous and enigmatic. His works often reveal eerie situations in a mechanical, distancing, and hostile society. These scenes are overlaid with mythical undertones, poetically capturing sensations of dread and unease. The individuals represented are generalized and stripped of detail, with mask-like faces. They often blend sexual and racial features, so they appear more symbols of human beings than actual, unique human individuals. They appear overwhelmed by their environment and clothing, unable to take control of their existence.
Themes his works focus on include love, death, sex, grief, aging, alienation, and religious faith. He devoted numerous paintings to a single theme, investigating many possible variations to fully express the complex ideas conveyed. Tooker grew up in an affluent family, and his work reflects both his privilege and his empathy for those with less.
Tooker and his partner, painter William R. Christopher, moved into a house they had built in Hartland, Vermont in 1960. They were involved in the Civil Rights Movement and participated in one of the Selma to Montgomery marches in 1965. He taught at the Art Students League of New York from 1965 to 1968. He spent his winters in Málaga, Spain. A few years after Christopher’s 1973 death, Tooker converted to Catholicism. His faith was very important to him, as he was very much involved with his local church. Tooker died at the age of 90 in his Hartland, Vermont, home due to kidney failure.