Painting is the art that helps to visualize ideas, values, and images that reflect a viewer’s personal experience and allows him/her to grapple with the implications of what they see in paintings. An American painter George Tooker used his painting to show a wide range of emotions that an individual could experience. He used to be called a “Magic Realist” as he had managed to portray different emotional aspects, such as depression, isolation, anxiety, loneliness, etc., in a mythic and eerie way. This paper aims to explore the works of the American painter George Tooker and discuss how he had portrayed emotional spectrum of individuals from anxiety to loneliness in his paintings. It will focus on the analysis Tooker’s three most significant works – “Subway” (1950), “The Waiting Room” (1959), and “Government Bureau” (1956). All three pieces possess characteristics that bring to the surface the concept of using art to comprehend the development of human’s emotions.
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George Tooker was born on August 5, 1920. He grew up in Bellport, Long Island, where he started to take painting lessons when he was 7. He finished Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts. Then, he entered Harvard University to please his parents and majored in the English Literature. Although he had a chance to introduce himself to the works of the Renaissance and Classics, he did not practice painting during his time in the university. However, the elements of the Renaissance painting will be seen in his future pictures. When he graduated, WWII had already begun and he enlisted in the Marines. He did not serve long as he was released from military service because of health issues. Although Tooker did not paint the images of war, he could not have been unaffected by it. Even though Tooker had spent little time there, the military service and the impact of war on the civilian life of that time had a significant influence on his art in the form of realism and alienation of society that was later shown in his paintings.
He continued his artistic education in the Art Students League of New York. Here, he met Paul Cadmus and Jared and Margaret French who had influenced Tooker’s formation as a painter. It was they who had inspired Tooker to make egg tempera his main artistic style. Later, Tooker traveled around Europe with his friend Cadmus for 6 months. This trip gave him a chance to visit European historical places, churches, museums, and galleries. As a result, he used many Greeks and Etruscan mythic concepts in his paintings. Jared French, another friend of Tooker’s, motivated him to use Jungian archetypes in his painting. This made Tooker’s art even more symbolic and mystic. However, Tooker himself rejected his similarity with surrealism and mysticism. “I am after reality — painting impressed on the mind so hard that it recurs as a dream,” he said, “but I am not after dreams as such, or fantasy.” Consequently, Tooker considered himself a realist.
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Eventually, Tooker started to participate in the exhibitions all around America. In the 1950s, Tooker moved to Vermont together with his partner William Christopher. The artist expressed the issue of homosexuality in his paintings “Children and Spastics” (1946). He also was a civil rights movement activist. When his partner died, Tooker converted to Catholicism and started visiting the church. Thus, his works of that period (the 1970s) contain the images of biblical themes. He devoted the rest of his life to his artistic work until his death in 2011.
There are a few reasons why George Tooker has not become as popular as he could have been. The first reason is that he stayed away from the leading artistic circles situated in New York as he spent much time abroad. Another explanation is of the political nature. As the 1950s-1960s were the time of the Cold War, the American government tried to overcome the Soviet Union in everything, including art. It tried to fight the Soviet art schools of realism by promoting abstract expressionism to represent the freedom of painting. Tooker’s paintings are realistic in their nature, and, thus, they would fall into the standards of the “enemy”. For that, he and his friends were treated in the artistic circles as if their paintings were the remnants of the past rather than a novelty of the modernity. As Cozzolino said about Tooker “He didn’t really produce to sell – he produced because he really believed in the work he was doing.”
As for his artistic style, Tooker is associated with the images of loneliness and isolation of characters on his pictures. All of his paintings have contemporary settings; however, the characters themselves are so generalized that they could have belonged to any ?poque in history. He often portrayed clerical workers or governmental institutions that made people feel remote and alienated. He also portrayed the anxiety of postwar society that was most vividly seen in the crowded places. However, this anxiety had a personal nature. Although many people were anxious, they did not share their concerns with each other and they tried to stay remote.
In the beginning of his career, the painter experimented with Masonite board and wood boards. The colors of such paintings become a little diaphanous, which created a matte surface. The example of such a technique is one of his early pictures “Children and Spastics” (1946). As it was mentioned above, following the advice of his friends, Tooker later started using egg tempera technique – a traditional Renaissance method of painting. It uses egg yolk with water, to which a color pigment is added. The pigment dries quickly and it is difficult to change once applied. This very detailed technique requires much time. However, as Tooker’s friend, Jared French thought that this technique reflected Tooker’s contemplative character. For that reason, he only painted 155 paintings during his life. This is what Tooker himself said about egg tempera technique: “People think it’s difficult but it’s not, it’s very easy. But it’s slow and the slowness fits me — fits my way of thinking.”
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The trademark of George Tooker’s paintings is the remoteness or isolation of depicted individuals. He is a realist and he shows realistic pictures from people’s daily lives. Many of them radiate social withdrawal and isolation. However, his reality is represented through a number of symbols and archetypical images. They have much in common with the Renaissance paintings and mystic iconography. Thus, he can be called a symbolic realist. He also became interested in the Italian Renaissance – the art of the Middle Ages that had inspired him to use many geometric forms in his painting style. Although all his paintings use contemporary setting, the figures could easily belong to any time in history. They are timeless as they are dehumanized and enigmatic. Tooker rarely depicted faces of his figures in profile, and even if he did, those were generalized facial characters as if all of figures wore masks. These masked faces are marked with alienation, loneliness, and sometimes, anxiety from the pressure of the modern urban life.
It is probably one of the best-known paintings by Tooker. Here, he expressed anxiety and fear that literally isolated humanity after WWII. Although characters in the paintings are depicted in New York’s underground, it seems like images are frozen and they cannot move due to fear of unpredictability of life. The metro station is filled with people; however, they are isolated from each other. Their remoteness is seen in their postures, gestures, and, most notoriously, facial expressions. Only one woman in the middle of the painting is seen fully with her face open to a viewer. It demonstrates anxiety, fear, and torture, as if she is haunted. Although there are many people around her, there is also a mark of loneliness on her face. Her clothes are colorful, but their plain fabric underscores the simplicity of life, its basic emotions. The painting also shows that although women in the 1950s started to detach themselves from men’s power (different colors of clothes), they still were vulnerable to men’s physical and economic superiority. It was dangerous and fearful for women to live their lives separately from men’s. The men behind her and every other character on the painting do not fully show their faces. However, it can be seen that their features are quite similar to each other and it would be difficult to differentiate them when seen in profile. Tooker wanted to portray how people of the post-war time felt about other people. They did not pay much attention to one another but they tried to stay detached because of fear. Not a single individual looks at or touches other person. All characters wear similar long coats as an armor, protecting them from each other. Colors are also not that different. Furthermore, there are the Renaissance elements in the painting. Tunkl and Foresta in their article say that the figures of “Subway” “could be characters in a Greek tragedy, stalked by the Furies.”
The space itself is divided into various smaller sections to underscore the isolation and detachment once more. These sections are people’s hiding places and, at the same time, a jail for them. This idea of being in a metaphorical prison is also emphasized by the metal bars and metal hand railings in the subway. If a city could be compared to a human body, the subway would probably represent the stomach and its guts. The underground can be a maze, where an individual loses himself or herself. A low ceiling evokes the feeling of claustrophobia as there is no way to run and escape the maze full of people who have lost themselves.
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This painting reflects Tooker’s personal experience with the governmental institutions when he tried to obtain permission for building a house with his partner in Vermont. The painting shows people waiting in infinite lines. They are separated from the workers sitting in glass cubicles. Only parts of their faces are seen to the people in the office. Again, these faces are the generalized faces of people who could belong to any time in history. The painting radiates isolation of each individual in society. It also represents despair that paralyzes people when they are in the governmental bureaus, as the process of bureaucratization is infinite. Moreover, all people in such bureaus only exist on paper and they lose their personality. That is why all the depicted characters do not show their faces but they stay with their backs to a viewer. Thus, it is difficult to distinguish them from one another. All of them wear approximately the same clothes and have the same posture. Only colors of their clothes are different. People in the bureau are depicted waiting in lines. The idea of “waiting” is often seen in Tooker’s pictures. Waiting for him is the opposite of living when nothing happens. Waiting is a purgatory.
It is also impossible to see a full face of the employees in cubicles. However, it seems that it is one person with different facial parts seen in each cubicle. Hence, Tooker has emphasized the impersonality of governmental workers who lose their identity at work as much as people who come to these bureaus. Their detachment and isolation is signified by the cubicles they sit in. Glass cubicles also represent the cold. It is the cold of the interior and inhumane nature of the place itself despite the fact that it is filled with people.
Just like other Tooker’s pictures, “The Waiting Room” shows people waiting for a bus, train, plane, etc. It is difficult to say from the painting what exactly they are waiting for. The characters seem to be different random people at first sight. However, if one looks closer, he will see that no a single person is portrayed with his or her face forward, with all facial characters seen to a viewer. Most people either show a half of the face or they are turned with their backs to a viewer. Their clothes, although of different colors, are also monotonous, with the majority of people wearing simple coats as a symbol of protection and detachment form one another. As well as in “Government Bureau” and “Subway”, the space is divided in to open cubicles or boxes, again emphasizing the isolation and withdrawal of individuals in society. These boxes are another attempt of the government to force people into some categories that in addition to everything are numbered. Although there many people on the painting, all of them impersonate loneliness.
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An interesting element of the painting is that there is a woman with a magazine, and the cover of the magazine replaces her face. Tooker considered that pop culture had replaced the real identity of individuals and made them generalized figures. Such a generalization is also indicative of Impressionist artists.
Another meaning of the picture can be found in its name. Much as in “Government Bureau”, people in waiting rooms are waiting for their lives to move on. They do not exist as individuals while they are waiting. As the picture was created in the post-war time, Tooker wanted to show that people’s lives at that time had been froze as if they were in a waiting room. They stayed still and waited for something to happen and guide them to a new life. It also seems from the painting that they have been waiting for a long time, as their faces are emotionless and tired. It makes a waiting room a purgatory where people do not live, they do not enjoy life, they are not happy. They just wait, which deprives them of the life itself.
Tooker brought to the surface the idea that art could help to comprehend the development of human emotions. To do that, he used generalized figures in his painting that would not resemble any particular face but he rather made a generalization of many faces. Tooker’s characters represented a wide range of emotions form fear and anxiety to indifference and detachment. All Tooker’s paintings are realistic; however, they also convey a symbolic and mysterious meaning that requires a viewer to contemplate and explore the emotions of Tooker’s figures.
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Although all figures are placed in the contemporary setting, there are many Renaissance elements. Faces are so generalized that they can belong to any ?poque. The expressions of anxiety and fear of Tooker’s characters resemble the Renaissance school of painters. Like the Renaissance artists, Tooker used many geometric forms in his paintings.
It becomes clear that Tooker was a painter with societal consciousness. In his works, he expressed concerns that he had about society and its future development. Tooker himself thought he was more of an observer of society rather than an interpreter. He observed that post-war people became detached and anxious about their future. They felt trapped and they were afraid to move. For that reason, they used to wait for better things to happen. Waiting is one of the key concepts of Tooker’s works. He considers waiting to be the opposite of living. As long as people wait and do not move on with their lives, they are not alive. This idea is still very much alive today.