George Claire Tooker, Jr.
August 5, 1920 - March 28, 2011
"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."
On the Significance of George Tooker's Art
Arguably, George Tooker is the greatest contemporary American artist.
This would be achievement enough under any circumstances. However, Tooker began his career at a time when the prevailing aesthetic was "modernism" and the darlings of the art world included such artistic frauds as Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Willem de Kooning.
Tooker, however, was clear from the beginning that he had no interest in minimalist art, of the sort that abstraction dictates. Very much to the contrary, he was instead bent on creating "maximalist" art. He has said that "in one kind of painting I'm trying to say 'this is what we are forced to suffer in life,' while in other paintings I say 'this is what we should be.'"
Lincoln Kirstein, an advocate of Tooker's art from early on, has written with rare insight that Tooker's approach "assumes the durable products of this art are expressions of ideas rather than a craft or the demonstrations of self-love or self-pity. It accepts painting as a triumph of the orderly, the intelligent, and the achieved, rather than as a victim of the decorative, the fragmentary, or the improvised. It assumes the human mind is obligated toward synthesis, and that, at its most interesting, establishes order rather than disorder, from infinities of observable phenomena. . . .These pictures are essential rather than anecdotal. They attempt to define qualities and conditions independently of their designers' appetites. . . . Their reference moves outward toward a universal legibility rather than inward toward a limited correspondence."
And it is precisely this conscious orientation toward maximizing significance that has resulted in Tooker's astonishing achievement.
Yet, though Tooker isn't unknown, by any means, neither is he a household word. When Progressive Living first presented his work on the internet, there was very nearly nothing else available regarding his work. To do something more to remedy this partial neglect, and absurd underestimation, we've undertaken to present a brief biography here.
A Biography of Tooker
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. Tooker's only sibling, Mary, was born later.
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.
George 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. He 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.
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. 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 (see: "Echo of a Scream") and Jose Clemente Orozco (see: "Gods of the Modern World").
Graduating from Harvard in 1942, he immediately enlisted in the Marine Corps Officer's Candidate School, but an old stomach ailment turned serious, and he was discharged after a few months there.
Now at loose ends, Tooker seems to have communed with his soul, and 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 (see: "Tatoo and Haircut") who worked in egg tempera, Kenneth Hayes Miller (see: "Shopper by an Awning") who also taught Edward Hopper, and Harry Sternberg (see: gallery). 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.
In 1944 Tooker met the painter Paul Cadmus. Cadmus was another 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, with the financial support of his family, George moved to a flat on the bohemian Bleecker Street in Greewich Village, New York.
In 1949 Cadmus and Tooker spent six months travelling 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 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; he had a one-man exhibition in New York City in '51; 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); and then, in the late 50s, he and Christopher built a weekend home near Hartland, Vermont.
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.
In 1976 Tooker became a Roman Catholic, and attended St. Francis of Assisi Church. After it burned down, he created a major painting for it, The Seven Sacraments.
Tooker lived the remaining years of his life in Harland, Vermont, passing away on March 28, 2011, according to Pastor Rene J. Butler of St. Francis of Assisi.