Diving into Summer with George Tooker
By Beth Hamilton
George Tooker’s paintings project a haunting and mysterious realism that make it difficult for a viewer to look away and disengage from his work. Tooker’s distinctive aesthetic voice took hold in a time when the Abstract Expressionists had seized the mainstream of American art. Tooker developed a singular style that remains difficult to categorize. He rejected attempts to label him a Surrealist or Magic Realist. “I am after reality – painting impressed on the mind so hard that it recurs as a dream,” he said, “but I am not after dreams as such, or fantasy.”
Tooker was born in 1920 in Brooklyn, to a cocoa broker and a Cuban-born mother. As his father’s circumstances improved, the family moved to Bellport, Long Island. Tooker’s parents insisted he attend Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts as part of a grand plan, which included their son’s enrollment at Harvard University. While submitting to his parent’s educational roadmap, Tooker began taking side trips – spending as much time as possible in the Academy’s studios, experimenting with landscape drawing and watercolors. Academia held little interest for him except for writing poetry. Tooker was named “poet” of his graduating class in 1938.
His parents’ strategy paid off and Tooker was admitted to Harvard. While he pursued some painting and art history courses – he still did not regard himself as an artist. Rather, Tooker’s focus was spent getting his first taste of political activism – developing a social awareness that would eventually infuse his work. He approached his parents about leaving college to study with one of the masters of Social Realism, José Clemente Orozco. His request was denied.
Tooker graduated from Harvard and enlisted in the Marine Corps’ officer candidate school. After a few months he was discharged on medical grounds. Having gone the distance for his parents, they were now willing to support their son’s decision to study at the Art Students League in New York. There he developed a critical relationship with Paul Cadmus who became a teacher and a friend. Cadmus introduced Tooker to painting with egg-tempera. The medium – quick-drying and difficult to change once applied – suited Tooker’s contemplative nature.
Tooker experienced a turning point in his artistic career when two of his paintings were included in the exhibition, Fourteen Americans, at the Museum of Modern Art. His work was recommended for inclusion in the show by Lincoln Kirstein, an early champion of Tooker (and Cadmus’s brother-in-law). Kirstein situated the artist amongst a group he identified as the Symbolic Realists — artists whose paintings privilege the intellectual, the expression of ideas and orderliness above the emotional. In 1950, Kirstein organized an exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, Symbolic Realism in American Painting 1940-1950, that showcased Tooker and artists such as Peter Blume, Cadmus, Kenneth Davies, French, Henry Koerner, Bernard Perlin, Alton Pickens, Charles Rain, and Ben Shahn among many others.
Tooker’s work often focused on his immediate surroundings in New York—storefronts, architectural details, colored lighting, and everyday encounters with people. In the late 1940s, he also began a small group of beach paintings, which largely draw from childhood memories spent on the south shore of Long Island near Bellport. The present work, Divers, was painted in 1952 and according to Thomas H. Garver: “[Divers] is the last of the beach paintings, which moved steadily away from the Reginald Marsh prototypes before vanishing from Tooker’s oeuvre altogether. It is also the most stylized of the beach paintings. The highlights of sun on the water are schematic rather than illusionistic renderings, stressing form and pattern. The figures plunging from the dock into the water—more flopping than diving—are devoid of fluid motion, yet they epitomize the repetitive study of the single semi-nude figure from different angles that so fascinated Tooker at this time. Notice too the construction of the dock, particularly the right side, in which space is funneled away from the picture plane, a device rarely used by Tooker.” (v.i. George Tooker, p. 74)