George Tooker (1920-2011)
On occasion, Christie's has a direct financial int… Read more An American Place: The Barney A. Ebsworth Collection
George Tooker (1920-2011)

A Game of Chess

George Tooker (1920-2011)
A Game of Chess
signed 'Tooker' (lower left)
tempera on panel
30 x 15 in. (76.2 x 38.1 cm.)
Painted in 1946-47.
Frank K.M. Rehn Gallery, New York.
Edwin Hewitt Gallery, New York.
Robert Isaacson Gallery, New York.
Irma Rudin, New York.
Marshall Henis, Steppingstone Gallery, Great Neck, New York.
Sotheby Parke-Bernet, New York, 21 April 1978, lot 208.
Acquired by the late owner from the above.
P. Bird, "George Tooker Exhibition, Hewitt Gallery," Art Digest, vol. 25, March 1, 1951, p. 24.
S. Preston, "The Artist in Europe--And in America," New York Times Magazine, May 8, 1955, p. 29, illustrated.
H. Devree, "About Art and Artists: Whitney Telescopes Schedule, Displays Paintings, Sculpture and Drawings," The New York Times, January 12, 1955, p. 23.
"George Tooker," Wizue, no. 829, 1974, p. 77, illustrated.
H. McBride, New York Sun, December 19, 1954.
Playbill for The Saint of Bleeker Street, New York, December 27, 1954.
T.H. Garver, George Tooker, San Francisco, California, 1992, pp. 15-16, 67, 113, 138, 142, illustrated (as The Chess Game).
K. Johnson, "Baleful Visions of Modernity, Mystically Rendered," The New York Times, October 10, 2008, p. C33.
New York, Whitney Museum of American Art, 1947 Annual Exhibition of Contemporary Paintings, 1947, no. 156, illustrated (as The Chess Game).
New York, Edwin Hewitt Gallery, Paintings by George Tooker, February 20-March 10, 1951, no. 5 (as The Chess Game).
New York, Edwin Hewitt Gallery, Paintings by George Tooker, January 10-29, 1955, no. 1 (as The Chess Game).
New York, Whitney Museum of American Art; San Francisco, California, The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; Los Angeles, California, University of California Art Galleries; Colorado Springs, Colorado, Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center; St. Louis, Missouri, City Art Museum, The New Decade: 35 American Painters and Sculptors, May 11, 1955-May 15, 1956, p. 88, illustrated (as The Chess Game).
St. Louis, Missouri, St. Louis Art Museum; Honolulu, Hawaii, Honolulu Academy of Arts; Boston, Massachusetts, Museum of Fine Arts, The Ebsworth Collection: American Modernism 1911-1947, November 20, 1987-June 5, 1988, pp. 186-87, 222, no. 71, illustrated (as The Chess Game (The Chessman)).
Washington, D.C., National Gallery of Art; Seattle, Washington, Seattle Art Museum, Twentieth-Century American Art: The Ebsworth Collection, March 5-November 12, 2000, pp. 263-65, 300, no. 71, illustrated (as The Chess Game (The Chessman)).
New York, National Academy Museum; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts; Columbus, Ohio, Columbus Museum of Art, George Tooker, October 2, 2008-September 2, 2009, pp. 46, 58, 110-11, 177, pl. 5, illustrated.
Special notice

On occasion, Christie's has a direct financial interest in the outcome of the sale of certain lots consigned for sale. This will usually be where it has guaranteed to the Seller that whatever the outcome of the auction, the Seller will receive a minimum sale price for the work. This is known as a minimum price guarantee. This is such a lot.

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Lot Essay

We would like to thank Robert Cozzolino for his assistance with cataloguing this lot.

Over the course of his career, George Tooker mastered the art of portraying evocative psychological images in a dreamlike, surrealist style using the traditional medium of egg tempera. Like his friends and fellow artists Paul Cadmus and Jared French, Tooker employed neoclassical techniques in his work while remaining unequivocally modern. Characterized by exacting detail and a representational technique, Tooker’s oeuvre can be divided into two groups: his public paintings—social images filled with pedestrians within an urban forum, such as Coney Island or a subway platform, and his private paintings that depict figures within distinctly intimate interior spaces. A compelling example of the latter category, A Game of Chess employs the artist’s mastery of tempera to create an immersive, patterned environment that transports the viewer into his imagined, haunting world.

Superb in its meticulous attention to detail, A Game of Chess at once recalls the work of Northern Renaissance masters, such as Jan Van Eyck and Robert Campin, with its flattened perspective and ceaseless patterning. Indeed, even the iconography of chess harkens back to earlier times when ivories, tapestries and illuminated manuscripts depicted the game as a symbol for romantic, intellectual and military pursuits. Though his historical influence cannot be denied, Tooker’s work possesses the remarkable ability to recall Old Masters in such a way that immediately communicates his contemporary experiences. At the same time, he foreshadows the work of contemporary masters of figuration, such as David Hockney.

Unapologetically daring, A Game Of Chess is a deeply personal painting for Tooker which brilliantly communicates the artist’s inner psyche as a gay man living in 1940s Post War America and unwilling to conform to heterosexual societal norms. Thomas H. Garver writes of the present work, “The Chess Game (1947), an autobiographical painting, was a watershed work of the early years. The setting is Tooker’s Bleeker Street cold-water flat, three rooms in a row with a shared toilet in the hallway. The twisting figure at the lower right, hand raised as though to ward off disaster, is the artist himself. The game is an uneven match, and Tooker is losing. It is a visual allegory of an internal struggle that pitted Tooker unequally against a society that expected him to mature, settle down, establish a family, and be socially correct and productive. The physical allure of his chess partner, the young woman in her loosely fitted and revealing blouse, is countered by the frowning, heavy-set duenna standing like a fortress behind her, there perhaps not only for protection but as a suggestion of the future as well. The young woman appears to be offering Tooker a chess piece. The gesture, a modern parallel of the flower offering in Renaissance betrothal portraits, will probably remain uncompleted, hindered by the stern gaze and formidable bulk of the massive guardian. At the end of the hallway, the silent watchers—the rest of us—stand as witnesses at the window. The painting is a document of one of the major decisions of Tooker’s life. He did not marry, nor did he conduct his life as he anticipated society thought he should” (T. Garver, George Tooker, San Francisco, 1992, pp. 15-16).

A Game of Chess was included in the playbill for The Saint of Bleeker Street (1954), a three-part opera by Gian Carlo Menotti surrounding the life of a young woman named Anna living in 1950s Little Italy who is blessed with the stigmata. The style of production was inspired by the present work along with Tooker’s Festa (1948, Private Collection), Jukebox (1953, Private Collection) and Subway (1950, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York).


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