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Cars, highways, and isolation in Postwar America

George Tooker's painting "Highway" portrays the isolation and frustration of individuals in cars during the 1950s. The painting reflects the societal shift from urban to suburban life, driven by the rise of automobiles. Despite the prosperity and technological advancements of the post-war era, Tooker presents a dystopian view, highlighting anxieties about the future. Created by Beth Harris, Smarthistory, and Steven Zucker.

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Video transcript

- [Steven] We're standing in the storage room in the Terra Foundation for American Art in Chicago looking at a painting that I find menacing. It's by an artist named George Tooker, called "Highway". It was painted in 1953 when transportation was changing in the U.S. - [Peter] The painting centers on the automobile. It is coming into prominence in the late 40s and early 50s. More people are buying automobiles. As we see in the picture, they're driving them as individuals, these aren't car pools, these are isolated individuals behind the wheels of these stylized automobiles. - [Steven] And each of those individuals give me a sense of their isolation, that they're in these machines that become extensions of their own frustration. - [Peter] I think we associate the automobile with the ideal of the open road, but Tooker has done a great job of shutting that down. Notice how our eyes can't penetrate beyond the signage, beyond the cars themselves or the blockades behind the cars. We can't see into the distance. There is no open road here. - [Steven] It's as if we're seated in an automobile and we can't see over those tiger stripes, we can only just make out the top of a brick building perhaps some oil tanks. - [Peter] Given that none of the figures are really looking at one another. The large standing figure directing traffic appears to be halting the cars coming towards us and also holding up his red sign blocking our view of his head, but also blocking our movement, presumably. He's the only individual standing outside and we are being addressed as viewers who are inside an automobile. - [Steven] I love the way the artist has transformed these cars into almost snarling animals. You mentioned the red sign, the reflector reminds me of the eye of an insect. So everything feels dehumanized. - [Peter] The reflective surfaces of the man's red sign are technology that emerged with the highway itself. Not only do these signs block the flow of information, they give off another kind of information, bouncing back to a driver, the shine of his or her headlights. - [Steven] This was the post-war era. The United States had been instrumental in victories in Europe and the Pacific and Eisenhower had just come into office. The country was experiencing real economic prosperity and the growth of the automobile is an expression of that. - [Peter] The automobile becomes a symbol for post-war wealth, prosperity and what historians have called an atomization of American culture in that so many new technologies that came out of the war whether it be improvements to the automobile, to the transistor radio, to the television, all were intended to individualize viewers. It appealed to them on an individual as well as a mass basis. - [Steven] It's interesting to me that the highway that we're on is elevated, so the streets are below us and the pedestrians are below us. This is segregated. It's a reminder of what the automobile made possible: the growth of the suburbs and a transition from urban to suburban life. - [Peter] While the highways would give drivers new vistas, new ways of viewing the landscape as they moved through it it also produced disjunctive views, partial views. - And that couldn't be made more clear than the artist's decision to completely obscure the face of the man who's directing traffic. This painting, which is relatively small, is painted with such minute strokes that I can barely make out the hand of the artist. - [Peter] Tooker painted this in egg tempera. I think the choice of medium is interesting. This is the moment of abstract expressionism and this painting could not be further from an abstract expressionist canvas. - [Steven] Everything in this painting is man made. There are no natural forms. The highway surface, the signs, the clothing and even the unhealthy light in the sky. - [Peter] This is a dystopian view and in this moment in the early 1950s there's great promise in America. The United States emerged from World War II as a true world power, so there was great hope for the future. But already, even in the early part of the 1950s there were fears, there were anxieties about where this technological culture would take us. These concerns, these anxieties were generated by the ubiquity of televisions, of advertisement, of periodicals and magazines, the television set, the radio and so forth. These technologies had great promise to bring us together as a nation, but they had alarming potential to divide us. So I think it really speaks to a culture that is at a crossroads, looking back to a more social face to face world and looking forward to a more technologically driven society in which we communicate through various media and we see the world around us through the television, through the windshield of our automobile and across highway lanes.