Painting with egg tempera, he kept alive the tradition of figurative painting when his contemporaries were turning to Abstract Expressionism. His paintings on show can be very broadly divided into two categories: works of social criticism, and figures in landscape or in some other framing device. The former made him famous when his claustrophobic painting "Subway"(1950) was exhibited at the Whitney and bought by that same museum. In that painting, commuters, looking lost and furtive, wandered round the corridors and stairs of a subway station.
In "Government Bureaucracy" (1956), official eyes surveyed citizens through holes in the frosted glass of service counters. These social paintings are primarily interesting for their striking use of repetitive patterns: the steel bars caging the bank tellers, the cubicles in an anonymous office, the white beds in a morgue-like hospital ward, the narrow lunch tables in a diner. The repetitions suggest powerfully the alienation of modern life, and the insidiousness of faceless bureaucracy.
That same compositional skill with repetitions is deployed, on a much more intimate scale, in paintings depicting human figures framed by a blue-tiled ledge or sitting on a deep red carpet. A few of these figure paintings were the most affecting works in the exhibition. I particularly liked "Windows VIII," in which we see a young shirtless black man, his head resting on his arms raised against the top of the window.
His Saint Sebastian pose is entirely appropriate since he is a portrait of Malcolm X. The lavender curtains on both sides of the window look like frail columns of a temple that a young Samson, imprisoned in invisible chains, could have pulled down. The figure is backlit in orange, whose effect is, surprisingly, not garish, but warm, and shows off Tooker's skill as a colorist.
This painting is a noble portrait, so much more subtle in its effects than another that shows Martin Luther King Jr., as Christ, breaking bread with two white men. The later figure paintings--pale imitations of Renaissance masters--lost the vocal flesh of "Windows VIII."