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George Tooker: A Retrospective

Jeff Regensburger Jeff Regensburger
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Columbus Museum of Art, May 1 – September 6, 2009

George Tooker seems to have always been a little out of step. In the 1940s and 50s, as painting veered from Surrealism to abstraction to Abstract Expressionism, Tooker held fast to his brand of meticulous and figurative realism. Pop Art came and went. So did Op Art, Conceptual Art, and Post-Painterly Abstraction. Through it all, Tooker maintained a kind of outsider status, continuing to paint the human figure in his own unique style. That he never veered from working in egg tempra (at a time when all manner of new mediums and media were emerging) only serves to reinforce his reputation as an artist creating on his own terms.

The paintings by Tooker currently on display at the Columbus Museum of Art span the artist’s entire career. Taken together, they show that while his work might not have been in conversation with the sometimes-fickle contemporary art world, it certainly spoke to the broader human condition. Themes of paranoia, alienation, power, and fear dominate the work from 40s and 50s, while a more caring, personal, and socially conscious set of themes emerged in the later works.

The Subway (1950) and The Waiting Room (1957) provide first-rate examples of the kind of fear, loneliness, and isolation that charged Tooker’s work from the 1950s. There’s a haunted ambiguity in these paintings; a kind of Kafkaesque gauze that prevents viewers from deciphering exactly what’s happening while allowing for the certainty that whatever it is, it’s not good. Regular Museum visitors will likely recognize Cornice (1949), a Tooker painting from the CMA’s permanent collection offering a similarly isolated narrative that’s steeped in fear.

That Tooker’s work evolved into a body more transcendental and loving (spiritual even), seems to me a logical extension of the kind of sensitivity to alienation he exhibited in the early works. It’s as if he realized that human contact; a touch, an embrace, even hanging onto one another for dear life, was the one thing that could shatter our isolation.

This desire for connection, for a shared experience, also manifests itself in Tooker’s life outside art. By all accounts, Tooker was greatly influenced by the message of Dr. Martin Luther King and a fervent supporter in the cause of civil rights; going so far as to participate in the 1965 march from Montgomery to Selma with his life partner William Christopher. Witness as well his painting Supper (1963), in which Tooker references the Biblical supper at Emmaus and casts Jesus as a man of African descent.

None of this is to suggest that Tooker’s works are some triumph of emotions and politics over formality. They’re not. Rather they’re a successful blending of the two. These are paintings exquisitely rendered; demonstrating a deft handling of a difficult and unforgiving medium. The preliminary sketches on display show impressive draftsmanship The compositions (particularly in the early works) demonstrate a real appreciation for Renaissance masterworks. Art history buffs will doubtless enjoy spotting influences and references (and there are many!). Speaking of which, look closely at Landscape With Figures (1965-66) and tell me the central cubicle dweller isn’t Picasso himself!

While Tooker’s individual vision and adherence to his own path hasn’t provided him the status of “art superstar”, he appears to be on his way to receiving the kind of recognition he deserves. He was awarded the National Medal of Arts in 2007 and this current retrospective has been favorably covered in both Art News and The New York Times. As Tooker’s complete catalog numbers only 200 or so works, Central Ohio residents would do well to take advantage of the opportunity to see so many of these beautiful and haunting pieces in one place.

More information can be found online at ColumbusMuseum.org.

Jeff Regensburger is a painter, librarian, and drummer in the (currently dormant) rock combo The Patsys. He received a Bachelor’s Degree in Fine Arts (Painting and Drawing) from The Ohio State University in 1990 and an Master’s Degree in Library Science from Kent State University in 1997. Jeff blogs sporadically (OnSummit.blogspot.com), tweets occasionally (@jeffrey_r), and paints as time allows.

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