Wednesday, March 30, 2011

George Tooker, 1920 - 2011

George Tooker who died yesterday at age 90 was largely known for one painting, The Subway (1950). The cause was kidney failure according to DC Moore Gallery, New York, which represents the artist.

You may not have known the name of the artist but you certainly were familiar with the image. Tooker's Subway has been reproduced thousands of times.  It's alienated message has been seen as the underlying zeitgeist for our generation.There is an air of mystery about his work, Words like “enigmatic,” “unsettling” and “baffling” spring readily to mind when trying to come to terms with his art.

Subway, 1951

Tooker, often called a symbolic, or magic, realist, worked well outside the critical mainstream for much of his career. "Symbolism can be limiting and dangerous, but I don’t care for art without it,” Mr. Tooker told the writer and cultural critic Selden Rodman in 1957. “The kind that appeals to me the most is a symbolism like a heraldic emblem, but never just that alone: the kind practiced by Paolo Uccello and Piero della Francesca.” (NY Times)

A deeply spiritual and contemplative man, Tooker painted with a deliberative method partly dictated by his temperament and partly by his chosen medium. In the 1920's, Tooker began studying with Reginald Marsh at the Art Students League of New York. Paul Cadmus introduced him to egg tempera, a traditional Renaissance medium that produces a rich, lustrous quality yet requires meticulous application. His visual inspiration also came from the early Renaissance, from Giotto and Massaccio. 

Even his Coney Island paintings of the 1950's convey more of a timeless alienation than the sleazy, sexy carnival world conveyed by Cadmus and Marsh. 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 are indifferent. Each is locked in his or her own interior world. Whatever the fate of the swimmer may be, there is no hint of redemption.

Waiting Room, 1957
He was the master in conveying icy bureaucratic nightmares, rooms full of mysterious cubicles, exiting to endless corridors to nowhere. Tooker used his technique as a means to engage the viewer. He asks uncomfortable questions, to which there are no easy answers. Paintings like his 1957 work, Waiting Room or The Teller evokes both social alienation and the pressure toward intellectual conformity. Big brother is watching.

Government Bureau, 1956

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, 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 life long partner Christopher relocated their home to Vermont in 1959.

Why he never achieved more popular recognition or critical acclaim is a bit of a puzzle.  Obviously Ab Ex was the seen as the uniquely American and revolutionary art movement of the day. It was extolled by figures such as Nelson Rockefeller as “free enterprise painting.” The most influential critics of the day, Greenberg and Rosenberg, declared it the art movement of the century. People usually go along with the crowd, whether that involves buying art or buying shoes. What's declared in, goes.

The Ward, 1970-71

But that's not the whole answer. Perhaps the real reason was more political than artistic.  But in a cursory look, Tooker's work was too close in form to the "enemy's" (i.e. Russia's socialist realism). Although far different, his evocations of alienation, and enigmatic messages were (and are) deeply uncomfortable to confront. He presents work that suggests moral dilemmas and never gives a clear answer to the way out, sideways or upwards

 Dark Angel.

“His narratives are so mysterious that viewers have to look deeply into the paintings,” said Marshall N. Price, chief curator at the National Academy Museum in New York, which organized a retrospective of Mr. Tooker’s work in 2008. “You cannot look quickly at a Tooker and then turn away. And the work is filled with so many references to Renaissance painting, there is so much mysterious iconography, that for art historians it’s just fascinating.” 

 Embrace IV
 'Mr. Tooker, who is survived by a sister, Mary Tooker Graham of Brooklyn, was notoriously reticent about the meaning of his work. “I don’t examine it myself, and I don’t want to,” he once said. But he did reflect on the change in his later work. “I suppose I don’t paint such unpleasant pictures as I used to,” he told American Art magazine in 2002. “I got to be known for unpleasant pictures. I think my pictures are happier now, with fewer complaints.”  (NY Times)

Obit from the NY Times:


A Cuban In London said...

Ahh, so this is the guy who painted that picture! Sorry, but I've seen 'The Subway' before but didn't know what it was called, nor who had painted it. It's a superb piece and looking at the rest of the paintings you posted, I'm not surprised it had such a powerful effect on me. The mood in his works is sombre, and yet, alluring. Then, again, I'm someone who's attracted to 'dark material'.

Greetings from London.

namastenancy said...

From Dale, via Face Book:
"Tooker , Jared French, and Paul Cadmus along with Robert Vickery and Andrew Weyth were artists involved in the egg tempera revival in the 30s and 40s in this country. Some of them studied with the English egg tempera painter in the early 40s by the name of Thompson. He was the one who was mainly responsible for the rebirth of the technique from the Gothic period into the 2oth century in Europe. In the 50s they were put out of the public attention by the abstract expressionist movement and also because of the left leaning homoerotic works of Cadmus and French. I remember being completely taken in by the Tooker show at the Legion of honor in 1974. He has always been one of my favorite American painters. Lincoln Kirsten was the one critic in the New York art world that tried to keep Cadmus and Frenchs art afloat in the 1960s and 70s."

Shelley Whiting said...

I remember first seeing "Government Bureau" in high school. I never forgot the painting. I only remember seeing it once more. I was struck by the perspective and anonymity of the figures. The painting is bold and yet the message is easily understood. I remembered everyone in the class saying that the painting was about how we all are the same and yet very isolated.