George Tooker

Born in Brooklyn and raised on Long Island, George Tooker began taking painting lessons at the tender age of seven. He went on to major in English literature at Harvard University as a young man and did not take any fine art courses, though he did study late medieval and early Renaissance painting at the Fogg Art Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. After graduating from Harvard in 1942 he entered Officer Candidate School for a short time prior to moving back to New York, where he enrolled at the prestigious Art Students League and studied with Reginald Marsh, Kenneth Hayes Miller, and Harry Sternberg.

Tooker flourished at the Art Students League, meeting fellow student Paul Cadmus and, in turn, artists Jared and Margaret French. It was with Cadmus and French’s encouragement that Tooker adopted egg tempera as his primary medium. They also introduced him to a wide circle of accomplished artists, writers, dancers, and composers, including Lincoln Kirstein, W.H. Auden, and George Platt Lynes. Kirstein’s friendship in particular would have a major impact on Tooker’s career; it was upon Kirstein’s suggestion that Dorothy Miller included Tooker’s work in her Fourteen Americans exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Just a few years later, in 1950, the Whitney Museum of Art acquired one of Tooker’s paintings for their permanent collection. Tooker then held his first solo exhibition in 1951 at the Edwin Hewitt Gallery.

Tooker’s haunting, dreamlike paintings are often compared with Edward Hopper and Andrew Wyeth. He was initially classified as a Magic Realist, a term which he never felt actually applied to him or his art. Rather, he sought to depict everyday scenes of American life in an iconic and unique way. His deep exploration of design and symmetry in his works, combined with the technically difficult medium of egg tempera, led him to produce as little as two paintings each year. In his own words, he saw painting as “an attempt to come to terms with life.”

Tooker continued working for decades, including a solo exhibition at the DC Moore Gallery in 1998 and a traveling retrospective exhibition in 2008-2009. He taught at the Art Students League from 1965 to 1968 and was also involved in the Civil Rights Movement, even taking part in a 1954 march with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. After the death of his partner, Christopher, in 1973, Tooker converted to Catholicism and became more focused on a life of art and spirituality in the solitude of his Vermont home.

Tooker was the subject of several major exhibitions during his lifetime, including two retrospectives, and he received the National Medal of Arts in 2007 just a few years before his death. His work can be found in many important museum collections including the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, the Columbus Museum of Art, and the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

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