R.I.P. George Tooker:
George Tooker, who died yesterday at 90 and painted and exhibited right up to the end of his life, was known for one painting, The Subway (1950), deemed the perfect summation of modern urban alienation. Other examples of artists known by just one painting immediately come to mind (try it, it's fun): Gericault's Raft of the Medusa, Robert Indiana's Love, Grant Wood's American Gothic. If you are known for two paintings, such as Leonardo, then you are home free and curiosity from the general public about the rest of your work can continue.
There is a bit of give with Gainsborough's Blue Boy and Whistler's Mother, because enough is known about the rest of their work generally not to confine these artists to the tyranny of one work. Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase is home free, because no one has ever heard of it (I described it to someone just the other day). So the question is begged: if you were an artist, would you rather be known, everywhere, for just one painting, than not to be famously known at all? In the art world, of course, a certain work can define an artist, and perhaps it is no coincidence that these examples are by women: Judy Chicago's The Dinner Party and Jay Defeo's The Rose. But to the wider world the raison d'êtres for the one painting syndrome are diverse.
In the case of Tooker's Subway, for example, you may not have known the name of the artist, but you have seen the picture, reproduced in a thousand books of all varieties, and buttressed in its time by bestsellers like David Riesman's "The Lonely Crowd" which underscored the universality of its alienated message. Love conversely, while assumptively universal as a sentiment, is known for its graphic convertibility into all sorts of uses, while American Gothic is a wellspring for ageless satire.
But there is something deeper and that is the fact that we can only behold and think about one painting at a time and thus, in a sense, yearn for a masterpiece spiritually. I have been reading the memoirs of Fyodor Dostoevsky's second wife Anna this week (and, boy, did they have a tough life: debts, family spongers, secret police surveillance, infant mortality, you name it). Theirs was a love match, and, on their wedding day, the thing that concerned the happy couple the most was presenting the right icon at the ceremony. It was the parading of the icon that would guarantee a blessed union.
And thus we come back to Tooker's Subway: its function is iconic and something happened between artist and canvas with this particular painting that strived for and met a Platonic ideal of what a painting should be. There are far meaner reasons to be recognized by posterity and most of us will have none at all. So, thank you, George Tooker, you made your way into our souls.
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).