George Tooker at The National Academy

George Tooker, The Subway, 1950  50.23    George Tooker, The Subway (1950), egg tempera on composition board, 18-1/8″ x 36-1/8″; courtey The Whitney Museum of American Art

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Every painting, whether figurative or abstract, is an image, but not every image is a painting. The primary challenge for anyone pursuing the art form is in locating the equilibrium between aesthetic imperative and imagistic fidelity. The oeuvre of the American artist George Tooker (born in 1920), the subject of a concentrated retrospective at the National Academy Museum, exemplifies the precariousness of this pursuit.

Subway (1950) is Tooker’s masterpiece. A woman, wearing a red dress, a blue coat, and an apprehensive expression, walks through the station. The ceilings are oppressive and low; the corridors zoom. Zombie-like men in overcoats skulk about. The environs are sterile and the atmosphere airless. It’s a place resolutely bereft of human contact. As an allegory of urban paranoia, the picture can’t be beat.

A picture, not a painting—an odd criticism, perhaps. Tooker handles paint, specifically egg tempera, with consummate agility, but the material sensuality—the decisive heft of a brushstroke, say—is subsumed by artifice. His images are meticulously delineated and gain tangibility through gradual and, at times, barely discernible cross-hatching, but the subtleties are dry enough that a photo reproduction does almost as well. Painstakingly layering pigment, Tooker creates enveloping hazes of glowing color. Landscape with Figures (1965–1966), with its infinite vista of boxed-in office drones, beams a lurid red. But, really, he’s a prude. Diligence is a virtue, as is high craftsmanship, but, for Tooker, expertise is its own reward. Form is diminished by description; the medium is merely a tool and rarely (or tangentially) a pleasure. It’s not that Tooker is a cold fish—though the Renaissance masters he reveres aren’t exactly hotheads—but little is gained from seeing the actual work.

Tooker hates “Magic Realism,” the made-in-America rubric under which he and painters of similarly prosaic and quasi-Surrealist fantasies are placed. Among them are the all-but-forgotten Jared French and Tooker’s onetime lover and friend Paul Cadmus. Through Cadmus, Tooker became part of the circle surrounding Lincoln Kirstein; it was at Kirstein’s urging that Tooker was included in the 1946 MOMA exhibition “14 Americans.” He eventually left New York for rural Vermont and continues to live there today.

A silky current of sexuality, predominantly homoerotic in focus, courses through Tooker’s art. He’s not above employing stereotypes—witness the affected postures of the men undergoing ridicule in Children and Spastics (1946)—or overripe romanticism. The golden light enveloping a neo-classical nude or, in another painting, a shirtless black man is beyond saccharine. African-Americans have been an integral component of Tooker’s vision from the beginning. Their social import as pictorial symbol was not lost upon him, as a long-time proponent of civil rights.

But Tooker’s true subject is alienation. The city, the government, the marketplace, the body, and, in Sleepers II (1959), the earthly realm itself—each is rendered as a clinical no-place. These dehumanized tableaux gain in foreboding through Tooker’s immaculately choreographed compositions—there’s not a dread-filled hair out of place in the things—and a brittle quietude gleaned from the Old Masters he reverently, if not always effectively, references. You’ve got to admire how Piero della Francesca is evoked in Bird Watchers (1948), even as you admit that the painting is hokum.

As are Tooker’s stylizations, particularly the oversized and almost reptilian eyes of his figures—windows to the soul, perhaps, but Tooker’s unblinking men and women are reminiscent of nothing so much as the cloying kitsch of Walter Keane, the painter of children whose doleful gazes follow viewers around the room. If Tooker was aiming for the yearning spirituality of El Greco’s twisting supplicants, well, he missed the mark.

The exhibition closes with galleries titled “Compassion and Concern” and “Passion and Pathos.” The representative paintings mark Tooker’s newfound optimism (or so it’s suggested), the result of his conversion to Catholicism. But the work isn’t markedly different in approach or ambiance: frigid sentimentality prevails. Embrace of Peace II (1988) is typical—the slo-mo rush of hugging men and woman would shame the sappiest Hallmark card.

If Tooker’s meditations on alienation are formulaic and tiresome, his avowals of humanity are unbearable. Better he should keep his clammy vision in the subway where it belongs.

© 2008 Mario Naves

Originally published in the December 2008 edition of The New Criterion.

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