It has been a sad week for me personally, for CMA, and for the American art community. The painter George Tooker died at his home in Vermont this past Sunday. He was 90. The Museum owns two of George’s paintings, Cornice and Lunch, and in 2008 we co-organized a retrospective of his work with the National Academy Museum and the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. We are also incredibly proud of the fact that we joined with the Smithsonian American Art Museum to nominate him for a National Medal of Arts, one of the country’s most prestigious awards for the arts, which he received in 2007 (along with artist Andrew Wyeth).
When a museum has such a close connection to an artist, their passing is felt deeply. However, George’s work, like his life and his presence, gave voice to such eloquent and genuine advocacy against the effects of indifference and inequality that for me his loss is especially poignant. Though an incredibly quiet and private man, his actions and his art were nonetheless fiercely engaged in social change. In an interview with me, he described his Windows series, begun in the early 1950s, as “a challenge. I believed in racial intermarriage. And I wanted to paint about that.” Indeed, the works constitute an explicit challenge, though one characteristic of Tooker in its humanist approach. The paintings reveal through open windows interracial couples whose sensual, suffused beauty compel us to admire, and even desire, rather than reject the lovers’ intimacy. In explaining his and his partner William Christopher’s decision to travel to Selma, Alabama, in 1965 to participate in the memorial service for slain activist James Reeb, Tooker simply and plaintively stated that “Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., called for people to come to Selma, and we went. To march in Selma.”
Maybe to me the message in Tooker’s work that never fails to stop the mundane train of my own thoughts upon every viewing is the profound effect on each other we humans are capable of. The pain caused by benign neglect, the unsympathetic dismissal adults have for the feelings of children, the acute physical and emotional pain of grief. Or, on the other hand, the tender absorption of the way a man caresses his lover’s hair or the innocent curiosity of a boy peeking over the edge of a table. In these I am brought to pause at the beauty, the wonder and mystery, in the simple connection of one human to another and at the shame when it is denied. Tooker not only reminds me that compassion and regard reside at the basis of true community, whether of two or two million souls, but he also reminds me that painting can give profound and affective voice to this consequential truth.
M. Melissa Wolfe
Curator of American Art
Columbus Museum of Art