American, 1920-2011

The Watchers, ca. 1962

egg tempera on gesso board
signed lower right "TOOKER"
24 x 18 inches

  • Provenance: Rouben Ter-Arutunian, New York, New York; Marisa del Re Gallery, Inc., New York, New York (label on the reverse); Private Collection, Connecticut
  • Exhibited: San Francisco, California, The Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, California Palace of the Legion of Honor, "George Tooker: Paintings", July 13 - September 2, 1974, on loan from Mr. R. Ter-Arutunian, cat. no. 16 (label on the reverse); New York, New York, Marisa del Re Gallery, "George Tooker Paintings", February 6 - March 2, 1985 (label on the reverse).

    20th century modernist George Tooker is best identified with his eerie figurative compositions that often carry a social message. He was associated with Magic Realism, a figurative branch of Surrealism that presents bodies in unusually, highly staged arrangements that evoke psychological responses. Often his works reference the Italian Renaissance in medium, egg tempera, but also in the arrangement of figures.

    Tooker was born in Brooklyn in 1920 and grew up in Bellport along the south shore of Long Island. He took painting lessons as early as age 7 with a family friend, Malcolm Fraser. He graduated with a degree in English Literature from Harvard University and briefly entered the Marine Corps before he was discharged for health reasons. When he returned to New York City in 1943 he enrolled at the Art Students League where he met Paul Cadmus and Jared and Magaret French. The group became lifelong friends. At the Art Students League Tooker studied under the tutelage of Reginald Marsh and Kenneth Hayes Miller.

    Although Tooker had some exposure to egg tempera through Marsh, his friends Cadmus and French encouraged Tooker to experiment more with this medium, garnering renewed interest from contemporary artists. Egg tempera is notoriously difficult to work with as it is quick drying and difficult to change. Tooker took this historically important medium and rendered scenes from everyday American life.

    Human isolation, self-alienation, and loss of individuality are recurring themes present in Tooker's work. Responding to the social injustices of postwar urban society, Tooker's paintings carry the message of contemporary existential philosophy. He was an openly gay artist working in the 1950s and a staunch anti-Capitalist. In his paintings he depicts figures that are devoid of individuality, often identically faced, as in The Watchers, or faceless and dressed the same. These works reflect Karl Marx's theory of alienation describing how individuals become estranged from themselves and others as a result of Capitalism. In many cases, his figures are also androgynous and non-gendered, likely a reflection of his understanding of equality among the sexes. In other works, his empathy for women is evident. Where many of his Surrealist contemporaries depicted women as sexualized or erotic, Tooker depicted women as equal subjects of capitalism and social anxiety.

    In The Watchers the similar figures have the same expression but they seem to connect to one another as a result of whatever they are seeing. The woman rests against the central figure of the man as if the routine of her daily life has been broken. All four figures appear shocked into a different reality by taking in the scene in front of them.

    In 1945, Tooker moved from Brooklyn to Greenwich Village. A year later he was included in Dorothy Miller's landmark exhibition "Fourteen Americans" at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City. In 1949, Tooker spent six-months traveling in Europe with Cadmus visiting churches, museums and historic sites in Italy and France.

    By 1950, Tooker was participating in major exhibitions and the Whitney Museum of American Art acquired "Subway," the artist's first painting to enter a museum collection and still one of his best known figurative compositions. In 1951 he was the subject of his first solo exhibition at Edwin Hewitt Gallery.

    Beginning in the late 1950s, Tooker and his partner, William Christopher, begin building a home in Hartland, Vermont close to the French's summer house. They permanently relocated from Brooklyn in 1960 although Tooker continued to return regularly teaching at the Art Student's League from 1965-1968. He was an activist in the Civil Rights Movement and in 1965 traveled to Alabama to take part in one of the pivotal marches from Selma to Montgomery alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

    In 1968, Tooker and Christopher purchased a summer home in Malaga, Spain. After Christopher died in 1973, Tooker became a devout Catholic and as a routine attended morning mass returning home to diligently paint into the late afternoon. In 2007, President George W. Bush awarded Tooker the prestigious National Medal of Arts. He died in his home in Vermont in April 2011.

    Tags: listed artist, 20th century, modern / contemporary, LGBTQIA+ artist, Magic Realism, mid-century
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