Wednesday, March 30, 2011

An Appreciation Of George Tooker

I was saddened to hear of George Tooker's death, which, as such things go, was a peaceful one.  Tooker can be credited with some of America's most iconic images, in which the spectres of anonymity and paranoia played against the starkly functional architecture of our offices and subways.  But he was also a compassionate interpreter of intimate relationships.  And his color - which can be drily aseptic in the works of his fellow egg tempera painters - can be joyously sensual and profoundly luminous.

I'm just familiar enough with Tooker to want to remember him for a moment.  I write, not as a scholar, but as a dedicated browser. 

Longevity is a double-edged sword, particularly for artists.  The world moves so fast that a single figure can be eclipsed many times over a long and productive life.  When Tooker began, his work dovetailed into the prevailing zeitgeist enough for it to seem palatable.  Having rejected modernism for a spell, artists were re-examining the vast and lonely spaces, the Depression-haunted journeys, and the palsied appetites of an America that had turned in on itself.  Only the well-remunerated could reflect the old orders, which turned on bromides The Crash had set aside.  Artists were not looking for America the Beautiful; they were content to show the textures of survival.  The only Depression-free art-form was in Hollywood, which employed art directors, scene painters, and sketch artists by the dozen.  Yet Tooker was not so tempted.  He preferred to look inward, as so many of his contemporaries did.

His circle was small, but nourishing.  He gathered around him a highly accomplished, but self-effacing group of artists who had similar aims.  Paul Cadmus had already ventured into the teeming squalors of weekend pastimes - and made a reputation for himself as an elegantly unvarnished interpreter of American mores - or at least such mores as were likely to turn heads.  Jared French was another contemporary who was unabashedly surrealist.  All of these men were homosexual at a time when such a love spoke at its peril.  It was good for them to be able to support one another, not only in their aesthetic proclivities, but in their lifestyle preferences as well.  The Thirties were bleak for everyone and, as a result, people found kitchen communities of their own.  As with segregation, many good things came of it: a sense of shared values, unconventional social habits, and the solidarity of the rejected.  And while Tooker's image-making capacities were his own, I'm sure they were helped along by the example and practice of his friends.
Tooker seem to have disappeared from the mainstream after WWII, to emerge forty years later with books and retrospectives devoted to work I had never seen.  He had moved beyond the Orwellian imagery for which he's best known to a sort of paganistic awe.  He was painting figures for their own sake and bathing them in the sun-warm tonalities of his mind - which seems, as I look at these astonishing pictures, newly minted.

Writing as an outsider to his career, I have no idea what inspired this new direction, but it should be a source of hope for any mid-career artist who, like Dante, has lost his way.  Tooker exemplifies the notion that life cannot be static.  It must either shrivel up or find some happy re-awakening.  Given Tooker's decades-spanning career, perhaps he realized that the bitch goddesses were well-named and could have power over him only if he let them.  Perhaps he had wandered those subterranean vaults long enough to peek behind them for a moment.  Perhaps he had found the humanity that lurked behind the buttoned-down coats that were Everyman's uniform.  Perhaps he'd had an ephiphany that could only happen to someone who didn't believe in such things - like a spinster discovering love for the first time. 

Whatever the case, Tooker turned a corner at a certain point in his career and, after having created images that represent man at his most alienated, went on to create a body of work that was serenely joyous and humanly irresistible.

I thank and bless you, old man.

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