Friday, March 6, 2009

Glimpsing Tooker's world

A recent 60-degree day invited me out for a midday walk in center city. I had seen an ad in the Catholic Standard & Times for an art exhibit at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.

I had never heard of the artist George Tooker, but the poster featured his painting “Subway” and that was so striking, I wandered over to the museum.

The exhibit was more than worth the price of admission. Organized mostly in chronological fashion, the paintings tell the artist’s story from an early self-portrait through the period where he made his significant mark on the art world.

Tooker uses an ancient technique called egg tempera (you can tell I never studied art in school), so his paintings seem to project light from the canvas. The effect is astonishing.

From “Subway” placed midway through the exhibit, I was not surprised to find similar works of social commentary. Tooker amply explored themes such as alienation, totalitarian fear and urban isolation especially in the late 1940 through the ‘50s. Those images burn themselves into one’s mind and challenge us to think about the culture and society of the time in which they were created, and our own.

But what really surprised me was Tooker’s volume of work from the last 30 years. He had already made a name for himself in the 1950s as a young man. In the 1960s he became involved in the civil rights movement with other artist friends.

After his homosexual partner died in 1975, Tooker became introspective. To deal with his grief, he turned to religion: not the Episcopalian church of his birth, but to the Catholic Church. In 1976, he converted to Catholicism.

Ever since, his works reflect not only the beauty of the human person, but people in relationship. Gone (mostly) were the disturbing images of fear, paranoia and alienation in harsh, urban landscapes. They’d been succeeded by scenes of people in warmer light -- in a sense, from broken and disconnected individuals to a harmonious, even redeemed, humanity.

While the exhibit’s companion book is pricier than admission, it reveals more of Tooker’s emerging spirituality of his later period. Particularly remarkable are the commissions of sacred art for his parish church in Vermont.

The Stations of the Cross and a triptych depicting the seven sacraments accurately express orthodox Catholic theology, according to the parish’s pastor, for whom Tooker presented early sketches to ensure he was on the right track theologically.

The triptych, for instance, shows people receiving such sacraments as baptism, holy orders (this one depicts a man kneeling before the crucified Jesus) or reconciliation. The people receiving the sacraments are pointing to the work’s center panel, which is the sacrament of the Eucharist as the host is being raised at the moment of consecration. The symbolism that the Church is oriented toward and draws its life from the Eucharist is unmistakable.

The George Tooker exhibit runs through April 5 at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Here is an excellent review of the show when it was in Washington, DC last year.

The experience is worth the trip into center city. And because the Academy doesn’t draw the big crowds, you can linger on the stunning pieces in the Tooker show. Enjoy.

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