Weekly Update – George Tooker’s humanist works at PAFA

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 This week’s Weekly has my review of the George Tooker retrospective at Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.  Below is my copy with some pictures.

The career retrospective of 88-year old American Modernist painter George Tooker at PAFA is a revelation.  Tooker, a student of Reginald Marsh and an astute observer of urban humanity, is far less well known than his teacher.  But the artist’s small dreamy egg tempera paintings are bold and captivating.  And Tooker’s subject matter – human interaction — from intimate moments of tenderness to unsettling tableaux of men and women boxed in and dehumanized by government, corporations and the city  – strikes a chord and puts him on par with both his teacher and social realist muralists like Diego Rivera.

George Tooker. Window II, 1956. Egg tempera on gesso panel, 24 x 18 in. Collection of James and Barbara Palmer
George Tooker. Window II, 1956. Egg tempera on gesso panel, 24 x 18 in. Collection of James and Barbara Palmer

Tooker, who was active in the Civil Rights movement and marched with Martin Luther King in Selma in 1965, came of artistic age during the paranoid days of the Cold War and McCarthyism.  Works like “The Subway” (1950) and “Government Bureau” (1956} — from a series the artist dubbed his “Protest Paintings”  — present a Kafka-esque world where individuals are lost in blank urban corridors.  The Subway’s dead urban space with its labyrinthian walkways, iron bars and turnstile, is odious to contemplate.  People march in lock step, their eyes staring blankly.  The piece perfectly encapsulates the pessimism of the anxious times, and it resonates today as well.  Tooker has continued to add to this series over the years.

Subway, 1950. Egg tempera on composition board, 18 1/8 x 36 1/8 in., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Purchase, with funds from the Juliana Force Purchase Award
Subway, 1950. Egg tempera on composition board, 18 1/8 x 36 1/8 in., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Purchase, with funds from the Juliana Force Purchase Award

The works are luminous: Built up with many layers of translucent glazes, their colors sing.  Tooker studied the Renaissance masters like Piero de la Francesca, and his figures – all imagined; the artist does not work from models or photos —  have the poise, dignity, sensuality and solemnity of figures in those ancient works.  Often times, as in Juke Box (1953) there is an element of threat that lies below the surface, expressed by the heightened colors or odd dogs-eye view of the scene.  And like Van Gogh and Rembrandt, Tooker has made a study of his own face, in self-portraits that show the artist’s seriousness of purpose over time in his long career.  A devout Christian who converted to Catholicism in 1976, Tooker’s later works, like Embrace of Peace, II (1988) contain elements of a dreamy spirituality.

Self-Portrait, 1947 Egg tempera on gesso panel, 18 ? in. diameter Curtis Galleries, Minneapolis, MN
Self-Portrait, 1947 Egg tempera on gesso panel, 18 ? in. diameter Curtis Galleries, Minneapolis, MN

PAFA Curator of Modern Art, Robert Cozzolino, recently uncovered a lost Tooker painting, “Laundress,” which was owned by a private Philadelphia collector who came forward to lend the work to the show. “It is an important early work that the co-curator and I were trying to track down but had few leads. One of its distinctions is that it is the only oil painting Tooker did…,” Cozzolino said.  The show now includes the preparatory drawing for Laundress as well as the painting.

Waiting Room, 1957 Egg tempera on gesso panel, 24 x 30 in. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington D.C.
Waiting Room, 1957 Egg tempera on gesso panel, 24 x 30 in. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington D.C.

Organized by PAFA, the Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio, and the National Academy Museum, New York, and with a beautiful catalog, this is the first major museum retrospective of Tooker’s works in thirty years.   A two day symposium on Tooker takes place Mar 20 and 21 at PAFA.

George Tooker: “A Retrospective.” $10-$15. Through April 5, Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, 128 N. Broad St. 215.972.7600. www.pafa.org
New Perspectives on George Tooker: Fri., March 20, 9am-5pm and Sat., March 21, 9am-3pm. $30-$60. Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, 128 N. Broad St. 215.972.7600.
www.pafa.org

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george tooker, pafa

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