George Tooker (1920-2011) was an artist both ahead of his time and very much from another era. Born in Brooklyn, NY and raised in Bellport, NY, Tooker would become an artist who mastered a painstaking and laborious technique of classical masters – egg tempura – through which he would create modern, even futuristic, works that were both unique and mysterious.
Part of the generation that would become the Greatest Generation, Tooker became one of its greatest artists, though he would never get to serve in WWII in the Marines, despite enlisting, due to medical problems. Instead, he studied and he painted. His formal studies included a stint as both student and teacher at the Art Students League. He later graduated from Harvard University, and then returned to Brooklyn in the 1940s and 50s, moving with his partner to a self-designed and built house in Hartland, VT in 1960, where he lived and painted until his death.
Throughout this period, his personal commitment to social justice was deep and strong. He was among the earliest supporters of the Civil Rights Movement and participated in the Selma to Montgomery marches in 1965. Much of this commitment came from a deep faith grounded in his Catholic beliefs about service, grace, and kindness.
Yet, this energetic engagement in dramatic, real world social causes seems almost apposite to his artistic themes, which stress form over emotion, and have form dominate the visual field as a political and social statement about the anonymity, social alienation, mass production and bleakness of modern life. His main themes – love, death, sex, grief, aging, alienation, and religious faith – portray universal human experiences, but without direct emotional expression. His warm colors – created out of his own hand-crafted paint pigments – invite one in to a world on canvas that is hardly warm or inviting – in fact, his vision in his “public” pieces is often hostile, ambiguous, and uncomfortable. This spareness is nonetheless beautiful, and finds a more empathetic form in his private pieces – those that depict persons holding mirrors, lanterns, and other objects where the mood is shaped by color, placement and symbolism. Each painting merits a deeper look because it is both beautiful and not at the same time.
Over the course of his career, Tooker would be recognized and forgotten many times. He emerged as a young painter widely acclaimed into the 50s, then fell out of favor when Abstract Expressionism gained popularity. He was re-discovered in the 1980s, and forgotten again as we entered the 21st Century. Now the Vermont Arts Council has once again raised awareness of his artistic greatness in this collaboration with POBA. Here, we can remember what Tooker never wanted us to forget: modern life may make each of us faceless at times, but never without soul.