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  • Straddling the realms of symbolism and realism, the antique and the modern, George Tooker’s mid-century paintings are even more relevant today as figurative painting continues to be rediscovered and redefined in a contemporary age. Born in Brooklyn in 1920, Tooker was often classified as a founder of “Magical Realism” alongside his contemporaries like Paul Cadmus and Jared French – yet this term, one which Tooker himself rejected, fails to acknowledge the depth of his practice. Table II, 1981 highlights the complexities found in Tooker’s paintings, compositions indisputably ahead of their time which dealt with alienation and loneliness. Here, three figures coexist in a single plane without regard for one another or the viewer, enraptured by their own bodies and thoughts. A reprisal of an earlier painting from 1959, Table I, the present work provokes questions, causing its viewers to look inward, and in turn possessing “the power to silence a crowded room.”i

     

      

    The Tooker Person 

     

    In Table II, each of the three figures are uniquely a “Tooker person,” a term referring to the artist’s vaguely androgynous characters with Renaissance-like, sculpted faces and figures. Often it is unclear what race or gender a Tooker person is meant to be, something the artist has attributed to the fact that he is more interested in universal “human” qualities than those which make us different. As Thomas H. Garver aptly described on the occasion of Tooker’s first major retrospective in 1974, “his work concentrates not on the individual, the specific personality, but much more on a society of his own making, which acknowledges both life as he finds it and life as he makes it.”ii His blurring of ethnicity and sex could be further explained by his own identity; Tooker was born to an American father and a Cuban mother, and identified as a gay man. In Table II, such obscurities of individuality are evidenced by the depiction of the seated figure on the left rendered in shadow, featuring darker skin while not necessarily a person of color. Meanwhile, the standing frontal figure on the right appears at first glance to be female with sculpted breasts and wide-set hips, and yet upon closer inspection has a strong neck with a defined jawline that suggests a more masculine identity. 

     

    Tooker’s Use of Tempera 

     

    These sculpted figures are undoubtedly a product of Tooker’s technical prowess. The precision in each of his paintings is so starkly different from the action paintings of the Abstract Expressionists with whom Tooker was contemporary. In fact, his chosen medium of egg tempera, which he started using in the mid-1940s after studying with Reginald Marsh at the Art Students League in New York, lends itself to careful construction; he is said to have liked the material for its simplicity, requiring nothing more than powdered pigments, brushes and eggs. It was also the frequently chosen medium of his Renaissance predecessors whom he was strongly influenced by, including Piero della Francesca and Paolo Uccello.

     

    Piero della Francesca, The Nativity, 1470-1475. National Portrait Gallery, London.

    Tooker only completed about two paintings a year, which is made clear by his contemplative compositions, “executed as carefully as they are constructed intellectually.”iii In Table II, Tooker’s thought-out composition is particularly harmonious. As Garver said of this work in particular, “the composition is based on circles and arcs of circles. The young woman’s head, the curve of the cloak which carries the edge of the table up around the right side of the picture, the convex shapes of belly and breast against the concave forms of the two empty bowls, all work well together in one of Tooker’s best integrated compositions.”iv

     

    Modern Anxieties

     

    Despite the harmony in Table II, the mood remains entirely unsettling. The figure on the left gazes toward the right side of the composition, yet upon close inspection, it seems as though he is not staring directly at the cloaked women, but rather at something off in the distance. The standing figures are similarly gazing into an unknown abyss, devoid of emotion. The result is a mysterious scene highlighting loneliness, not togetherness, invoking the painting with a contemporary sensibility. Tooker captured our very own modern anxieties decades ago, before they even came to be, reminding us that there is always so much that lingers beneath the surface.  

     

    i Thomas H. Garver, George Tooker, Paintings, exh. cat., Marisa del Re Gallery, New York, 1988, n.p.

    ii Thomas H. Garver, George Tooker: Paintings 1947-1973, exh. cat., The Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, San Francisco, 1974, n.p.

    iii Thomas H. Garver, George Tooker, Paintings, exh. cat., Marisa del Re Gallery, New York, 1988, n.p.
    iv Thomas H. Garver, George Tooker, New York, 1985, p. 104.

    • Provenance

      Marisa del Re Gallery, New York
      Dr. and Mrs. Fouad A. Rabiah, Flint (acquired from the above)
      The Rabiah Collection of American Art, Christie's, New York, May 31, 1985, lot 164
      Arij Gasiunasen Fine Art, Palm Beach
      Private Collection, Michigan (acquired from the above in 1995)
      Thence by descent to the present owner

    • Exhibited

      New York, Marisa del Re Gallery, Tooker's Women, October 14–December 19, 1992

    • Literature

      Thomas H. Garver, George Tooker, New York, 1985, pp. 102, 138 (illustrated, p. 104)
      Thomas H. Garver, George Tooker, San Francisco, 1992, pp. 113, 122 (illustrated, p. 148)

Property from an Important Midwestern Estate

107

Table II

signed "TOOKER" lower right
egg tempera on gessoed panel
23 7/8 x 30 in. (60.6 x 76.2 cm)
Painted in 1981.

Full Cataloguing

Estimate
$80,000 - 120,000 

Sold for $239,400

Contact Specialist

John McCord
Head of Day Sale, Morning Session
New York
+1 212 940 1261

[email protected]

20th Century & Contemporary Art Day Sale, Morning Session

New York Auction 24 June 2021