George Tooker

American, 1907–1977

The Helping Hand, 1920–2011

Egg tempera and watercolor on paper

3 ½ x 2 ¾ inches

Signed lower left

Painting at a time when the Abstract Expressionists held sway, Tooker developed a singular style that remains difficult to categorize. Rejecting labels such as Surrealist or Magic Realist, he said, “I am after reality—painting impressed on the mind so hard that it recurs as a dream.” Following his parents’ wishes, Tooker attended Phillips Academy and Harvard University before enlisting in the Marine Corps’ officer candidate school. After a few months he was discharged on medical grounds and began to study at the Art Students League in New York. There, he was introduced to painting with egg tempera. The medium—quick drying and difficult to change once applied—suited Tooker’s contemplative nature.

In The Helping Hand, the disembodied depiction of a soft-skinned hand opened against a precise patterned background contributes to the work’s strange sensibility. The white shirt cuff and a jacket sleeve suggest that the so-called “helping hand” is that of a businessman. These details raise the question of Tooker’s intent: did he truly believe a capitalist society would take care of its own, or did he think the idea itself was a kind of sleight of hand?