Brooklyn, New York
Summary of George Tooker
George Tooker's eerie and captivating paintings took on art's biggest themes of desire, death, religion, and grief. As a queer artist working in the 1950s, Tooker railed against the established status quo in both his life and art, with his work focusing primarily on critiquing the isolation and disaffection prevalent in an increasingly Capitalist and bureaucratic world. His works combine qualities of Surrealist dreamscapes, political commentary, and Renaissance painting techniques to create disturbing, yet beautiful, images of everyday human struggles.
- As a staunch anti-Capitalist and critic of the government, George Tooker documented the effects of the Depression in the city, and the stranglehold of government imposed red tape and bureaucracy on people's lives as they became increasingly desperate and increasingly de-individualized via officialdom.
- Karl Marx's theory if alienation (1932) describes how individuals become estranged from themselves, and others via the Capitalist system and their own social classes. Tooker was himself a communist, and alienation is always present in his works, which multiply faceless or identically faced people, who are often alone and expressionless subjects of an employment or government machine.
- Tooker was an out gay man in the 1950s, and his queerness is evidenced by the often androgynous, non-gendered, figures he portrays. Tooker's work also shows an unusual and remarkable empathy for women; while the Surrealists used women as symbols, erotic objects of their own desire, Tooker shows women as equal non-subjects of Capitalism, as well as painting experiences of social anxiety that are particularly linked to femininity (as in his most famous work, The Subway).
- Later in life, after the death of his life partner, Tooker moved inwards to works that explore his own internal and spiritual life. Although figures remain central to his work, the city is replaced by the artist's own imaginary life, rife with religious symbolism, particularly around death, grief, and the afterlife.
Biography of George Tooker
George Tooker was born on August 5th, 1920 in Brooklyn to George Clair Tooker and Anela Montejo Roura. He had one sister named Mary. His father was of English and French descent and his mother was a mixture of German, English and Spanish-Cuban heritage. His family lived in Brooklyn until he was seven years old, after which his family moved to Bellport, Long Island. He was brought up as a member of the Episcopal Church and was of a middle class background.
Important Art by George Tooker
This painting of a subway is one of the most famous works by Tooker. The central female figure is shown looking anxiously to her right and clutching her abdomen, surrounded by a series of anonymous, somewhat sinister looking figures. While the central figure wears a red dress, the surrounding figures are all shown in varying shades of beige, brown and blue. The surrounding figures are almost all men. The perspective of the painting presents the subway with a series of seemingly endless passageways. The scene itself is dominated by neutral tones and sharp, distinct edges.
This painting illuminates the feeling of isolation and alienation of modern, urban life, which is a theme that is omnipresent in his oeuvre. The central figure is pictured alone, distinct from all the other figures, which is exemplified by the contrast of her vibrant red dress to the neutral tones of the surrounding figures. The background figures seem to look at the central woman from the corners of their eyes or from around corners, adding an element of paranoia to the painting. The maze-like depiction of the subway adds to this sentiment, presenting it almost as a labyrinthine prison in which the central figure is trapped. The subway thus becomes a metaphor for the imprisonment of urban society, to which we are all subject.
Gender identity and the risks associated with femininity are both central to this piece. American art historian Michael Brooks states that the color contrasts between the male and female figures "echo the traditional symbols of passion and sanctity, and the woman uses her hand to protect her womb against the threatening messages of the men around her." The woman is thus pictured as sexualized and vulnerable - insulated and fearful in public amidst the threatening male influences around her.
This painting portrays a government office, which seems to stretch to infinity. Variations of stock figures wait to be helped, no one interacting with one another, standing aimlessly and not in front of any particular window. The desks have privacy glass with a small circle cut through only to reveal the sickly, pale, and sunken in faces of the government employees, who all look the same. The color scheme of the office is varying shades of tan and brown, and all the figures wear variations of the same five colors.
Government Bureau, like Subway, offers a social commentary about the anonymity of modern urban life, but with a different technique. Here he presents a marked juxtaposition between the civilians and the government clerks: the civilians stand turned away from the viewer, their faces not visible, while the government clerks are facing the viewer. The civilians are not given faces or any sort of individuality, reduced to just clients in need of service rather than humans. This emphasizes the lack of humanity that Tooker perceived from the government, especially in light of the political climate during the mid 20th century. This distrust of authority is also evident in the characterization of the government clerks.
In Marx's theory of alienation, we are told that although each individual worker seems to be an autonomous actor in their own life, they are in fact driven by the forces of the bourgeoisie's, or upper class's, demand for surplus labor to produce goods, which the workers themselves may never see (each one a faceless cog in a production line) nor afford themselves. Because workers are unable to be in charge of their own lives and decisions, they become separated from their essence as individuals. In Government Bureau we clearly see this facelessness of clerk and civilian; different workers in the Capitalist machine.
This work also utilizes themes of obscurity and surveillance to make a statement about the government and its services. The privacy windows of the bureau can only be permeated with a small, circular opening, through which the viewer is only able to see part of the clerk's face. This illuminates the lack of transparency about what goes on within the government, even though civilians are encouraged to blindly follow its decisions and contribute to them with taxation. Also of importance is the juxtaposed element of surveillance; while we cannot see the government, the government can see us. The clerks are able to see out of the small holes, and even look directly at the viewer. Tooker uses this imagery to display the hypocrisy of the governmental system, which monitors citizens while simultaneously dehumanizing them.
This scene displays a series of people waiting for an unknown service, many of them in numbered stalls, which are identical and narrow. The people are occupying themselves in various ways, either alone or in couples. In the forefront are two men pictured on either end, one sitting and looking back towards the stalls, the other with sunglasses and his back turned towards the viewer. Behind them, two people sit who appear to be asleep. The lighting in the room appears to be fluorescent, and all of the figures have a grayish hue to their skin. Additionally, the wardrobes of each of the figures repeat the same five colors: orange, light pink, beige, navy blue and brown.
This painting speaks to the themes of bureaucracy, anonymity and anxiety, which are also present in Subway and Govrnment Bureau. Like in Government Bureau, the figures wait for a service that is unknown, isolated from one another, in a space characterized by neutral, nondescript colors. The lighting gives the people a sickly color, and the room appears to be uncomfortable and dirty. The perspective of the painting suggests that the room itself, as well as the waiting, might go on forever. The painting was inspired by Tooker's own frustration waiting for building permits, and he says, "The Waiting Room is a kind of purgatory - people just waiting - waiting to wait. It is not living." The depiction of liminal space as a kind of purgatory is used throughout Tooker's works. As in Government Bureau, this lack of any boundary or end to waiting questions the value of what the figures are waiting for, making a larger statement about personal satisfaction in modern society. This described "purgatory" seems to be omnipresent in modern life, but for what purpose, and to what effect? The lack of identification of the service or 'end goal' in The Waiting Room tells us of the sameness of bureaucratic processes invented seemingly to intentionally alienate worker from product, or service.
Tooker evokes anxiety at this idea of standardization with this scene, portraying people as nothing more than objects to be sorted. This painting shows a growing concern within modernity around anonymity, industrialization, and the treatment of citizens and workers, and remains a prescient and disquieting image of the depersonalized workforce under capitalism.
Influences and Connections
- Guillermo del Toro
- W. H. Auden
- Paul Cadmus
- George Platt Lynes
- Jared French
- Kenneth Hayes Miller
- William Christopher
- Magical Realism
Useful Resources on George Tooker
- George TookerBy Thomas H. Carver
- George TookerBy Robert Cozzolino and Marshall Price
- George Tooker: a Reassessment of the ArtistBy Jodi Ann Wigmore / University of Victoria (Canada), 1984
- George Tooker: Paintings 1947-1973By George Tooker
- Art and the Subway: New York UndergroundBy Tracey Fitzpatrick
- George Tooker: A RetrospectiveBy Jeff Regensburger / Comlumbus Underground / July 21, 2009
- An Interview with George Tooker ThBy Justin Spring and George Tooker / American Art 16 / Spring, 2002
- Baleful Visions of Modernity, Mystically RenderedBy Ken Johnson / New York Times / October 9, 2008
- George Tooker, Painter Capturing Modern Anxieties, Dies at 90By William Grimes / New York Times / March 29, 2011
- The Art of Anxiety: Painter George Tooker Dies at 90By Nina Keck / NPR / April 1, 2011
- Reappearing ActBy Sebastian Smee / The Boston Globe / March 1, 2009
- George Tooker: Capturing Modern AnxietiesBy Melissa Leclezio / Culture Trip / November 27, 2016
- George Tooker: A Purveyor of Modern Alienation and DespairBy Wendy Gray / Daily Art Magazine / March 15, 2018