Saturday, April 02, 2011

George Tooker, 1920 - 2011

(The artist George Tooker died in Hartland, Vermont on March 27. The following is an abridged and updated version of a piece I originally posted in 2009. I've added a few images. The New York Times has an obituary as well as a slide show.)

In January 2009 I was able to visit the Tooker retrospective then on display at the National Academy Museum. It was my first visit to the relatively small Fifth Avenue institution, which at the time was struggling and in the news as a result of some controversial deaccessionings. Whatever the financial state of the museum, the fourth floor rooms devoted to the show were suitably homey and intimate. Tooker was an unassuming, private person; his canvases are on the small side and due to the demands of the egg tempera technique he employed his body of work is not as large as one might expect from a man who was active well into his eighties.

Although he has been sometimes categorized as a “magical realist,” that well-worn term seems particularly inappropriate in his case, for his work was “magical” or “fantastic” only in the most superficial way, and although he was a figurative painter he was no realist in the conventional sense. The show included early and somewhat strident paintings like Children and Spastics, Dance, and A Game of Chess, well-known works from the 1950s onward, like Government Bureau (below) and Waiting Room II, that give evidence of his political and social concerns, as well as more optimistic, religiously tinged works like Supper and Orant. There were several self-portraits and enough other works to represent the range of his artistic interests. An excellent catalog, edited by Robert Cozzolino, Marshall N. Price, and M. Melissa Wolfe, documented the show and provided biographical and critical illumination.

Much has been made of Tooker's formal conversion to Catholicism in the 1970s following the death of his longtime partner William Christopher, and of the ways in which that affected the course of his later work. (Tooker's mother was Cuban and the family had switched from Catholicism to Episcopalianism in the painter's youth.) It's true that after that time he executed several specifically religious commissions, in particular for the Church of Saint Francis of Assisi in Windsor, Vermont, but there is no clear division between his work before and after his conversion. In fact it is not always easy to say which of Tooker's paintings are to be regarded as evidence of alienation and which are to be regarded as expressing hope and communion with others.

A case in point is Landscape with Figures, which depicts, almost entirely in shades of reddish orange, what appear to be office workers sunk in a honeycomb of cubicles.

We look down over the horizontal array of boxes, but interestingly the perspective also evokes the vertical span of a skyscraper, with the tops of the cubicles functioning as windows. Most of the figures appear asleep or entranced, yet in the rows nearest to us there are several figures with eyes open who may be about to emerge from the corporate catacombs of the Organization Man.

In discussing Subway (above), which dates from 1950, Tooker used a combination of religious and mythological imagery:
I was thinking of a large modern city, as a kind of limbo. The subway seemed a good place to represent a denial of the senses and a negation of life itself. Its being underground with great weight overhead was important. I thought of the labyrinth of the Minotaur and the unreal perspectives of a Hall of Mirrors.
The painting has three vertical levels, linked by staircases, and the downward staircase could be regarded as leading into the underworld, with the staircase up to the street providing a possible route of ascent and escape (which, however, no one is making use of). The central plane would then be a kind of intermediate world, a Purgatory characterized by suffering but also offering the possibility of redemption to those who are able to break free from the conformity and isolation of modern urban life.

In Waiting Room (from 1957, not to be confused with the more explicitly political Waiting Room II from 1982) we look in on another bleak scene, this time of sullen, lifeless figures standing in what appears to be a combination locker room and waiting area.

The only face displaying any animation is the one depicted on the back cover of a magazine that one woman is holding aloft, obscuring her own face. The strong suggestion of the painting is that what is being awaited is death, a perhaps not entirely unwelcome end to hollow, unhappy, isolated lives. But there is one touch of tenderness: in one of the stalls a woman grasps the arm of a downcast man, perhaps as she says goodbye. The colors of the clothes the figures are wearing may indicate how close to death they are, as the more apparently vigorous figures are brightly dressed, the evidently moribund drably clothed; the woman in stall No. 114 seems to be slowly draining from one state to another.

There are many other aspects to Tooker's work, many of them admirably clarified by the exhibition catalog. His strong sympathy with the civil rights movement can be seen in a number of paintings that depict African-American or mixed-race figures, notably Supper from 1963 and Dark Angel from 1996, and there are several paintings that are simply splendid and beautiful, like his self-portraits from 1969 and 1994 and the lovely Girl with a Basket from 1987-88.

His work may convey a sense of mystery and otherworldliness, but in the end Tooker, dark or light, was an artist fully engaged with the human condition.


Emily Sachar said...

This is a wonderful post. I teach students at NYU, and this is very helpful background. Thoughtful, too. I will try to find the catalogue from the exhibition. I'm so sorry to have missed it.

Chris said...

Thanks, Emily. I heard a rumor that Tooker's Subway is on view at the new Whitney; I have to get down there and check it out.