(Host) Paintings by Vermont artist George Tooker are in the most influential art museums in the country and sell for six figures. In 2007, President Bush presented him with the National Medal of Arts – the highest honor given to an individual artist. This Sunday, the 89-year old Hartland resident will make a rare public appearance at the Cornish Colony Museum in Windsor to sign a new book highlighting his work. VPR’s Nina Keck sat down with the painter in his home and filed this report.
(Keck) The first thing you notice about George Tooker are his eyes – they’re a brilliant blue and they crinkle when he smiles. Nearly 90, health problems have slowed him down – but he’s still painting and living in the rustic hillside home he built in Hartland fifty years ago.
(Tooker ) "I don’t feel any older than I was when I started." (laughs) (sound of caregiver)
(Keck) A caregiver and neighbor bustle about the kitchen, putting away groceries and shooing out the dog. When things finally settle down, I ask when Tooker’s passion for art began.
(Tooker) "I always was drawing and painting and my family had a very good friend – Malcolm Fraser – who was a painter and he gave me painting lessons when I was 7 and it sort of just went on from there. I always new I wanted to paint."
(Keck) Tooker grew up on Long Island. To appease his parents, he studied English literature at Harvard. When World War Two broke out, he joined the marines, but was soon discharged for medical reasons. It wasn’t until 1943, when he joined the Art Students League in New York, that he was finally able to focus on art full time. It was there he learned to work with egg tempera – a paint made with egg yolks favored by the early masters.
(Tooker) "It’s a very old way of painting… And people think it’s difficult but it’s not, it’s very easy. But it’s slow and the slowness fits me – fits my way of thinking. (laughs).’
(Keck) At first, Tooker says he tried to copy other well known painters, but eventually his own style developed – one that blends elements of the early renaissance with 1950s modernism. Some critics use the term magic realism to describe his work, but Tooker would just as soon avoid labels. He paints what he wants to and takes him time – turning out just a few paintings every year.
(Cozzolino) "He didn’t really produce to sell – he produced because he really believed in the work he was doing. "
(Keck) That’s Robert Cozzolino, curator of modern art at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia. He recently put together a retrospective exhibition of George Tooker’s work which is now in book form. He says that while Tooker’s style may harken back to the 14th and 15th centuries – his subject matter has always been modern. Cozzolino says his 1946 painting – Children and Spastics – which is in the Museum of Contemporary art in Chicago – is an early example of how Tooker used art for social commentary.
(Cozzolino) "And it shows a group of boys who are menacing a group of young men who are very clearly identified as homosexuals in terms of their gestures and that for many is one of the cruelest paintings that George has made. But in a way it was meant to comment on things that he had witnessed and what he had felt people were capable of."
(Keck) Tooker’s most famous painting – 1950s Subway – portrays with creepy precision, the fear and isolation of urban life. Some of his other well known works have skewered government bureaucracies and the Cold War. In the 1960s, Tooker fought for civil rights by marching with Martin Luther King and painting portraits of mixed race and same sex couples.
(Cozzolino) "I think in all of those pictures what George is doing is really giving us something to meditate on. Giving us pictures that you’re not supposed to get in a couple seconds and then walk by but you’re really supposed to reflect on and noticing the nuances and implications of what’s shown."
(Keck) While Tooker has always been well respected in the art world, many mainstream Americans have never heard of him. Sitting at his kitchen table, George Tooker waves his hand dismissively when I ask if this bothers him.
(Tooker) "No I don’t regret – I don’t want (laughs) I don’t want too much attention. Laughs. I never really wanted to be part of the New York Scene…
(Keck) Tooker admits living in the city early on helped fuel his creativity, but he says he much prefers to live quietly in Vermont and let his art dealer sell his work.
(Tooker) "I said if you can sell my pictures without a show that would be fine by me. And he did it! (laughs) He sold my pictures without a show!"
(Keck) Walking through Tooker’s home, I notice none of his own paintings hang on the walls. I ask him if he’s kept any over the years.
(Tooker) "No – I try to get a picture out of the house as soon as it’s finished. I try to forget the ones I’ve done and think about the next one."
(Keck) His old paintings are the past, he says, and he needs all his drive and energy to focus on the new ones.
For VPR news, I’m Nina Keck in Hartland.
Sunday, November 8
Meet the Artist: George Tooker
Benefiting the Cornish Colony Museum, Windsor, VT
St. Francis of Assisi Church, Windsor
21 original paintings by Tooker with seminar about them from Robert Cozzolino, Curator of Modern Art, PAFA, and co-curator of Tooker retrospective
Remarks about liturgical significance by Father Rene Butler
Move around the corner to Cornish Colony Museum
Wine and cheese reception.
Appearance by George Tooker who will answer questions and sign books from his recent retrospective
$50 for seminar/reception/meeting with Tooker
Books will be available at normal list price of $60
Benefit to Cornish Colony Museum