George Tooker

Iconoclastic Traditionalist

by Donald Kuspit

George Tooker. Girl with a Basket, 1987–88<.br> Private Collection, courtesy James Francis Trezza New York City

Aesthetically speaking, George Tooker (b. 1920) is a traditional painter—his works are consummately refined art. But emotionally speaking, he is a modern iconoclast: his figures, often classically derived, have a troubling tension—a very modern anxiety. Thus, for all her apparent composure, the figure in Girl with a Basket (1987–88) is not exactly comfortable with herself. The basket of fruit and vegetables is a traditional symbol of abundance, but her anxiety is evident in her eyes. They stare blankly outward, avoiding the viewer’s eyes, suggesting that she is lost in troubling introspection. She has a wonderfully Pre-Raphaelite flavor and may even be an updated Botticellian Venus. She is as young and blonde, however broader her face, giving her a stranger beauty (all the more so because her chin seems to be narrowing towards a point), but she seems less emotionally fresh and less gloriously herself. The unevenness in her neck—its right side is absurdly foreshortened, compared to the manneristically elongated right side—suggests that she is inwardly unbalanced, however outwardly together. She is at odds with herself, the victim of a nameless suffering. It’s an unsettling portrait, fraught with contradiction between outward appearance and inner reality, but integrated by Tooker’s suave handling. At first glance, his girl is a picture of female perfection, a sort of allegorical personification of a goddess, a higher being—a Venus, as her strange beauty suggests, but also Mother Nature, as the basket symbolizing her fertility implies. But there is something all too human and thus imperfect about her. Ripeness may be all, as the basket—a familiar symbol of the womb—indicates, but the girl is a virgin, and perhaps anxious about love, that is, being impregnated, another paradox.
In Landscape with Figures IV (1999), a reclining female nude—a full-bodied blonde goddess, ripely sexual and self-possessed—stares at a modern couple, bundled up in clothing, their hair hidden by hats, staring at the viewer as they move out of the picture to the left. Behind the goddess are the golden apples of paradise. Her body and face are light and smooth, in contrast to the darkish, creased skin of the couple, particularly the man. Her presence is vital; theirs, dismal. It’s a bizarre juxtaposition—an extreme juxtaposition of readiness for love and life, and fear and inhibition. The couple are implicitly Adam and Eve, guiltily leaving paradise—a pagan paradise, as the goddess suggests. The work is my favorite example of Tooker’s mixing of myths and styles, more pointedly, of bringing incommensurate myths and styles absurdly together to form an emotionally powerful as well as aesthetically convincing picture. The body of the ancient goddess is classically proportioned and discreetly nuanced with shadow, while the clothed bodies of the modern couple seem bent and misshapen—certainly compressed into irrelevance under their tight clothing. They seem like vulgar dwarfs next to the stately goddess. Their heads are fitted on their torsos the way they are in classical statues, suggesting that they are made-to-order mannequins, showing how Tooker is able to borrow traditional ideas to make a modern point. “George Tooker: A Retrospective,” a recent retrospective at the National Academy Museum in New York City, demonstrated his mastery.
Tooker is, after all, talking about modern life, however much he uses traditional iconography, style and handling to do so. Famous pictures such as Subway(1950), Government Bureau (1956), Waiting Room (1957) and Landscape with Figures (1965–66) are allegories of modern life, conveying its anonymity and isolation. Highway 1953 suggests its viciousness and grotesqueness, and Toilette (1962)—a “re-realization” of the Susanna and the Elders theme, with the blonde Susanna a statuesque Venus and symbol of Luxuria—suggests its vulgarity and perversity.

George Tooker, Government Bureau, 1956  Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy, Andover, Massachusetts
Tooker’s paintings have a sardonic, critical side. They are emotionally realistic social allegories, worthy of Otto Dix, and like Dix’s paintings they use traditional means to expose, in a shocking revelation, the ugly underside of modern life. Just as Dix was sharply critical of Weimar Germany, so Tooker was sharply critical of wartime America, as Ward (1970–71) makes very clear. Beautifully painted in tones of white and gray, the fragments—remains—of the red, white and blue of the American flag shock the eye into the awareness that we are in a room of dying or dead soldiers, neatly lined up and immobilized as though already in a military cemetery, or in a morgue. The planar space and rounded bodies and heads read as a pure abstract construction, suggesting that, for Tooker, form transcends content in the act of mediating it, and that aesthetic goodness—indeed, perfection—can come from social evil. Tooker’s high art, with its “low” content, is a kind of aesthetic theodicy: the blessings of traditional beauty fall like manna on the modern wasteland, rescuing the viewer from the despair many of Tooker’s figures experience. There is death in nature’s paradise, as Poussin showed, and Tooker finds perverse beauty in modern hell. 

Tooker heaps layer upon layer of social and sexual meaning on his figures. I think his giving himself an African-American muse in Dark Angel (1996) is another defiant criticism of America. So is Window VII (1963), where Tooker’s beautiful blonde Venus appears with her African-American lover, who appears alone in Window VIII (1966). Another African-American lover serenades a blonde beauty in Guitar (1957). They are ready to make beautiful sexual music together. (Many of Tooker’s scenes evoke the five senses, a traditional genre theme.) Showing a black Christ blessing the bread and appearing to two of his disciples in Supper [at Emmaus] (1963) is also provocative, especially at a time when racism was rampant in the United States and the Civil Rights Movement was revving up. So is Tooker’s depiction of homeless people in a corporate prison—each desperate person is in the solitary confinement of a cubicle, all the cubicles forming a grid (suggesting a criticism of abstraction, vacuous minimalism in particular)—in Waiting Room II (1982). Tooker is a master at depicting modern bedlam. In contrast to the traditional bedlam, where men were raving mad—Tooker shows some of them also—the mass of men live lives of quiet desperation, as Thoreau famously said. But then there are lovers, sacred, like the Mary and Joseph in Meadow I (1960–61), and profane, like those in Lovers I (1959), humble yet monumental figures and thus peculiarly ideal. There is personal hope in the midst of social darkness—moments of intimacy in the midst of anonymity.

George Tooker, Meadow I, 1960–61 Toledo Art Museum, Toledo, Ohio

Tooker and Dix are what I have called New Old Masters, and they are as socially critical and sensitive to suffering as old masters like Goya. But Goya, too, could be described as a “new old master,” for one of the figures on the ceiling of San Antonio de la Florida in Madrid is modeled on one of the Sibyls on Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling. Goya, like Tooker, took from tradition what he needed to make a contemporary statement, creatively transforming tradition while confirming its universal value. Tooker and Edwin Dickinson are the senior American New Old Masters and interpreters of American morbidity. They show that tradition remains aesthetically and humanly significant, indeed, profound in a way that much so-called advanced art rarely is.

Tooker’s figures have a haunted look—they convey modern estrangement and self-estrangement. But their most conspicuous feature, generally speaking, is their bulging, open eyes, staring at the world in wide-eyed wonder, as in The Artist’s Daughter (1955), or staring in fear, like the suicidal figure in Cornice (c. 1949), or in uncertainty, like the figures in Voice II (1972), trying to communicate despite the barrier between them. Is this an allegory of the relationship of artist and viewer? Or perhaps the stare is a mix of wonder, fear and uncertainty, as in the wide-awake figures of Sleepers II (1959). Do they believe what they are seeing? Desperation is never far beneath the surface in Tooker’s pictures. I think their meticulous refinement is a way of defending against it, bringing it under control without denying it, indeed, paradoxically emphasizing it. It has a way of appearing in unexpected places, as in the Pietà couple under the boardwalk in Coney Island (1947–48). A sturdy black girl stands triumphantly—as her outstretched arm suggests—above an overweight elderly white woman, suggesting another reversal of conventional expectations. Their deep suffering appears in biblical disguise, but the female in Window II (1956) is openly desperate, perhaps because she is afraid of making love, as the bed she is in suggests.
Perhaps the work that most tellingly reveals what is at stake in Tooker is his famous Subway, painted in 1950, twelve years after Rothko painted Entrance to a Subway. The two paintings are directly comparable. Tooker’s work is not only much better painted—Rothko’s is a dull illustration—but more insightful into the human condition in the modern world, symbolized by the subway, in effect the underworld, a sort of hell. Rothko’s figures are emotional blanks; Tooker’s figures are permanently depressed. I want to suggest that their depression masks the annihilation anxiety—not your everyday anxiety about how to make ends meet, which may or may not be the issue of Rothko’s Depression figures—evident in the face of the woman in front.
She walks towards us, inviting us to identify with her. She is Absolute Anxiety on the barricades of the subway, the way Absolute Liberty stands on the barricades in Delacroix’s famous painting. She reveals the inner life of what is hidden by the outer depression of the men. It is engraved on their faces, but it is a mask—a living death mask hiding terror at life, which is what the woman, despite her terror, represents. There is a sexual message in Tooker’s picture, as there is in Paul Delvaux’s surreal pictures of clothed men blind to the presence of the naked women strolling by. Is Delvaux another model for Tooker? Many of his works are also surreal fantasies. The work is about the relationship between men and women in the modern world—clearly one of alienation, one of the psychosocial aspects of the modern world. It gives rise to annihilation anxiety, deep depression and a sense of irreversible isolation, all of which are evident in Tooker’s picture.
Tooker’s subway is a modern labyrinth from which there is no exit. The people are, in effect, serving life-terms in a prison that seems to have been built by Piranesi and Kafka. There is light up the steps to the outside, but nobody notices it. Even the man at the bottom of the steps looks downward in depression. He is as much a zombie as everybody else. People are isolated in telephone booths or walking alone. A woman, also in red, sits against the wall at the end of the tunnel at the entrance of which the principal woman in red stands. They are opposite sides of the same self—one depressed, the other terrified. Manic-depression, which artists have been documented as having more than the general population? Or is she waking up to her depressing surroundings, a highly emotional eureka moment of consciousness as mad as the subway is maddening? The whole scene is bleak and terrifying. The space is much more fantastic—tunnels go in conflicting directions, disorienting the viewer (but it doesn’t matter which one one chooses, for they all go nowhere)—than Rothko’s familiar space. It even looks homey and pleasant, as its bright blue railings, colorful surfaces, and intimate smallness—what does the earth-brown coloring of the people have to do with the gray city?—suggest. Rothko seems to have felt at home in the subway; there is no way of feeling at home in Tooker’s subway.
Tooker is a psychological as well as a social realist. His picture has the critical and aesthetic cutting edge that Rothko’s picture lacks. Rothko’s painting is trivially abstract, a simplistic pattern, compared to Tooker’s complex space. Tooker’s subway is an absurd abstract construction, an imaginative construction as absurd as psychic space. His drawings for the work, with their multi-perspective space—ingeniously manneristic, yet not altogether incoherent, and thus also readable as social space—make this clear. Rothko’s people lack physical and emotional presence, compared to Tooker’s self-tortured, closed-off people. Rothko’s picture is aesthetically, emotionally and socially banal, compared to Tooker’s psychodramatic picture. Rothko hasn’t begun to “realize” the subway and its psychosocial meaning—the way it symbolizes modern society and the modern mentality—the way Tooker has. I am suggesting that Tooker’s fantastic realism—not a narrative or magical realism, for there is more magic in his forms than in his themes, and he does not so much tell a story as present a state of mind in a dream, which is sometimes a nightmare—has greater emotional carrying power, depth and range than Rothko’s color field abstractions. In short, Tooker’s “backward-looking” realism has greater emotional and cognitive complexity than Rothko’s “forward-looking” abstractions. I am arguing that Tooker offers us more content, on more levels of consciousness, than Rothko, and is also a more brilliant abstract painter, for Tooker’s spaces are intricately three-dimensional, rather than flat.
“George Tooker: A Retrospective” was on view through January 4, 2009, at the National Academy Museum, Fifth Avenue at 89th Street, New York, New York 10128. Telephone (212) 369-4880. On the web at

American Arts Quarterly, Winter 2009, Volume 26, Number 1