George Tooker: Capturing Modern Anxieties

George Tooker Jr. was born in Brooklyn in
1920 and died in Vermont in 2011. During his long career he would create a distinct
niche within the modern art world with his dreamlike, surreal paintings which
expressed the anxiety and melancholy of his age.


Tooker was passionate about the arts from
an early age and studied painting with a local artist before going to the
Phillips Academy in Andover. Following his parents’ wishes, he attended Harvard
and enlisted with the Marine Corps after his graduation in 1942. He was soon
discharged on medical grounds, which lead him to enrol at the Art Students
in New York. There he met the painter Paul Cadmus, a friendship that
turned out to be decisive for his career. It is Cadmus who introduced Tooker to
the egg-tempera technique that would become his trademark. This meticulous
traditional Renaissance method generates a rich texture but requires a slower
style of painting, perfectly suited to Tooker’s contemplative personality (the
artist painted less than 155 works in his life).

In New York, Tooker experimented on
Masonite board and wood panels, producing beaming matte surfaces that he
complemented with diaphanous colours. The painter was encouraged by Cadmus’
exuberant homosexual paintings and began tackling this aspect of his own
identity through his work, perhaps as an expression of his inner apprehensions.
In the spine-chilling Children and
Spastics (1946) for instance, a group of violent, mocking children bully
three pale and effeminate men (see below).

In the 1940s, Tooker met his life-long
partner, the painter William Christopher. At the time, he was supporting his
art practice by selling custom-made furniture in Manhattan. By the end of the
decade, the artist had settled on a particular style, the egg-tempera, and the
various themes that would inspire his work for the rest of his life: grief,
alienation, love, aging, death, sex and religion.

Tooker met the American painter Jared
French through Cadmus. French was fascinated by Jungian archetypes and ancient
Etruscan and Greek arts. This influenced Tooker to embrace a more mythical and
symbolic approach to his subjects, hence his association with Symbolism and
Magic Realism. Furthermore, Tooker developed an interest in Italian Medieval
Renaissance Painting while visiting Europe with Cadmus and French in 1949.
Subsequently, Piero della Francesca and Paolo Uccello, along other Quattro
cento artists, inspired his rigorous use of geometric shapes. When Christopher
died in 1974, Tooker found comfort and shelter in the Roman Catholic faith –
his family was Episcopalian but he had never practiced religion himself. As a
result of this spiritual crisis, more religious themes began to emerge in his
paintings. He notably produced an altarpiece titled The Seven Sacraments (1980) for the church of Saint Francis of
Assisi in Windsor.

Tooker constructed a mysterious world away
from the mainstream: a narrative filled with a sense of anxiety and
dehumanization. His anonymous yet strangely familiar figures seem to glide in
an enigmatic, timeless world even when depicted in a contemporary bureaucratic
environment such as a waiting room. Their smooth mask-like faces and subtle
body language alienate these subjects from their surroundings, capturing modern
anxieties such as the individual’s relationship to society and loneliness. In
2007, Tooker was awarded the prestigious National Medal of Arts for his works,
mesmerizing and haunting paintings that truly expressed the torments of an era.
The acclaimed artist is represented in major museums and galleries in the
United States, including the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of
Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Hirshhorn Museum, the National
Museum of American Art and the Brooklyn Museum.

by Mélissa Leclézio

Tooker Subway

George Tooker, Subway (1950)