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Art and social criticism.

IT HAS BEEN a good year for GLBT artists. In these pages alone we have been able to celebrate the works of Louise Nevelson, Jasper Johns, Charles Demuth, and now George Tooker, whose work is being shown at The National Academy of Design in New York City. This stunning retrospective, the first in thirty years, focuses on the man and his legacy. A comprehensive catalogue with commentary and essays by several art critics accompanies it.

George Claire Tooker, Jr. was born in Brooklyn on August 5, 1920. He was the first child of a Cuban-American mother and a father who was a municipal bond broker. At the age of seven he began taking painting lessons from Malcolm Fraser, a family friend whose oeuvre was in the Barbizon tradition. Tooker went to high school in Bellport, Long Island, and spent his last two years at Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts. He graduated in 1938, enrolling at Harvard, where he majored in English literature. His aesthetic sensitivity led him to discover the Fogg Museum, where he spent many happy hours. He was deeply moved by the early Italian Renaissance, pre-Raphaelite, and 19th-century French paintings that he studied. It was during this period that he became interested in the work of Mexican painters, especially David Alfaro Siqueiros and Jose Clemente Orozco, and made the connection between quattrocentro forms and art that criticized the abuses of states and governments.

After graduating from Harvard in 1942, he immediately enlisted in the Marine Corps Officer's Candidate School, but due to an old stomach ailment was discharged after a few months of training. With his parents' support, he enrolled in the Art Students League in New York, where he studied with Reginald Marsh, who worked in egg tempera, and Kenneth Hayes Miller. Both of his teachers had taken their cues from the Ashcan School of Robert Henri and his art-for-life-sake school of art. These were painters whose social concerns were expressed through their work. In 1944, Tooker met Paul Cadmus, who also worked with egg tempera and who transmitted his expertise to Tooker.

Paul and George became lovers and traveled to France and Italy in 1949, staying six months and studying art. They were especially impressed with Italian art and spent about three months there. With the financial support of his family, George moved to a flat on Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village. Tooker and Cadmus broke up that year, and George met and began dating another artist, William Christopher, who would become his life partner until Christopher's death in 1973.

In the 1950's, Tooker and Christopher moved into an illegal loft located at West 18th Street. During this period, Tooker was beginning to earn both recognition and income from his art. This was partly due to the support he received from Lincoln Kirstein, who became an early booster, writing about Tooker and promoting his work through commissions, both private and public. Nineteen-fifty was a very good year for Tooker: the Whitney Museum bought his best-known painting, The Subway. The following year, he had a one-man exhibition in New York. His good fortune continued when he got a commission to design sets for an opera in 1954 and then a one-man show in 1955. With money coming in regularly, the partners were able to buy and renovate a brownstone on State Street in Brooklyn Heights in 1953. In the late 50's, they built a weekend home near Hartland, Vermont, moving there full-time in 1960.

The one-man shows in New York galleries picked up speed in the 60's. Responding to the social and political concerns of the time, they became involved in the Civil Rights movement and decided to go to Selma to march with Dr. Martin Luther King. Tooker's evocatively beautiful Windows series displays both interracial couples and single, beautiful black men. Take, for example, Window VII (1966) with its softly burning saffron and sepia luminosity. By the mid-60's, Tooker returned to the Art Students League to teach. However, at the end of 1968, Christopher's health deteriorated to such an extent that Vermont winters were too severe for him. Although four years younger than Tooker, Christopher's serious heart condition was always a major concern for the couple. Tooker recalls that it was Christopher's idea to go to Spain. "I didn't want to go. Essentially, he wanted to go to Spain because he knew he was dying. He was not fully himself toward the end." When Christopher died in 1973, he wasn't yet fifty. Tooker spent most of 1974 in Spain, wrapping up Christopher's estate.

Distraught and increasingly depressed, Tooker sought solace in religion and in 1976 found it in Roman Catholicism. He began attending St. Francis of Assisi Church. He later created a major painting for it, The Seven Sacraments. Today, Tooker still lives and works in Harland, Vermont. His work is remarkable for its consistency of execution and technical brilliance. In her essay "Framing Imagery: At the. intersection of geometry and the social," Anna C. Chave elucidates Tooker's position as a gay man born in 1920, who lived through the "persecutory McCarthy era when his homosexuality, in tandem with his youthful Communist Party ties, placed him in double jeopardy."

In Tooker's work, sexuality and sexual difference are ongoing concerns, which he conveys through a rigorous exercise in stylized geometry. He uses lighting, ventilation, cubicles, and other geometric and architectural patterns to represent the alienation and oppressive conformity of the 50's. Against this background, his meticulously rendered egg-tempera paintings with their vivid, luminous intensity, dreamlike imagery, and erotically charged subjects acquire fresh meanings. Beyond the values of line, color, and space, Tooker's art takes on the troubled relations between society and the self. From the first, for instance, Children and Spastics (1946), he focuses on depicting neighborhood bullies tormenting a trio of spastic gay men and, in A Game of Chess (1946-47), he represents his own ambivalent feelings regarding heterosexuality.


As Thomas H. Garver and Marshall N. Price take pains to point out, Tooker has an uncanny ability to press people's emotional buttons. One stunning instance is his painting Man in a Tree (1998), in which Reinaldo Arenas, the gay Cuban writer who wrote Before Night Falls, is represented as a suffering, Christ-like figure offering his purple passion flower from an Edenic bower of leaves. The foliage frames him like the wings of a martyred angel. The painting is based on the story of Arenas eluding persecution for his homosexuality by hiding in a tree for several days.

Tooker's paintings are charged with tension and speak to a lifetime of social evils. He is, as Jonathan Weinberg notes, a man of the people who speaks for those who very often cannot speak for themselves for a variety of reasons. Identity in difference is what George Tooker has dedicated his life to as a man and artist. He is passionately single-minded in this commitment to creating art that changes hearts and minds. He once remarked: "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."'

George Tooker Retrospective

National Academy Museum and School of Fine Arts, New York

Cassandra Langer, a freelance writer based in New York City, is a frequent contributor to this magazine.
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Title Annotation:George Tooker Retrospective
Author:Langer, Cassandra
Publication:The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide
Geographic Code:1U2NY
Date:Mar 1, 2009
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