Coney Island of the Mind: George Tooker at DC Moore Gallery

'Subway' (1950) by George Tooker.

Claustrophobia isn’t quite the right word when the tunnels go on forever. Using the endless and endlessly unwelcoming tiled surfaces of the New York City underground, George Tooker’s painting Subway gets at a dread that seems, despite its broad resonance, particular to the year in which it was painted, 1950.

A woman in a red dress under a blue trench coat stands lost and paralyzed between a high turnstile that cages in more than it leads out and the uncanny metal bannisters of another staircase leading down. Behind her shoulders are two incarnations of Cold War paranoia, staring men in fedoras, identical except for the color of their trench coats, buttoned to the throat. (One is brown, but the other is tan.) More trench coats appear in shallow alcoves in the wall and extending into the background. The angle at which the tunnels meet makes for a fish-eye panorama, but the perspective squeezes the other way, so that the composition blurs and trembles. The woman holds a large, mannish hand to her abdomen; there’s nothing to do but trudge on.

Mr. Tooker, who was born in New York in 1920, died in March, and DC Moore Gallery has mounted a memorial show that includes, among other loans, Subway, his most famous painting, borrowed from the Whitney Museum.   Mr. Tooker adopted egg tempera as his primary medium while studying at the Art Students League in the 1940’s. The luminous opacity of tempera is precisely appropriate to his work at both its best and its worst: when his work succeeds, it aspires, like an ikon, to be looked not into but through. When it fails, it flirts with the narcissism of self-effacement, using the language of spiritual yearning to show a world colored by unconfronted psychological traumas.

In 1948, Mr. Tooker found religion on the beach. In the heavy foreground of Coney Island—hidden under the shadow of the boardwalk—a handsome swimsuit Jesus reclines against a red cushion. (He isn’t dead—he’s only sleeping.) His warmly glowing skin is equally informed by the Renaissance, the artist-employing Works Progress Administration and homoerotics. A cornflower Mary in a pale blue swimsuit leans over him tenderly, while behind his head, playing Joseph and the younger Mary as elements of a naturalistic annunciation, are a shirtless man standing watch and his young wife, pulling on a dress over her head. A heavy woman in a pink swimsuit and blue wimple, Saint Anne, sits cross-legged at the bather’s feet. Further away but more brightly lit, at the bottom of the wooden steps that lead down from the walkway raised over the sacred swimmer, half-naked men, women and children run and play in the sand. A muscular man in red briefs leans back to throw a baseball; the catcher is out of sight. Minuscule in the distance, in the middle of the sky, a man who’s jumped off the end of the pier extends his arms in cruciform.

Much later in life, after the death of his longtime companion, Mr. Tooker, who was raised as an Episcopalian, began practicing as a Catholic and painted a large altarpiece for a church near his home in Vermont.

The dome-shaped birdwatchers again puts God between the viewer and the painting’s depths, this time in the form of lithe and delicate little birds in the branches of a tree in Central Park. The leader of a party of birdwatchers, a man in coat and scarf, spreads his hands in reverent wonder. Behind them, rendered with a pretty, late-Medieval artificiality, rises an enormous boulder. But behind the boulder, pathways extend under bridges, open to the sky but no less confining than the tunnels of Subway. The world of the painter, the world of the viewer and even the world depicted are all equally constrained—the only freedom is on the surface. It may be the freedom of the mysterious meeting, across time and place, of artist and viewer, or of spirit and flesh—but it may simply be the sensual escape that the artist himself found in the act of painting.

In 1960, Mr. Tooker moved to rural Vermont, and while he continued using simple allegorical scenes (DC Moore describes them as “without traditional narrative content”), most of the paintings that postdate Coney Island, Birdwatchers and Subway are closely focused on the interior. A few simple colors alternate like the notes of a pentatonic scale. Faces and heads become more phallic or neanderthal, less distinct from one another; edges close in; you think of a child pouring all his attention into a fantasy to shut out a larger and more dangerous world.

In Embrace of Peace, a man and a woman reach for each other from either end of a long canvas. Her sleeves are a sunlit Byzantine red. Behind them is a crowd of couples embracing, but those embraces have nothing to do with their own. In Moonrise, Mr. Tooker turns his attention to a more personal meeting of the sacred and profane. Two men peer out from under an orange and yellow blanket at a rolling green field; blue hills recede toward a darkening sky under a rising white moon. Their bed is the world and the world, full of wonder, is their bed.

  Coney Island of the Mind: George Tooker at DC Moore Gallery