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Thursday, December 14, 2017

George Tooker, Painter Capturing Modern Anxieties, Dies at 90

George Tooker's work expressed a 20th-century brand of anxiety and alienation. Above, "The Subway" from 1950. George Tooker's work expressed a 20th-century brand of anxiety and alienation. Above, "The Subway" from 1950. Whitney Museum of American Art

George Tooker, a painter whose haunting images of trapped clerical workers and forbidding government offices expressed a peculiarly 20th-century brand of anxiety and alienation, died on Sunday at his home in Hartland, Vt. He was 90.

The cause was complications of kidney failure, Edward De Luca, director of the D C Moore Gallery in Manhattan, said.

Mr. Tooker, often called a symbolic, or magic, realist, worked well outside the critical mainstream for much of his career, relegated to the margins by the rise of abstraction. As doctrinaire modernism loosened its hold in the 1980s, however, he was rediscovered by a younger generation of artists, critics and curators, who embraced him as one of the most distinctive and mysterious American painters of the 20th century.

He specialized in eerie situations with powerful mythic overtones. Luminous and poetic, his paintings often conveyed a sense of dread, but could just as easily express a lover’s rapture or spiritual ecstasy. Whatever the emotion, his generalized figures, with their smoothly modeled sculptural forms and masklike faces, seemed to dwell outside of time, even when placed in contemporary settings.

The harried figures in “The Subway” (1950), gathered in a low-ceilinged passageway, could be characters in a Greek tragedy, stalked by the Furies. In “Landscape With Figures” (1965-66), the disembodied heads of despairing office workers peep out of a mazelike set of cubicles, like the damned in a modern version of the Inferno. The men and women in “Waiting Room” (1957) simply wait, catatonically and existentially, as if they were extras in a play by Beckett or Sartre.

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