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Estimate: $ 100,000 - $ 150,000
GEORGE TOOKER Untitled (Young Man Facing a Woman).
Egg tempera and ink on gessoed panel, circa 1950. 470x470 mm; 18 1/2x18 1/2 inches. With the artist's name "G. C. Tooker" in crayon on the panel verso.
Ex-collection Lincoln Kirstein, New York; the estate of Lincoln Kirstein, New York; gifted to Jack Woody, publisher, Twelvetrees Press, Pasadena (Woody published Kirstein's Quarry: A Collection in Lieu of Memoirs, 1986, and was also an early publisher of George Platt Lynes photographs; his George Platt Lynes: Photographs 1931-1955, 1981, with an introductory text by Kirstein, is a photography book icon; private collection, New Mexico.
Tooker (1920-2011) was born in Brooklyn and, after graduating from Harvard University with an English degree in 1942 and enlisting in the Officer Candidates School, United States Marine Corps (he was discharged for medical reasons), studied at the Art Students League, New York, from 1943 to 1945 under the artists Reginald Marsh and Kenenth Hayes Miller. Tooker met Paul Cadmus at the Art Students League and through Cadmus was introduced to Jared and Margaret French, all of whom would work together, collaborate and become lifelong friends in the ensuing decades. Through his connection with Cadmus and French, Tooker also became closely acquainted with Monroe Wheeler and Lincoln Kirstein, both of whom had strong ties to the nascent Museum of Modern Art, New York.
In 1946, in large part due to Kirstein's influence, Tooker was included in the groundbreaking exhibition "Fourteen Americans" curated by Dorothy Miller, at The Museum of Modern Art, which was a significant success in his early career. Three years later, following a half year of travel through Italy and France, studying old masters and architecture with Cadmus, Tooker participated in the exhibition "Symbolic Realism," 1949-50, organized by Kirstein, which brought him further recognition; the same year The Subway, egg tempera on panel, 1950, was acquired by the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, his first painting to enter a museum collection. He had his first solo exhibition the following year at the Edwin Hewitt Gallery, New York.
Like Cadmus and French, Tooker was categorized by art critics as a "Magic Realist," though he resisted this label. He said of his work, "I am after painting reality impressed on the mind so hard that it returns as a dream, but I am not after painting dreams as such, or fantasy." Describing his process, he noted, "I don't really think I'm a creator. I feel that I'm a passive vessel, a receptor or translator . . . The fascinating thing about painting is the discovery." Tooker's work gradually fell out of the spotlight with the ascent of Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art and Minimalism in the decades following the 1950s, though he continued to paint in the assiduous style he had developed during his early career.
The death of his partner, the artist and activist William R. Christopher, in 1973, prompted his conversion to Catholicism and a deeper spirituality in his work thereafter. Tooker's work was rediscovered during the 1980s and his appeal widened starting with his representation by DC Moore Gallery, New York, in the late 1990s and the exhibition "George Tooker: A Retrospective," at the National Academy Museum, New York; Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia; and Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio, in 2008-09. He spent the last decades of his career focusing on his art and spiritual life in relative solitude at his home in rural Vermont. Tooker received the prestigious National Medal of Arts in 2007; he died at home in April 2011.
Although Tooker had begun to experiment with egg tempera early in his career through Marsh at the Art Students League, it was both Cadmus and French who encouraged him to adopt it as his primary medium. The technique had close ties to Renaissance painting, which all three artists emulated, and was the primary panel painting medium for nearly every painter in the European Medieval and Early Renaissance period up to 1500. Tempera is a quick-drying, tedious and unforgiving method of painting that is hard to change after being applied. This deliberate method suited Tooker's disposition and artistic theory. He spent several intensely-focused hours each day, most days a week, for roughly four months fine-tuning each piece, slowly and deliberately building up color and dimension. He mixed his colors by hand, using water, egg yolk and powdered pigment.
Tooker's images convey a sense of overwhelming silence, as in the current painting, and the figures he depicts are rarely overcome by emotion and seldom convey individuality. Although in this work, the features of the male, with the large, dark eyes, prominent brown, round face, full lips and close-cropped hair bear a striking resemblance to Tooker in his twenties, and the style of the dress worn by the woman is one frequently modeled by Magaret French in numerous 1940s/1950s PaJaMa photographs (the moniker "PaJaMa" is a portmanteau of the first two letters of Paul, Jared and Margaret which the three artists used to reflect a fluid and collective mode of authorship in their photography). Tooker's work is grounded with a precise geometric architecture, which is both a gesture to the ubiquitous use of perspective in Renaissance art and a recognition of the order and rigidty of modern architecture. In the current work, the scaffold, playground-like frame is similar to one seen in PaJaMa photographs from the 1940s and 1950s, on which Cadmus and Jared and Margaret French often posed for photographs, on the beach at Fire Island, New York.
We would place the current painting among a number of works which Garver refers to as "summer pictures" which the artist seems to have conceived as, "Pleasures of the past--of childhood--recalled by Tooker in his paintings as one might recall the memory of a special celebration, special because of its distinctness from everyday life." The figure of the youth with arms raised and holding onto the scaffold structure in the current work is posed similarly and bears a striking resemblance to the boy in Divers, egg tempera on gesso panel, 1951-52. Garver adds that Divers, "Bears a strong resemblance to Bathers and to Coney Island in its use of wooden planking as a major compositional and framing element. For Tooker, it is a happy picture, and the thin figure on the ladder is an acknowledged self-portrait. It is one of Tooker's most schematized paintings," (Garver, George Tooker, San Francisco, 1992, page 74, illustrated pages 74 and 76). In the current work, Tooker used the geometric scaffold structure and the shadows it casts on the ground to echo the compositional framing element of the wood planking in these other paintings. Moreover, the red bathing suits worn by the youths in Divers and Acrobats, egg tempera on gesso panel, 1950-52, match that in the current painting, and the female model in the Garden Party, egg tempera on gesso panel, 1952, another of Tooker's "summer pictures," appears to be the identical model wearing the same red dress as in the current work.