There is an air of mystery about the paintings of George Tooker currently on display at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. From his first great success with Subway in 1950, to the religion-inspired works of more recent years, words like “enigmatic,” “unsettling” and “baffling” spring readily to mind when trying to come to terms with his meaning.
Such responses are all the more remarkable because Tooker has remained a realist painter throughout his career. While still very young, Tooker found his muse in the style and techniques of the early Renaissance. In striking contrast, many other mid-Twentieth century American artists gravitated to the narrative-free oeuvre of Abstract Expressionism. AbEx was championed as a school of art resistant to easy categorization. It seemed the perfect mode for depicting insight and emotion in the post-war United States. Realism, on the other hand, made things too easy, too “clear as the nose on your face” for a complicated, anxiety-afflicted age.
You have only to spend a short time communing with Tooker’s paintings to fathom that textbook distinctions between realism and abstraction simply don’t apply to his art. Likewise, the term “Magic Realism” used to describe the German Neue Sachlichkeit or New Objectivity painting of the 1920’s is not completely accurate either. With Tooker, the genius is not in the detail of a painting. Nor is it an act of revealing an interior mystery in visual terms. Tooker’s paintings are questions not answers. The drama takes place away from the picture plain, as viewers grapple with the implications of what they see before them.
Consider one of the first paintings on view in the exhibition, The Artist’s Daughter. Painted in 1955 in Tooker’s favored medium of egg tempera on gesso panel, the painting shows the doll-like figure of a young blond girl sheltering behind a budding sapling. Who is this elfin child, with frozen, glacial blue eyes and the cheerless smile of an ancient Greek kore sculpture? Is she the offspring of Tooker’s imagination or of ours?
Similar questions, equally disconcerting, are posed by Tooker’s Self-Portrait of 1947. It was painted at the very beginning of his career, like J. M. W. Turner’s famous celebration of his fame and fortune in the English art world of the early 1800’s. But Tooker’s self-portrait entirely lacks the confident, almost arrogant, assertion of Turner’s skill. Tooker’s painting, circular in shape transfixes, indeed repels, the viewer with the same icy blue stare of The Artist’s Daughter. The young Tooker holds a conch to his ear, but not as a playful child does at the seashore. Instead, it is cupped in his hand like a badge, the center point of the swirling shell forming the pupil of a third eye, focused on some unseeable point, gazing on a future beyond our knowing.
With over sixty paintings and sketches on view, this retrospective raises a number of questions. Tooker’s “realism” makes it anything but easy to grasp the artist, his age and the moral dilemmas he impels his audience to confront. Fortunately, the exhibition presents supporting commentary, letters and photos along with the array of Tooker’s works. The influence of artists like Reginald Marsh and patrons like Lincoln Kirstein, who recommended that Tooker be included in the 1946 “Fourteen Americans” exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, is underscored. Likewise, Tooker’s friendship with artist Paul Cadmus, who advised him to switch to egg tempera, and with William Christopher, his life partner and fellow activist in the Civil Rights Movement, are well documented.
Tooker was born in Brooklyn in 1920 and grew up in affluent surroundings, attending Phillips Academy and Harvard University. His experience of the grim 1930’s was thus very different from the hardscrabble existence of many of the future AbEx artists, for whom a couple of crackers and bowl of tomato soup was a banquet and work on Federal Government art projects was salvation.
Tooker volunteered for military service during World War II, but had to be discharged when he suffered debilitating illness. He had long nurtured a love of art, taking lessons during his youth with an artist friend of his mother’s, Malcolm Frazier. After his discharge, he studied at the Art Students League under the realist painter, Reginald Marsh, who applied Old Master techniques to record New York City’s crowded masses at work and at play.
In one of his first major paintings, Tooker paid homage to Marsh, who had painted numerous scenes of the raw, sexually charged atmosphere at Coney Island. Tooker’s Coney Island however, was a very oblique acknowledgment of Marsh’s influence. There is nothing of the bawdy, carnival scene of Marsh’s seaside playground. Instead, a stricken swimmer is cradled in a woman’s arms in a reprise of the Pieta. But resonances with Michelangelo or Piero della Francesca do not go far either. Where painters during the Renaissance surrounded the dying Christ with grieving disciples, the figures grouped around this injured swimmer could not care less. Each is locked in his or her own interior world. Whatever the fate of the swimmer may be, there is no hint of redemption in this work of religious sensibility.
Three years later, the indifferent onlookers in Coney Island reappeared with a vengeance in Tooker’s breakthrough painting, Subway. In this nightmarish urban landscape, the commuters do not share space in the same plain of existence, so much as they are trapped in their own private hell. Some figures gaze in torment, while others plod along, with dead eyes and blank stares. Turnstiles, corridors, platform steps – the very infrastructure of travel to home and office – are transformed into the apparatus of imprisonment. Significantly, the anguished woman in the foreground holds a hand before her as if to ward off a threatening figure, but this defensive gesture is not directed at the stony faced wraiths surrounding her but rather at the viewer, who may indeed be about to step into this man-made scene of damnation.
Subway struck a nerve in an America already haunted by the anti-Communist McCarthy witch hunt and attendant Cold War horrors. The Whitney Museum of American Art purchased it for its collection directly from the exhibition, a signal honor for a young painter like Tooker. A year later, he had his first one-man exhibition at the Edwin Hewitt Galley in New York City. In 1956, the Metropolitan Museum of Art purchased Government Bureau, 19 5/8 x 29 5/8 in., a brilliant work turning the ordinary frustrations of dealing with mindless regulations and triplicate forms into a surreal depiction of the Orwellian world inhabited by millions of hapless citizens around the globe.
By the normal standards of artistic accomplishment, Tooker had “arrived.” However, official recognition of his work largely stagnated after 1956. Tooker’s career did not exactly go into eclipse, but he certainly was no longer on the inside track to further success, which may partly explain why he and Christopher relocated their home to Vermont in 1959.
Why Tooker never achieved the status of Jackson Pollock is a puzzling problem. The obvious answer is that he was crowded away from the center stage of the New York art world by the sweeping success, critical and commercial, of Abstract Expressionism during the 1950’s and early 1960’s. For many critics and art lovers, AbEx was a revolutionary movement, and a uniquely American one at that. Visionary, daring, individualistic in technique, AbEx stressed the spontaneous encounter of artist and canvas.
Tooker’s paintings, by contrast, seemed a throwback to the classic formalism of the Renaissance. A 1967 article in Time characterized him, not unfavorably, as a “Contemporary Florentine.” The preliminary sketches and careful positioning of the figures in his compositions, evident in the display of early drafts of Subway, reveal the great lengths to which he went to work out the complex perspective of his works. Nothing could be further from Jackson Pollock’s dazzling drips and splashes of paint or Mark Rothko’s levitating blocks of color.
Modern art, however, is more than a matter of shock value or virtuoso display. Tooker used his gesso panels and carefully modulated egg tempera technique as a means to engage the thought process of the viewer. In essence, he compels the gallery-going spectator to abandon the safe position of innocent bystander and to assume the primary role of determining what is happening in the painting and what will transpire in the society of which it is a reflection.
Perhaps the real reason why Tooker did not achieve the kind of pre-eminent position he appeared destined to with his early successes was more political than artistic. Abstract Expressionism was extolled by Nelson Rockefeller as “free enterprise painting.” As the United States confronted the Soviet Union during the Cold War, the CIA-sponsored Congress for Cultural Freedom and other American cultural organizations promoted AbEx and jazz music to combat the Soviet’s Socialist Realism schools of art and literature. Some writers like Frances Stonor Saunders, in her book Who Paid the Piper?: CIA and the Cultural Cold War, contend that the CIA actually sponsored exhibitions of AbEx art in Europe.
Whether or not this is true is beyond the scope of this essay. But one thing is clear. Paintings like Tooker’s 1957 work, Waiting Room, with its stark evocation of the social alienation and intellectual conformity felt by many Americans during the 1950’s, were not what the CIA or the Congress for Cultural Freedom had in mind to win over “hearts and minds” in the worldwide struggle against Marxism.
Tooker continued to paint socially-conscious subjects throughout the 1960’s and 1970’s, often related to the Civil Rights movement. Tooker and his life partner, William Christopher, participated in the 1965 march from Montgomery to Selma, Alabama.
Spirituality, however, is the transcendent, over-arching theme of Tooker’s long career. Whether it is the soul-threatening adversity faced in such works as Subway or Waiting Room or the yearning for love depicted in his 1988 painting, Embrace of Peace II, the protagonists of Tooker’s paintings struggle to keep aflame the spark of divinity within themselves.
In many ways, Embrace of Peace II is indicative of Tooker’s work in recent decades. His color palette has brightened considerably, with radiant hues of gold, orange and amber. The figures in this painting are pure Tooker, lacking the “warts and all” attributes of classical realism. There is a timeless quality about them, smooth-faced, androgynous, with little or no identifiable ethic features. Even on matters of race, about which Tooker has painted with sensitively, only a darkening of skin tone distinguishes those he paints, as in his 1996 self-portrait, Dark Angel.
The people who inhabit Tooker’s paintings are embodiments of human kinship, with each other and with our guardian spirits, as in Dark Angel. Tooker’s protagonists are souls in action, finding their way out of the human-constructed dungeons of modernity to bask in the glowing presence of God.
George Tooker: A Retrospective appears at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, January 30 – April 5, 2009, followed by a presentation at the Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio, May 1 – September 6, 2009.