The National Catholic Review

December 8, 2008

Vol. 199 No. 19Whole No. 4838 Download PDF


Current Comment
Still a Catholic Charity; The Faith of the Vice President Elect
Morgan Would Weep
On Wall Street, reform is the order of the day.


A Literate Church
David Gibson

The state of Catholic Bible study today

The Quiet Carpenter
Robert P. Maloney

What can St. Joseph teach us?

Gateways to Prayer
Stephen Bonian

The enduring spiritual power of icons

Germanys Race Religion
G. K. Chesterton

From Our Pages: Sept. 29, 1934

Books and Culture

Desperate Housewives, Irish-Style
Peter Heinegg

The new Ireland, courtesy of Anne Enright

Polling the Other
Claire Schaeffer-Duffy

Even in the best of times, American popular understanding of Muslims has been informed more by stereotype and suspicion than reality.

A Sweaty Struggle
John Jay Hughes

Michael Novak's 'No One Sees God,' reviewed

Columns and Departments

The Word
Rejoice Always

Barbara E. Reid

Faith in Focus
Make Straight a Highway

James J. DiGiacomo

Woman and Child

Maryann Cusimano Love

Of Many Things
Of Many Things

Dennis M. Linehan


Web Only

  More Than A Scary Face
Karen Sue Smith
George Tooker (b.1920) is a living American artist whose work, and in some respects whose life, seems especially pertinent to our times. Deeply spiritual and therefore attuned to social injustice and destructive societal trends, Tooker painted his most provocative works as protests against racism, alienation, government surveillance of citizens and homophobia. On his canvases Tooker shows viewers what intolerance, suspicion, prejudice and lack of community look like, which makes his paintings ominously affecting. Like Edward Hopper, Andrew Wyeth and Jacob Lawrence in the United States, and like Balthus in Europe, Tooker insisted on making figurative art when the avant garde had moved into modernism and abstraction and had pronounced representational art passé if not dead. “George Tooker: A Retrospective,” now on view at the National Academy Museum in New York City (through Jan. 4), is the first retrospective of Tooker’s work in 30 years. The show should not be missed. It will travel to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (Jan. 30-April 5) and to the Columbus Museum of Art in Ohio (May 1-Sept. 6, 2009). These three museums collaborated on the exhibition and produced an excellent catalogue. A recipient of the 2007 National Medal of Arts and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, Tooker deserves to be more widely known. Of Cuban-Dutch descent, Tooker was educated at Phillips Academy during the Great Depression and at Harvard before World War II. In these settings, Tooker felt keenly his mixed ethnicity and understood something of the “outsider status” that racial discrimination confers. In art Tooker found a way of cultivating an interior life and it gave him a powerful tool for communicating his observations. “Painting,” he once said, “is an attempt to come to terms with life.” Over six decades, the artist has reflected on social injustices, on personal memories and on classical themes. Yet even when a Tooker painting mirrors some societal trend, it is personal at its core. Ultimately Tooker focuses on the figure because his insights concern persons and how they do, and do not, relate to one another. For example, in “Ward” (1970-71), the artist presents a roomful of identical hospital beds occupied by identical looking young men under white sheets; these beds look rather like open coffins, which may be the point. Three older figures, two men and one white-haired woman are not reclining and are awake, but no one relates to anyone else—a common theme in Tooker’s protest paintings. Behind the cold white interior, hang large U.S. flags in red, white and blue, indicating that the place is a military hospital. Painted during the Vietnam War, this painting can be interpreted as a war protest, but it can also be seen more generally as a protest not only of our treatment of veterans, but of the impersonal way our society “cares” for all people who are ill or injured. Though nearly 40 years have passed since Tooker made this image, it remains relevant. Son of the Renaissance It is ironic that an artist who records contemporary life would use techniques from the Renaissance, but Tooker mixes his own egg tempera in the colors of Umbria and evinces an infatuation with perspective and architectural forms—all reminiscent of Italian Renaissance painters. His most famous painting, “Subway” (1950), bought by the Whitney the year it was created, shows a subway station from the inside, with its oppressively low ceilings, multiple stairwells and turnstiles—a complex exercise in perspective. What it illustrates is the alienation such an environment fosters among strangers. Anonymous individuals look past one another, a few men peer out eerily at the viewer, and the central figure, a woman in a red dress with a distressed expression, puts a protective hand over her body as though sensing danger. The whole image is made with tiny methodical brush strokes; not a hair is out of place in Tooker’s work. The perfection of the technique used to depict such imperfection within society is doubly jarring. Other social protest paintings include “Government Bureau” (1956) in which bleary-eyed bureaucrats all with the same chilling face stare at the viewer through a hole in the opaque glass that separates them from those seeking service. Here the warm colors of the people’s garments contrast with the brash overhead lights, as they line up before a seemingly endless succession of cubicles. If Franz Kafka had been a painter, his work might  have resembled this. In “Landscape with Figures” (1966) the “land” is actually a warren of cubicles, each of which contains a man or a woman, like workers in a vast office seen from above. Some people have closed their eyes (perhaps to find more space within), while others look upward. No one looks happy, and no one engages with the others who sit just one thin wall away. A warm red pervades the entire painting, as though blood could course through the people depicted if only they would reach out to one another. “I am after painting reality impressed on the mind so hard that it returns as a dream,” Tooker has said, “but I am not after painting dreams as such, or fantasy.” In “Lunch” (1964) solitary men and women sit at lunch counters, each eating an identical sandwich. But Tooker adds a twist: a lone black man sits at the center of the picture. He is as ignored and as unseen as are all the other people, yet he seems even more alone by virtue of his being racially different. Tooker may be showing that integration does not mean the end of segregation, for isolation lies deeper still and separates people. Looking at Race Tooker depicts Latinos and African-Americans in crowds and street scenes, but also shows mixed-race couples at home (“Guitar,” “Window II” and “Window VII”). In “Window VII” (1963), a lovely nude female pulls back a yellow curtain and modestly gazes out; over one shoulder, the face of a gorgeous black man looks out; in the soft red-orange background a bit of the bed is showing; it is sensuous and carnal.