Size: 47 x 92.7 cm
Medium - Tempera on Composition Board
Currently displayed - At the Whitney Museum of American Art
The Subway is the best known of the figurative paintings George Tooker made in response to the social injustices and isolation of postwar urban society. The central female figure is shown looking anxiously to her right and clutching her abdomen, surrounded by a series of anonymous, somewhat sinister looking figures. In The Subway, Tooker created several vanishing points and sophisticated modeling to create an imagined world that is presented in a familiar urban setting. While the central figure wears a red dress, the surrounding figures are all shown in varying shades of beige, brown and blue. The figures are almost all men. Each figure appears psychologically estranged, despite being physically close to the others at the station.
This painting illuminates the feeling of isolation and alienation of modern, urban life, which is a theme that is omnipresent. The background figures seem to look at the central woman from the corners of their eyes or from around corners, adding an element of paranoia to the painting. The maze-like depiction of the subway adds to this sentiment, presenting it almost as a complex prison in which the central figure is trapped.
The Subway thus becomes a metaphor for the imprisonment of urban society, to which we are all subject. Gender identity and the risks associated with femininity are both central to this piece. American art historian Michael Brooks states that the color contrasts between the male and female figures "echo the traditional symbols of passion and sanctity, and the woman uses her hand to protect her womb against the threatening messages of the men around her." The woman is thus pictured as sexualized and vulnerable - insulated and fearful in public amidst the threatening male influences around her. As Tooker remarked, he chose the subway as the setting for this painting because it represented "a denial of the senses and a negation of life itself."