Early Abstract and Modernist Painting

George Tooker (1920–2011)

Highway, 1953

Egg tempera on gesso hardboard, 22 7/8 x 17 7/8 in. (58.1 x 45.4 cm). Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection. Image © Estate of George Tooker. Courtesy of DC Moore Gallery, New York., 1992.134

George Tooker made paintings that combine meticulous representation and a sense of brooding mystery to comment on the human condition. His early works, including Highway, stress the loneliness and alienation of modern urban existence. In this haunting fantasy of a roadblock, three cars, their aggressive, fang-like grills mirroring their drivers’ frustration, are immobilized by a mysterious authoritative figure brandishing a large red reflector. In the early 1950s, the United States contained about 6 percent of the world’s population but 60 percent of all automobiles, the result of postwar prosperity and suburban development. Greatly increased traffic volume on the nation’s highway system, which suffered from wartime neglect, resulted in frequent roadblocks. The highway and private automobile, emblems of individual freedom for many Americans during and after the 1950s, serve here as symbols of the social ills inherent in modern life: rampant materialism and the destruction of nature by development and attendant pollution.

Learn more about this painting on the Terra Foundation website.

Perspective

Robert Cozzolino

Patrick and Aimee Butler Curator of Painting, Minneapolis Institute of Art, Minnesota

George Tooker’s small output of carefully planned and slowly made egg tempera paintings contrasts dramatically with what we have been taught is modern about modern art. He did not work large; if he made any completely abstract works, he did not save them; he did not improvise; he resisted art-world celebrity. A native New Yorker, Tooker insightfully translated both joyful and horrific experiences of the city at midcentury, then left it in 1960 to move to rural Vermont with his life partner, William Christopher (1924–1973). After converting to Catholicism in the 1970s, he made religious paintings for a church in Windsor, Vermont. He said little about the meaning of his imagery, preferring to allow the work to release its secrets and possibilities quietly, according to the perceptions and experience of viewers. This has only intensified its enigmatic aspects.

Most narratives of modernism willfully ignore the pluralist reality in which artists such as Tooker lived and worked. The archive provides ample evidence of a post- war scene that thrived on differences. Art is messy; it develops through complex relationships and is nurtured by shared conditions that yield shoots in unexpected places. On the surface, these signs of growth may seem unrelated but they are anchored by invisible, interconnected roots. In Tooker’s art, qualities that have been positioned as irreconcilable are united: abstraction and representation, the sensual figure and the unrelenting grid. He looked hard at the pure abstraction that had developed through the Bauhaus and at the gestural abstraction of postwar expressionism, and he absorbed their lessons. He did not want to emulate their particular methods but appears to have learned much from their editorial strategies, which he astutely conflated with those of the fifteenth-century Italian artists Piero della Francesca (c. 1415–1492) and Fra Angelico (1395–1455). Tooker understood how these disparate approaches could intensify the psychological matrix within which he set his narratives.

Highway is a painting that shows how Tooker applied these lessons to his examination of urban spaces. He integrated what he saw as oppressive architecture and a confining geometry with the human body. Though in some paintings his figures are gloriously illuminated, as though transcending flesh, here they are earth- bound and trapped. As though updating the fate of the damned in fifteenth-century Flemish and Italian paintings, Tooker compartmentalized the city’s inhabitants into purgatorial cells.

The painting presents a set of contradictions. The scene is menacing and witty, claustrophobic and infinite, full of emphatic surface patterns and attentively illusionistic. For all of its controlled structure, it is seething with energy. The title implies a fast roadway, but what we see is a tightly bound section of paving constricted by blaring white arrows emphatically pointing into the earth and barriers painted with contrasting diagonal stripes. Highway suggests the dangerous thrill of a city’s dizzying pace as an aggressive nightmare or fantasy. Yet it was based—like all of Tooker’s urban images—on experiential encounters with objects, signs, and situations in New York. Together the geometry, lines, and arrows of his rigorous matrix drive the terror in Highway as much as the faceless authority figure and grimacing vehicles do. United, they work to provoke the viewer and evoke the anxiety that Tooker sensed in postwar American society.