Tooker, George

Born and raised until age seven in Brooklyn, New York and then in Belleport, Long Island in genteel upper class surroundings, George Tooker became a figure painter whose work reflects both his privileged circumstances and understanding of those less comfortable. His subjects, often of mixed sexual and racial features, are often obscured by heavy clothing and appear sagging and shapeless, trapped within their own dull worlds.

Some critics have described his style as “magic realism,” but he was not interested in the illusionary effects that many of the painters of that style espouse. He has regarded himself as more of a reporter or observer of society than an interpreter.

He took art lessons from Barbizon style painter, Malcolm Frazier, a friend of his mother and then attended Phillips Academy, a prep school, in Andover, Massachusetts where he had his first experience with lower classes because of his visits to the nearby textile community of Lawrence and Lowell.

He went to Harvard University where he studied English Literature but spent much time at the Fogg Art Museum. He was also active in socialist conscious organizations and distributed literature for radical political groups. In 1942, he graduated from Harvard and then entered the Marine Corps but was discharged due to a physical problem.

He studied at the Art Students League in New York City, beginning 1943 with Reginald Marsh. He also studied with Kenneth Hayes Miller and Harry Sternberg and in 1946, began spending time with Paul Cadmus as friend and pupil. Cadmus encouraged Tooker to work with tempera rather than the transparent wash technique taught by Marsh.

Tooker subsequently adopted a method of using egg yolk thickened slightly with water and then adding powdered pigment, a medium that was quick drying, tedious to apply, and hard to change once applied.

Fascinated by geometric design and symmetry, he works slowly, completely about two paintings a year because he spends much time searching for the underlying idea.


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