Vermont Artist George Tooker Dies

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(Host) Painter George Tooker – whose work is on display in some of the nation’s most prestigious museums – died Sunday of kidney failure at his home in Hartland. He was 90.  

VPR’s Nina Keck has this remembrance.

(Keck) When I met George Tooker at his home in 2009, I was immediately struck by his piercing blue eyes, his humble personality and his love of painting – something he told me had always been a part of him.

(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 knew I wanted to paint."  

(Keck) Tooker grew up on Long Island and studied English literature at Harvard to please his parents.  He joined the marines during World War Two, but was discharged for medical reasons. Then in 1943, Tooker enrolled in the Art Students League in New York and was finally able to focus on painting.    It was there he learned to use egg tempera paints favored by the early masters. Here’s how Tooker described it.

(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) Tooker said he eventually found his style – one that blended elements of the early renaissance with a mid twentieth century modernism.  

Some critics used the term magic realism to describe his work, but Tooker said he didn’t care much for labels.   He painted what he wanted to and he took his time. Over the course of his long career, he created fewer than 155 paintings.   

Robert Cozzolino is curator of modern art at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia.  Two years ago, he put together a retrospective of George Tooker’s work.

(Cozzolino) "One of the things that is exciting about George’s work that will make them really remain in the minds of viewers for centuries to come is that he managed to say a lot through his visual depiction of the world around him and the human condition."

(Keck) One of Tooker’s best known paintings – 1950’s "Subway" – portrays with creepy precision, the angst and isolation of urban life. In that painting, a woman in a red dress walks nervously through a crowded subway station as eerie strangers hurry past.

Tooker’s paintings took on big government and the Cold War  – while others slapped at racism with loving portrayals of mixed race 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) Tooker didn’t care much for publicity, which is why his name may not be that well known outside the art world.

He moved to Vermont in 1958 and said he much preferred the peace and quiet of living in the country. He continued to work in his Hartland studio and his paintings regularly sold for upwards of $3 and $400,000.

Vermonters can see his work in St. Francis of Assisi Church in Winsdsor. Tooker painted a large seven panel mural for the church in 1980 depicting the seven sacraments.   

A devout Catholic, Tooker’s funeral will be held at the church on April 8th.    

For VPR News, I’m Nina Keck.


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