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Tuesday, March 29, 2011

George Tooker (1920 – 2011)

The Subway

One of my favorite (if not my #1 favorite) American painters has left us. George Tooker, whose painstaking egg temperas showed us a sterile world of isolation and anxiety, lasted to the age of 90, somewhat secluded. A few years ago I knew he was still alive. For a while, I didn't know one way or the other: Schrödinger's Artist! He died today, March 29, 2011.

Government Bureau

I first saw his painting, "The Subway" (top example) in the 70s and was fascinated by his creepy vision of a nightmare populated by strangers who didn't look happy about it either. On my first visit to New York City, I made a special trip to the Whitney to see it and was disappointed to learn that they didn't keep it on display most of the time. I bought a poster, though.

Landscape with Figures

People in his paintings seem haunted. Like strangers on the street, they look at you (perhaps momentarily) with no joy or flicker of recognition. Each is isolated in his or her concerns. I wrote a paper on him for art history, almost thirty years ago, drawing on images from Raymond Chandler and dissecting "The Subway" on layers of clear plastic like animation cels.


He painted in the difficult medium of egg tempera, mixing his paints as he went along. He could make a mix last another day by putting it in the refrigerator. He was influenced by Reginald Marsh and Paul Cadmus. He and his lifetime partner, William Christopher, were active in the Civil Rights movement. I have a book about him, but I don't know an awful lot about him. Here is his self-portrait, from 1947:

George Tooker

More pictures can be found here..

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