Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta

Artist Tooker Found Catholic Faith An Inspiration

By DAVID A. KING, Ph.D., Commentary | Published April 28, 2011

Almost all of us who have ever read a psychology or sociology textbook have seen the work. It is as familiar as the contorted face in Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” or the lonely diners in Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks.” The nervous, lonely faces that peer out from the multilayered canvas of George Tooker’s 1950 masterpiece “The Subway” inhabit our collective imagination, our post-modern American subconscious that many would argue is defined by the same anxiety, the same fear, that colors the faces of the figures in the painting.

But while George Tooker’s life was hardly marked by dread, his reputation in the art world rested upon the horror of post-war society that he captured in paintings similar to “The Subway,” including “Government Bureau” and “The Waiting Room.” For many critics, these works from the 1950s represent Tooker’s legacy.

George Tooker died last month on March 27. He was 90 years old, and throughout his long career as an artist, he completed just over 150 paintings. His work may be seen in The Museum of Modern Art, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The National Museum of Art, and other great museums, including the Whitney Museum of American Art, which purchased “The Subway” almost immediately after Tooker finished it.

Yet for the past several years, indeed up until the awarding of a 2007 National Medal of Arts and a 2008 retrospective show that travelled to several museums, most people had forgotten about Tooker; in fact, few people with whom I shared my enthusiasm for the artist had heard of him. Then I showed them the pictures, beginning with “The Subway,” and though they did not know his name, they remembered—almost immediately—the paintings.

Very few artists, particularly those who came of age after the Second World War, have created work that haunts our shared memory and experience of what it meant to live in the latter half of the world’s most paradoxical century. George Tooker accomplished that in his small body of work, and with his final years and recent death, he finally gained the recognition that will ensure appreciation of his art beyond the pages of textbook chapters on alienation.

Tooker grew up in New York, and was raised as an Episcopalian. Though he had always wanted to study art, he honored the wishes of his parents and instead attended Harvard, where he earned a degree in English. Following an honorable discharge for medical reasons from the United States Marines in 1942, Tooker was able to go to art school instead of the war.

He studied at the Arts Students League of New York, where he adopted the egg tempera technique of painting that he would employ throughout his career. The great paintings of social awareness from the 1950s evolved into a more empathetic style that depicts his deep identification with the civil rights movement of the 1960s. He was enamored with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and marched with King in the Deep South. His great 1963 painting, “Supper,” depicts a black Christ-like figure breaking bread with two white men in an image that pays homage to King and alludes as well to the appearance of Jesus on the road to Emmaus.

The death of his long-time companion William Christopher in 1973 prompted a religious awakening for Tooker. Though a deep spirituality had always been evident in even his most foreboding works, Tooker now felt a longing for a more committed life of faith. Near his home in Vermont, he met a local Catholic priest and began taking instruction from him. He entered the Catholic Church in 1976, and the church became a source of profound love and inspiration for the rest of his life.

When his small parish of St. Francis of Assisi in Windsor, Vt., began to build a new church in 1980, Tooker asked his friend and pastor, Father Forrest Rouelle, if he could paint a major work for the new building. Father Rouelle was delighted and commissioned the painting that is a permanent fixture of the church.

“The Seven Sacraments: A Celebration of Life” is a remarkable work that consists of seven large panels that integrate the seven sacraments of the Church in what becomes a unified, single image. The center panel, the largest, depicts the moment of consecration in the Mass; on either side of the Eucharist panel are three smaller paintings. On the left, we see baptism, confirmation and reconciliation. The third panel depicts the repentant sinner invited by his confessor to the altar for Communion with a diverse congregation who are exchanging the sign of peace. It is a striking image of both forgiveness and love that grows logically from the paintings of infant baptism and childhood first Communion, into a more mature understanding of universal community united in the celebration of the Eucharist. The panels on the right portray marriage, also connected to the central image of the Eucharist; the anointing of the sick, which acts as a beautiful mirror image of the confirmation painting; and Holy Orders, which features the vocational life of both religious and the laity.

A prose description cannot fully capture the simple, yet profound, beauty of this work. It must be seen. Good images of the painting are available online; better ones are available in a fine book, “George Tooker,” by Thomas H. Garver.

Tooker also painted a strikingly original and symbolic “Stations of the Cross” for the church that like “The Seven Sacraments” is both of its time and timeless. Rather than referencing the traditional iconography associated with the Stations found in most churches, Tooker instead painted a series of 14 images, integrated into one large work, which focuses attention almost exclusively upon Christ’s hands. Like the best religious art and architecture it expresses the mood of the individual artist, speaking for his own people, in his own time, rather than once again referencing a narrow vision that we associate with greatness or beauty only because it feels familiar.

And yet familiarity, whether it seems eerie or beautiful, is perhaps the defining feature of Tooker’s best work. Beyond the simple tags of illusionist, surrealism, or magic realism, Tooker’s paintings affect us on a level that unites the personal with the universal. George Tooker’s art reminds us that we all know the agony of loneliness; we all have felt forgotten or misunderstood. Yet his paintings, including the wonderful series “The Embrace,” also remind us of the ability we all have to love and be loved. We know these images not only because we have seen them, but because we have lived them and believed them.