New York

George Tooker, Guitar, 1957, egg tempera on panel, 18 × 24".

George Tooker, Guitar, 1957, egg tempera on panel, 18 × 24".

George Tooker

“Watching George Tooker paint is excruciating,” art historian Thomas H. Garver once remarked. “Stroke, stroke, stroke, it goes on and on, yet to an observer almost nothing seems to be happening.” Over months and months, his effulgent surfaces would accumulate thousands of delicate wisps in egg tempera—the medium favored by the painters of late-medieval Italy—to illuminate delphic modern genre scenes and allegories glowing with beatitude and despair. Tooker (1920–2011) learned his ascetic and “plodding” (per the artist) method in the mid-1940s, from his friends the painters Paul Cadmus (Tooker’s lover for a time) and Jared French. A generation older, they brought him into the fold of New York’s queer artists, intellectuals, and bon vivants while securing him an introduction to Lincoln Kirstein, the pope of midcentury realism who became his primary collector and advocate.

Tooker is best known for his claustrophobic, purgatorial tableaux of urban anomie. Widely reproduced in sociology and psychology textbooks of the 1960s and ’70s, works such as The Subway, 1950—with its carceral space, bewildering vanishing points, and atomized, suspicious commuters—and Government Bureau, 1956, have become almost synonymous with postwar alienation and bureaucratic control. None of these “protest” paintings appeared in “George Tooker: Contemplative Gaze” at DC Moore Gallery. Instead, a lyrical mood pervaded the small grouping of intimately scaled paintings, drawings, and lithographs, which are inhabited by saucer-eyed seraphim, arcadian lovers, and saintly clusters of fruit.

In 1953, Tooker and his partner, William Christopher, purchased an old brownstone in New York’s Brooklyn Heights area. He began to paint his new neighbors, residents of a Puerto Rican boarding house across the street. Guitar, 1957, tender and softly voyeuristic, appears to portray a scene of postcoital indolence. A musician leans on the widow’s ledge, his elegant fingers barely grazing the titular instrument while he puffs on a cigarette. His lover reclines in drowsy dishabille, the Titianesque softness of her body sprawling behind a parted red-velvet curtain. The pair, a white woman and a black man, seem to be frittering away the afternoon, their energies expended on sleep, music, and sex. Tooker, who famously had little to say about his work, once conceded that he conceived of this painting and others like it as a “challenge.” The son of a Cuban mother and an Anglo-American father, the artist “believed in racial intermarriage” and wanted to “paint about that.” The male figure in the ethereal graphite-on-paper Study for “Window, 1966, leans against a nearly invisible pane, head nested in the crook of his elbow. Drawn in a manner reminiscent of Ingres, the subject’s skillfully modeled face contrasts with his lightly rendered nude torso. Escaping mention in this show is the fact that the finished painting—sadly not on view—was a memorial to Malcolm X, who was assassinated in 1965 and whose name appears in Arabic on the window’s sash.

Considered in light of Tooker’s spiritual, personal, and political life—his student communism, his sexuality, his genteel but unwavering commitment to civil rights (which, in the year of Malcolm X’s death, brought him to Selma, Alabama, to attend the funeral of slain activist and Unitarian minister James Reeb and to march in solidarity with Martin Luther King Jr.), his late-in-life conversion to Catholicism, and his sympathy for the Catholic Worker Movement—the ostensibly quixotic, private works of “Contemplative Gaze” began to seem less remote from the admonitory spirit of The Subway. “An oyster makes a pearl around an irritant inside a shell,” said the usually taciturn artist, paraphrasing Flaubert, “and I think that [my] pictures come frequently from irritants. I hope they’re pearls, I don’t know.”