George Tooker: A Retrospectiveby Maxwell Heller
National Academy Museum October 2, 2008 - January 4, 2009
Critics have attempted for more than fifty years to locate George Tooker in terms of his aesthetic affiliations. To this end they have discussed his work variously as a descendant of American Realism or of Socialist Realism, as an offshoot of Surrealism, a modern variety of Romanticism, or a branch of Magic Realism. Perhaps wanting to push this controversy farther, the current National Academy retrospective suggests that we might even view his paintings in terms of contemporary abstraction (though we must also take this as an apologia similar to that of last season’s Turner exhibit at the Met, a provisional entreaty to those deterred by representation, figuration, et al). But, strangely, Tooker in interviews rejects all of these associations, emphasizing instead his most personal influences: early companions Paul Cadmus, Jared and Margaret French, and partner William Christopher on one hand, and on the other, the master painters of the early Renaissance, whose images captivated him in Italy as a young man. Tooker also denies any of the political ties usually associated with the formal categories assigned him, asserting that his paintings do not “demand any particular social, economic or political change,” but focus on an emotional state experienced by their subjects. In a sense, Tooker has been said to come from almost everywhere, but wants to come from nowhere.
A particularly familiar image, “The Birdwatchers” (1948) comes to mind. On gessoed board, a train of city-dwellers (hands clasped, lips sensuously parted) follows a young man into a park and along a rocky slope lifted directly from the Scrovegni Chapel. The young man dominates the picture plane—a circular impression in the nearby rock echoes and emphasizes the outline of his lifted head; his broad palms are open and upturned; and the surrounding figures seem locked in a singular effort to mirror his implacable concentration. For Tooker, this painting merely borrows compositional tactics from spiritual works of the Renaissance—again, he underscores emotional content, denying any specific socio-political implications—but is it possible to borrow an aesthetic form produced by any value system without also borrowing or at least confronting its values? The artist’s suggesting that this is a “religious painting without the religious subject matter” seems paradoxical. In the blissful expression on each figure’s face, one sees that Tooker imagines a universal reverence for something greater than Man, and, in the context of the familiar symbolism and formal structure, it is difficult to read this reverence as anything other then specifically Christian wonder at God’s work. Further, in portraying the group’s adoration of the natural world—their nearly tearful relief at finding it—there lies a powerful critique of the urban landscape just visible beyond the park’s boundaries. Here, one sees a group that has escaped the alienation of secular modernity to revel in something larger and more nurturing. Though the central figure’s palms are without wounds, this painting is not free of religious subject matter, nor is it without force as a social comment.
This holds true for another of Tooker’s iconic images, “Children and Spastics” (1946), which the exhibition intriguingly views as ‘just mere camp.’ In “Spastics,” three oleaginous gentleman (read: queer-identified) in form-fitting outfits stand in a deserted corner, worried by a black dog and five laughing children armed with broomsticks. According to the NA catalog, the men are engaged in a rather complex display—absorbing the derision of their assailants, they playfully affect some “homosexual” poses that the children expect to see, and so mock those that mock them. But perhaps “Spastics,” which so overtly recalls Bosch or Renaissance depictions of martyrdom narratives, speaks more of torment and solitude than of playful dismissal. Even if we suppose that the gentlemen are only mocking effete fear (in this case for their own benefit) we still have a sense of their isolation as performers. Unlike most depictions of martyrdom, Tooker’s provides no witnesses to acknowledge the sufferings of his figures. Perhaps this reflects the larger queer-identified community’s isolation from society in general—Tooker must have felt the separation between his close circle of friends and the dominant, “heterosexual” (though male-homosocial) culture surrounding them, or he would not have portrayed it so dramatically in other paintings (see: “A Game of Chess” (1946–47). Again, Tooker’s work seems to urgently demand social change. If the artist had no specific comments to communicate, and wanted to convey only the emotions of his figures, he might have omitted the context of their suffering.
Of the paintings depicting men and women in cubicles, lying alone in hospitals, eating alone in cafeterias, wandering cautiously through subways or markets, so much has already been said—critics have thoroughly discussed the political content of these indelible images and their critique of modernity. The chronological trend in Tooker’s work, from despairing to richly sensual to spiritually optimistic, has also been explored, and the NA exhibition fully acknowledges this range and the biographical turning points that might have caused it. That said, the retrospective’s timing proves more interesting—Tooker’s critical portraits of America have appeared en masse just when America professes to be most concerned about her image, and just when she appears to be making the least progress. His pleas for fair treatment across boundaries of sexual preference were on display here when the Gay Marriage Ban in California took effect; his portrayals of familial love arrived in time to see parents, finally given the choice, abandoning infants and teens alike at hospitals in Nebraska; and his empathetic depictions of itinerant laborers recall the growing controversy over immigration policy. Tooker’s retrospective serves as an uncomfortable reminder that our nation still struggles with the same faults it confronted more than half a century ago. Perhaps Tooker’s progression from portrayals of paranoia to portrayals of faith reflects our nation’s sense of progress—we have moved out of an era steeped in amorphous fear and into a moment nebulous hope—but we have yet to see all of Tooker’s concerns addressed or his utopian hopes realized.