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Karen Sue SmithJanuary 19, 2009

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 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 ominously affecting canvases, Tooker shows what intolerance, suspicion, prejudice and lack of community look like. 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,” is the first retrospective of Tooker’s work in 30 years. After closing at the National Academy Museum in New York City on Jan. 4, 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). The show should not be missed.

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.

In his 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. Tooker focuses on the figure because his insights concern persons and how they do—and do not—relate to one another.

In “Ward” (1970-71), the artist presents a roomful of hospital beds occupied by identical looking young men under white sheets; these beds look like open coffins. Three older figures, not reclining, are awake, but no one relates to anyone else—a common theme in Tooker’s protest paintings. Hanging U.S. flags indicate a military hospital. Made during the Vietnam War, this painting can be interpreted as a war protest, but it also exposes the impersonal way our society “cares” for the ill or injured. It remains relevant though nearly 40 years have passed.

Ironically, Tooker is an artist who records contemporary life using Renaissance techniques. He mixes his own egg tempera in the colors of Umbria and is infatuated with perspective and architecture, as were the Italian Renaissance painters. His most famous painting, “Subway” (1950), shows a subway station from the inside, with its low ceilings, multiple stairwells and turnstiles—a complex exercise in perspective. But the subject is alienation. Anonymous individuals look past one another, a few men peer out eerily at the viewer, and a distressed woman in a red dress gestures as though sensing danger. Tooker applies tiny methodical brush strokes to create his images; a perfection of technique used to depict imperfection within society.

In “Landscape With Figures” (1966) the “land” is a warren of cubicles, each of which contains a man or a woman, like workers in a vast office seen from above. Some have closed their eyes (perhaps to find more space within), while others look up. No one engages with the others who sit just a thin wall away. Red pervades the painting, as though blood could course through these individuals if only they would reach out to each other.

“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.”

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 imposes. In “Lunch” (1964) solitary men and women sit at lunch counters, all eating identical sandwiches. But Tooker adds a lone black man at the center. He seems especially alone because he is racially different. Tooker may be showing that integration does not mean the end of segregation, for isolation lies deeper still and separates people.

Tooker depicts Latinos and African-Americans in crowds and street scenes, but also shows mixed-race couples at home. 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. Tooker also painted a black Christ in the act of blessing the bread in “Supper” (1963); Jesus is with two other men, both white. Tooker said that this image recalled the story of Christ at Emmaus. In “Dark Angel” (1999), Tooker expressed his understanding of the vocation of the artist as divinely given. In this self-portrait, a black angel blesses Tooker, laying his hand on Tooker’s head as the artist holds a paintbrush.

Tooker’s oeuvre offers more than social comment. Some of his works are beautiful, even sublime. In “Embrace of Peace II” (1988), named for a part of the Catholic Mass, Tooker shows a young woman and man reaching for each other and looking directly at each other with intense, but not sexual, longing. Perhaps be-cause our culture is oversaturated with images of lovers, many in poses overtly sexual, Tooker’s images of lovers are less memorable than his protest pieces, which show us what others do not.

“Girl Praying” (1977) is quietly moving. Perhaps a Latino or an African-American, the subject holds her hands over her heart in a gesture like that of Mary at the Annunciation. She seems in the midst of a mystical experience, communing with someone we cannot see. A golden glow behind projects a religious mood. Such images are serene and contemplative, warm and peaceful. This too is countercultural.

An Artist in New York

During the 1940s Tooker studied at the Art Students League of New York, where Reginald Marsh and Edward Hopper were teaching. Tooker studied with Marsh, a strong social critic. He met Paul Cadmus, an artist 16 years older than he was, and the two became lovers. Their friends included the artists Jared and Margaret French, the ballet impresario Lincoln Kirstein and the photographer George Platt Lynes.

During this decade, Tooker’s work explored implicitly homosexual themes. One example is “A Game of Chess” (1946-47), in which Tooker deals with societal expectations of marriage. Here a young man who looks like Tooker is about to run away from a huge mother figure and her daughter, ready to declare “checkmate.” The very floor on which the young man stands looks like a game board, on which his future will be determined.

In 1949 Tooker formed a relationship with William Christopher, another artist, who would become his lifetime partner until Christopher’s death in 1973. The two eventually bought a home in Vermont, where Tooker still lives. Tooker and Christopher, who was raised by an African-American family after his parents died, became ardent supporters of Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement.

Raised an Episcopalian, Tooker converted to Catholicism in 1976 after Christopher’s death, a transition facilitated by his friendship with a local Catholic priest. One finds a palpable sense of peace in Tooker’s later works. His most overtly religious works include stations of the cross, a depiction of the seven sacraments (commissioned for a Franciscan church in Vermont) and a post-Resurrection Christ, all shown in the catalogue but not on exhibit.

This retrospective allows a viewer to appreciate the balance Tooker has achieved in his lifetime. His work points to what needs repair in our society and in our relationships, and it attests to the strength and beauty of love, community and faith.

View a slideshow of George Tookers art.

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