Although most readers will not recognize his name, George Tooker is arguably the greatest Catholic painter in American history. This is not a grand claim. Masterpieces of American Catholic painting are few and far between.
The mainstream of our painting was secular with a small and waning Protestant presence. American Catholics mostly looked to Europe for their visual arts—either for import or imitation. Major American-born painters linked to Catholicism are rare.
George Tooker was born in 1920 in Brooklyn. He attended Harvard and then studied at the Art Students League of New York. Tooker’s career neatly divides into two phases – before and after his conversion to Catholicism.
The early paintings depict ordinary people in everyday settings – offices, waiting rooms, subways, cafeterias – but conveyed in a way that seems fantastical, even supernatural. The alienation and anxiety of modern urban life stems from work.
Today these dreamlike paintings would be called Magical Realism, but that term did not yet exist in English.
Tooker began his career in the 1950s when Abstract Expressionism was the dominant trend. His realistic works were considered retrograde. Yet his work survived and ultimately flourished because he had a genius for creating images of modern life that seem at once astonishing and ordinary.
In Lunch (1964), rows of office workers bend over their meals, seemingly oblivious to each other.
In Counter (1967), identical bank clerks sit listlessly isolated behind steel beams.
In Subway (1950), commuters stand nervously and fearfully in a concrete underworld. Once seen, the paintings stick in the memory.
Recognition came slowly. For many years, Tooker existed on the sidelines of the art world. The artist was sixty-five when the first full-length study of his work appeared. He was eighty-seven when he received the National Medal of the Arts.
Tooker never complained about neglect. He was too absorbed by his own conflicting passions. When other young painters followed Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock, Tooker studied the Italian Renaissance master Piero della Francesca. When the leading critics praised abstract formalism, Tooker emphasized content. His central concern was never style. This was the human condition.
Even Tooker’s creative process differed from the methods of his more celebrated contemporaries. The Abstract Expressionists practiced “action painting” in which paint was dripped, splashed, smeared or even pressed onto the canvas in a self-consciously spontaneous performance. Tooker carefully planned his paintings with preliminary drawings and arranged his figures in geometric perspective as carefully as an Old Master.
He even mixed his own paint with egg yolks and pigments – just like Giotto or Botticelli did before the introduction of oils. Tooker’s mature paintings are executed in tempera, a difficult and unforgiving medium. He applied the tempera in small strokes, layering the colors carefully, taking weeks or months to complete a work.
Tooker didn’t just share technique with the Old Masters. He also adopted their metaphysical vision of painting that simultaneously presents both the body and the soul of a subject.
The second phase of Tooker’s career was religious. His later work offers mysterious states of rapture, vision and grace. Shortly after the death of Tooker’s partner, William Christopher, in 1973, the artist permanently relocated to Vermont. Spiritual changes followed. Three years later he joined the Catholic Church.
Tooker’s Catholicism was both genuine and profound. His partner’s death provided the catalyst, but the artist’s conversion reflected his lifelong search for community, justice and religious faith.
For years he followed Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker and participated in the Civil Rights Movement. His early paintings contained subtle Christian themes and symbols, which simply became more explicit after his conversion. At his parish church St. Francis of Assisi in Windsor, Vermont, Tooker attended daily Mass and helped distribute the Eucharist. He modeled his daily life on Franciscan simplicity.
When the church was destroyed by fire, the pastor asked Tooker to contribute a painting for a charity auction. Instead, the artist offered to create a new altarpiece when the church was rebuilt.
In 1980 he finished The Seven Sacraments, a powerful recreation of the Renaissance tradition. Each of the seven panels presents a sacrament in contemporary terms. The kneeling penitent in the radiant and compassionate depiction of “Reconciliation” contains Tooker’s self-portrait.
Four years later he painted the fourteen Stations of the Cross. No American Catholic church has more impressive paintings than this modest congregation.
George Tooker never lived up to the critical expectations of the art world. He was both too far behind the times and too far ahead of them. But history has confirmed his outsider’s view of the spiritual struggles and consolations of the modern age.
When he died in 2011 at the age of ninety, the New York Times had him hailed as “one of the most distinctive and mysterious painters of the twentieth century”.
By then the press was just stating the obvious.
* Images: All by George Clair Tooker, Jr.
1. Lunch1964 [Columbus Museum of Art, Columbus, OH]
2. Counter1967 [private collection]
3. Subway1950 [Whitney Museum of American Art, New York]
4. The Seven Sacraments1980 [St. Francis of Assisi Church in Windsor, VT]
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