This past Sunday we enjoyed a fabulous lecture with Dr. Mark Cole, associate curator of American painting and sculpture at the Cleveland Museum of Art and formerly curator of American Art here at CMA. Dr. Cole spent an entire hour discussing all the interpretations of George Tooker’s painting Cornice, which is owned by CMA and currently part of the exhibition, George Tooker: A Retrospective.
It was incredible to spend that kind of time focused on one piece, because it reminded me that there are as many ways to look at a work of art as there are individuals. Tooker has said he likes the meaning of his work to be mysterious, to inspire more than one interpretation.
Dr. Cole started by having us really look at the painting and what is actually happening in the piece. Is he leaping from the building or gripping to hang on, terrified of falling. As a viewer, you can’t see what he sees, what he’s looking at, how high the building is. There is no way for us to know exactly what he is experiencing at that moment.
Within the exhibition, the painting has been paired with the drawing done in preparation for the painting. Dr. Cole pointed out that one of the last things added to the painting was the wrist watch the man is wearing, which is not in the final drawing. The watch is rotated so that the face is on the inside of his wrist, leaving the piece timeless.
The painting was done in 1949 and, interestingly enough, has been reproduced in several mental health books, which brought up several questions. What were the hot button issues in psychiatry at the time? Does the subject suffer from agorophobia? Is this a suicide attempt? Dr. Cole pointed out that it was near this time, in 1947, that a barrier was actually erected around the observation deck at the Empire State Building due to the number of people who had attempted to leap from the building.
It was also a time of great stress for many as they grappled with issues of the Cold War, the isolation of large cities, and the fear generated by the communist witch hunt. Tooker himself had briefly belonged to the communist party as a student at Harvard and may have felt some anxiety about the possibility of being exposed, so is this a personal response to the many issues swirling around him?
This was also the year that Tooker met and fell in love with the man he would spend his life with until he passed away in 1973. Is it a metaphor for falling in love? Or perhaps another way to illustrate the leap of faith so integral to Tooker as a church goer whose faith and spirituality have remained strong throughout his life?
Dr. Cole, an authority on this period of American Art, led us through an incredible journey with our picture that made you want to go back upstairs and see the entire show all over again and think about the many meanings that could go along with it. It reiterated for me the fact that one single piece of art can hold within itself not only multiple meanings, but an entire world of experiences and events.
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