Please wait

The Dark Side of Modern Life

Made in 1950 with egg tempera paint, George Tooker’s The Subway, takes as its subject the alienating effects of modern life. The central figure in the painting is a middle-aged woman with short, graying hair, cut and curled in the style of the 1950s. Her facial expression is ambiguous, suggesting fear, anxiety, physical pain, and depression. The artist depicts her midstride, her right hand on her stomach and her left arm hanging limply by her side as she walks toward an unseen destination. Tooker emphasizes the woman’s position in the middle of the work by his use of color. She wears a bright red dress, whereas her surroundings are dull and neutral.  The viewer’s eye is also drawn to the woman because of the positioning of other figures in the painting and because the walls and railings of the subway create a fanlike effect around her.  The only other female figures in the painting are either in the distance or are only partly visible.

The men in the painting are ominous, threatening figures who lurk in the background. They wear long coats, identical except for their muted brown, fawn or blue colors. Some of the men peer surreptitiously at the woman from behind a row of booths, while others stare at her with cold, hard faces from under their hats as they pass by. Two men stand behind her and are both dressed in business-like trench coats and shoes. Their rimmed hats cast shadows on their wincing eyes. One is moving left, away from the woman and the other is moving right. The man on the right is only seen in profile, while the man on the left is largely obscured by the woman’s body. The positioning of these two figures heighten the impression that although the woman is in a public space, she seems hemmed in and under threat. None of the men seem friendly. Rather, they look like the walking dead, or zombies, so it is no wonder that the woman is scared.

Just as the positioning, color, and facial expressions of figures in the painting suggest a dark side to modern life, so too does Tooker’s choice of subject matter: a subway station.  This location emphasizes feelings of alienation, as any New York subway passenger knows.  Subways are labyrinthine and almost prison-like, with low ceilings and barred areas. Tooker accentuates this effect by removing all signs from the subway station of his imagination, so that a person who is lost might never find his or her way out. Subways teem with people who do not know each other, but have close contact with one another by necessity. The subway is a modern invention, so it is likely that Tooker is making a statement about contemporary lifestyle: everyone is the same and we put ourselves in a prison of our own making. His message may be more specifically related to the United States. The woman wears red and blue, which might symbolize the desperate desire of American women in the 1950s to be modern and independent, while they were still very vulnerable to men’s power,both physically and economically.

The Subway holds a very dark message, and it has a strong impact on me because I live in New York City and take the subway every day.  Sometimes I try to blur all the people around me into one person because I don’t have the time or energy to think about them. There are times when I have felt threatened and intimidated on the subway, such as when men stare or try to get uncomfortably close to me.  I also get tired of riding the subway because it is so dirty and slow. This work of art makes me think about my subway ride and my life in the city. It leads me to ask myself this question: Am I paranoid or is this place really dangerous?

A story inspired by The Subway:

“There will be no more A trains going Uptown. Please transfer to the C at Chambers Street if you want to go uptown,” said the nasal voice from a microphone. Penelope sighed. She was going to have to get off of the train at the next stop, something she did not want to do. She was tired and stressed out. She was already very late for dinner. Her husband could not get home later than her. When the train reached Chambers Street, she ran as fast as her tired, old legs would let her. She ran through the long subway corridor and pushed past the anonymous figures in front of her. When she got to the end of the hall, she realized that she had no idea where she was going. There were no signs in sight. She was lost. At that moment, she became overwhelmingly embarrassed. Was everyone looking at her? She could not tell. The dim lighting and shadowed faces of the man in the same space as her began to terrify her. She felt very dizzy, as if she might faint. She could not ask anyone for help. She did not trust these people. “Why am I here? Where am I,” she thought, as a wave of terror flooded her body.

By Vita

George Tooker, The Subway, 1950  50.23
George Tooker, The Subway, 1950. Egg tempera on composition board, 18 1/8 × 36 1/8 in. (46 x 91.8 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; purchase with funds from the Juliana Force Purchase Award  50.23
© George Tooker

A story inspired by The Subway:

“There will be no more A trains going uptown. Please transfer to the C at Chambers Street if you want to go uptown,” said the nasal voice from a microphone. Penelope sighed. She was going to have to get off of the train at the next stop, something she did not want to do. She was tired and stressed out. She was already very late for dinner. Her husband could not get home later than her. When the train reached Chambers Street, she ran as fast as her tired, old legs would let her. She ran through the long subway corridor and pushed past the anonymous figures in front of her. When she reached the end of the hall, she realized that she had no idea where she was going. There were no signs in sight. She was lost. At that moment, Penelope became overwhelmingly embarrassed. Was everyone looking at her? She could not tell. The dim lighting and shadowed face of the man in the same space began to terrify her. She felt very dizzy, as if she might faint. She could not ask anyone for help. She did not trust these people. “Why am I here? Where am I,” she thought, as a wave of terror flooded her body.

By Vita