Podcast version of this post.
Familiar Yet Fresh
The Metropolitan Museum of Art describes George Tooker’s Government Bureau as “dark and pessimistic”. But I call it creepy. The painting combines a stark reality with an eerie existentialism. This makes it an artwork with strong emotions as well as deep thoughts. Neither pull us into the painting though. This masterpiece pushes us away a bit. It reminds us of humanity at its most boring. Yet it’s fascinating as well. There’s a push and a pull at work here. That’s the George Tooker special sauce.
He takes us to a familiar, yet whole new place in Government Bureau. If you’ve ever been to the DMV, Tooker’s setting may remind you of that visit. He gives the painting a drab, anonymous, vibe with replicated figure and setting details. The people in line dress the same.
Cubicles are each punctuated with a duplicate porthole. Sickly, sad, and exhausted faces stare out of circles cut into cloudy glass panes. The faces are the same except Tooker gives them to us in pairs. There are two side eyes and two frontal face views. These pairs are exact duplicates. We know that thanks to their hands. The side-eyed figures turn to type into a keypad on our left. While the front facing duo turn to our right and finger identical keypads.
Existential Life in Line
Tooker also gives us pairs in his figures waiting in line. The men wear identical, shapeless, tan coats. Two sets of paired women have matching, formless, outfits and heads. These figures lack character, or even identities; they could be cardboard cutouts or sci-fi clones. Government Bureau shows a banal, functional, world. The figures exist only in terms of what they are doing. Clerks type and clients wait. There’s nothing more to their existence. This existential state of being and nothingness tells us the meaning behind this masterpiece.
LadyKflo’s YouTube Summary
We know irony is at work when an intended meaning registers as the opposite. That’s why Government Bureau fits into Alanis Morrisette’s song Isn’t it Ironic? much better than rain on your wedding day. The painting fits that technical definition because it’s an existential painting. Existentialism points to human life as a meaningless experience. We get that bleak feeling from the figures standing in line like bored and ignored drones. The painting captures this moment in time. But it also points to a drudgery in reality that we all have to face.
George Tooker paints this using a realistic technique. He portrays the subjects as if they’re real. But Tooker also skews the perspective for how viewers see the overall scene. It reminds me of Kafka’s book Metamorphosis about life as a cockroach. We seem to check out this scene from a position on the floor, as if we’re Kafka’s roach. In the story, a man adjusts to life as an insect. Viewing Government Bureau also feels like an adjustment. We’re not accustomed to scenes from a floorbound point of view. This angle gives us an outsider perspective so the human figures seem like sad aliens.
Then the meaning of the painting kicks in from there. We’re the sad aliens. That’s us in the Government Bureau; dressed alike, waiting in line, and miserable. It’s only because the artist, Tooker, gave us his fresh pest perspective that we’re able to see how wretched our existence is. It’s ironic, that realizing how meaningless life can be serves as the underlying point of this painting. Tooker studied literature at Harvard before he pursued life as a painter. We can deduce from this masterpiece that he read his share of Kafka before picking up a paintbrush.
Government Bureau – FAQs
What is George Tooker known for?
An esteemed and award winning American painter, George Tooker is known for combining realism with juxtapositions and varying points of view. His works sometimes feel magical. Other Tooker paintings create an unnerving sense of unreality or even angst.
He’s also known for the social commentary within his artworks. His figurative paintings provide deep emotional resonance through tonality and point of view rather than with expressions on faces. The masterpiece, Government Bureau sets a perfect example of this in action.
What is existential art?
Existential art maintains the themes and subject matter of existential philosophy. These include the struggle of self determination and banality of everyday life.
Existentialism often points to humanity as lacking in true individualism or poignancy. Many artists have created works with this ideological message. Examples include George Tooker, Francis Bacon, and Paul Cézanne.
Enjoyed this analysis of Government Bureau?
Check out other LadyKflo essays about the work of LGBT painters.
George Tooker’s Obituary in the NY Times
Garver, Thomas H. (1992). George Tooker. New York: Chameleon Books, Inc.
George Tooker. David Tunkl Gallery, Los Angeles 1980. Text by Merry A. Foresta;
Government Bureau at the Met Museum online
George Tooker. Thomas Garver 1985 Imago: Creative Director Arnold Skolnick
“George Tooker”, by Robert Cozzolino, Marshall N. Price and M. Melissa Wolfe. Merrell Publishers Ltd. 2008, London and New York