Summer of Surrealism

“Painting is an attempt to come to terms with life,” wrote painter George Tooker. But what did “life” look like when Tooker was painting? The 1940s and 1950s are often remembered in American art history as the period that led to the rise of Abstract Expressionism. Yet, at the same time, artists like Tooker, Alton Pickens and Henry Koerner, explored, in very figurative ways, topics such as the aftermath of World War II, the beginning of the atomic age, but also new leisure time in the ‘golden age’ of capitalism.

These artworks are varied in color palettes and execution, but one common thread is clear between all three artists: something is off. As you spend time looking through this new online exhibition, notice the odd proportions, weird perspectives, surprising juxtapositions and enigmatic details. Soon you’ll realize that, as KoernerPickens and Tooker were “[coming] to terms with life, ” they embraced Realist techniques to analyze contemporary times, as well as the complexities of the human psyche. We also invite you to observe the influence of Magic Realism, Psychological Realism and Surrealism, a movement too often associated with Europe only and that can be defined as “a 20th-century avant-garde movement in art and literature which sought to release the creative potential of the unconscious mind, for example by the irrational juxtaposition of images.”

While our previous online exhibition, “Tomorrow’s Stars,” explored the legacy of Edith Halpert and the dialogue between Jacob Lawrence and Charles Sheeler’s oeuvres, this new exhibition, “Summer of Surrealism,” feels incredibly contemporary. Seventy years after these works were created, our semblance of normalcy has been thrown to the wayside. We can’t help but notice the parallels between the three artists’ lives, and their art, to the world today during these uncertain times.

With that, it’s no surprise that ARTnews recently listed Surrealism’s rise on the market as one of the “18 trends that will move the art world forward.” Welcome to our “Summer of Surrealism!”


Surrealism and Psychological Realism: Available Works

“Realism is a problematic concept,” curator Melissa Wolfe writes. “While many may perhaps most readily understand experience and the narrative of our lives and relationships through conjuring visual memories of people and events, humans are equally bound to an inner, intangible but equally “real” world that we draw upon to construct meaning.”

Like the greater Surrealist artistic movement, Psychological Realism takes the mind as its subject and explores our inner realities, capturing the plethora of moods, thought patterns and acute anxieties one experiences. While diverse in subject, works by Koerner, Pickens and Tooker are linked due to their ability to veritably recreate singular emotional states. They also, at times , borrow elements from  Magic Realism which, in a MoMA catalogue from 1943, is defined as “a term sometimes applied to the work of painters who by means of an exact realist technique try to make plausible and convincing their improbable, dreamlike or fantastic visions” by Alfred H. Barr Jr.  “Doing so,” according to Wolfe, “requires that the tight link between form and content, upon which visual verisimilitude depends, be pushed or intruded upon—whether so slightly as to be easily overlooked or so insistently as to destroy nearly all visual coherence.” 

In the section below, we look at three available masterpieces that investigate reality and its limits:

Painting of boaters and rowers passing under an iron bridge on a river.
Henry Koerner
The River, 1949
Oil on masonite
30 x 36 inches

An Austrian refugee in the days before World War II, Koerner (1915-1991) was a master of Magic Realism, a style that proliferated in the United States during the 1940s among a small and vibrant group of American artists. “The River” belongs to an important series of works painted by Koerner between 1949-1950.

While the visual reality and subject matter of “The River" could fit easily into the American Scene genre, the work possesses an underlying layer of irrationality, suggesting that all is not as it seems. The canvas is arranged in horizontal lines, dividing the image into three separate worlds: the burly rowing team in the background, taking orders from the shouting coxswain and coach on the bridge; the water bicyclist in the center; and the amorous young couple in the rowboat in the foreground.

Koerner underscores the disconnected nature of the scenes in the disparate presentation of scale and movement. The coxswain appears particularly tiny compared to the large bicyclist, while the yelling in the background seems to have no effect on the serenity in the foreground. Together, these elements create an overarching sense of mystery and intrigue.

Henry Koerner lived a life marked by war and loss but also tremendous success and acclaim, and we’ve published several articles about his career over the years. On Boos Knows, read five essential facts to know about the artist who created over twenty covers for TIME Magazine or an interview with Koerner’s son, Dr. Joseph Leo Koerner, who recently directed a documentary following his father’s footsteps in his hometown of Vienna, Austria. Below, we look at the work of one of his contemporaries, Alton Pickens.

Alton Pickens image of an acrobat
Alton Pickens
The Acrobat, 1947
Oil on canvas
49 3/4 x 34 inches
Signed and dated lower left

Born in Seattle, Washington, Pickens (1917-1991) spent part of his childhood in Germany and was inspired by its culture and art, particularly the German old master painters. He abandoned his formal artistic education upon moving to New York City, but would frequent the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the city's cultural institutions to study their masterworks. The 1940s were a prolific period for Pickens, as he gained wider exposure in the New York art scene through major exhibitions at both the Met and the Museum of Modern Art. MoMA included eight of Pickens' works in the seminal Fourteen Americans exhibition in 1946.

Pickens' oeuvre is full of political and moral ciphers. Building off of the artist's fascination with carnival and performance, "The Acrobat" depicts a circus acrobat perilously walking tightrope on what appear to be his hands. Upon closer inspection, however, we see that this is merely an illusion - the performer conceals his head with a sheet, places a mask between his legs, and wears footwear resembling hands to convince viewers of his daring feat. Pickens' disorienting illusion shakes what we know about the world and underscores the failures of human perception and reason.

If the acrobat can be seen as a performer doing his job (albeit through sleight of hand), he can also viewed as a stand in for the everyman navigating the tightrope of modern life. According to a 1977 exhibition catalogue from Vassar Collage, the work "is an apprehensible parable of man's fate in the Atomic Age. A blind-folded, topsy-turvy tightrope walker balances on one foot, which is globed in an image of an X-rayed hand. That Pickens was referring to the more baleful effects of radiation may be surmised from his article in the October 1947 issue of the Magazine of Art, entitled “There Are No Artists in Hiroshima.” [1]

Men diving off of a pier into the ocean.
George Tooker
Divers, 1952
Egg tempera on gesso panel
12 x 18 inches
Signed upper right

Tooker’s work often focused on his immediate surroundings in New York—storefronts, architectural details, colored lighting, and everyday encounters with people - in an effort to challenge the era's restrictive moral codes. In the late 1940s, Tooker (1920-2011) began a small group of beach paintings, which largely draw from childhood memories on Long Island. "Divers" depicts a self portrait of the artist during his adolescence. The angles of the figures, including Tooker's own inability to fit into the frame of the ladder, reflect the joy and awkwardness of one's teenage years. The two figures ungracefully diving into the water nod to the myth of Icarus, an idealistic youth who flew too close to the sun.

According to scholar Thomas H. Garver: “[Divers] is also the most stylized of the beach paintings. The highlights of sun on the water are schematic rather than illusionistic renderings, stressing form and pattern. The figures plunging from the dock into the water—more flopping than diving—are devoid of fluid motion, yet they epitomize the repetitive study of the single semi-nude figure from different angles that so fascinated Tooker at this time. Notice too the construction of the dock, particularly the right side, in which space is funneled away from the picture plane, a device rarely used by Tooker.” [2]


Masters of Realism: Works Sold by the Gallery Over the Years

All three artists utilized the tenets of Realism in their artistic explorations. Koerner and Pickens captured the smallest details, such as the texture of leaves in summer or folds of clothing on a moving figure, while Tooker’s sharp linework also led to his association with the emerging Photorealism movement. [4]  

We are proud to have sold many notable works by these artists. In the section below, we look at how they mastered truthfully rendering the physical world around them in order to go a step further and dive into the psychological. Spend some time looking at the details with us: 

This work by Henry Koerner depicts two women with kids under a train overpass
Henry Koerner
Under the Overpass, 1949
Oil on masonite
30 x 36 inches
Signed on the reverse

Henry Koerner fled Vienna in 1938, leaving his family behind. When he returned in 1946 (after serving in the US Army) he discovered that his entire family had been killed during the Holocaust. His paintings often conveyed his sense of great loss—most poignantly through the use of contradictory themes and imagery and often with his parents as subjects, as in the present painting.

Here two mothers and their children meet in a park in late summer. Despite the brightly colored depiction, there is an underlying sense of sadness and uneasiness. One of the women, presumably Koerner’s mother, is crying. Above her looms a bridge, and across it travels a train carrying shadowy figures. Scale distortions and flattened perspective give the work a dreamlike quality, but Koerner’s meticulous technique makes the scene believable.

“Under the Overpass” is an exceptional example of the artist’s use of his personal iconography, paradox, and symbolism and his mastery of composition and color. Koerner created it during the period in which he enjoyed his greatest success. In 1947 he had his first solo exhibition in Berlin and received immediate acclaim and comparisons to Brueghel, Goya, and Dix. His first solo American exhibition in 1948 at Midtown Galleries was also a great success. The works created by Koerner during this time addressed questions of good and evil, death and rebirth, the ephemeral and the spiritual—all of which were highly relevant in the postwar years.

“Under the Overpass” is a notable sale by Jonathan Boos.

"I cannot paint reality for what it pretends to be or for what I think it should be…I attempt to capture the warping of the truth and the fiction into one schismatic reality often constituting only a strange ritual of manners, real but senseless. Underlying all is the consciousness that each new hour verifies another intangible – the feeling of imminence and threat that pursues the life of any sentient man.”

Alton Pickens [3]
A surrealist work with figures falling off of chairs.
Alton Pickens
The Send-Off, 1950
Oil on canvas
53 1/2 x 44 inches
Signed and dated upper left

"The Send-Off" is set underneath a wooden staircase, with three figures that appear to float in space. At left, a man in a vibrant yellow suit precariously supports himself atop a bright wooden caned chair, of which a similar design appears in Pickens’ painting, "Carnival," in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art. The man seems to communicate with the suited figure below, who sits crouched at the base of the stairs. A third figure floats above, with only his bare legs and feet visible.

Despite the mysterious scenario and surrealistic effects, "The Send-Off" reveals Pickens as a masterful painter of realism. Look closely at the figures' clothes: Pickens captures the unique folds in the men's suits as they move across the canvas, as well as the piping on the man in yellow's socks, criss-cross pattern of his shoe laces and intricate patterning on his comrade's pink suit. Even with the work's tilted perspective, the lattice design on the seat of the chair is rendered almost photographically. Pickens' attention to light and shadow, as well as the exacting details of the hands and feet of the figures, belies his careful study of the Old Masters.

"The Send-Off" is a notable sale by Jonathan Boos.

This work by Henry Koerner depicts men fishing and a woman emerging from the ocean
Henry Koerner
The Sea, 1949
Oil on masonite
30 x 38 inches
Signed and dated lower left

By his own accounts, Koerner's principal artistic device was juxtaposition - the unexpected, ominous, enigmatic placement of figures together in a single scene. [5] In "The Sea," the artist presents a decidedly unsettling scene of a naked woman, wrapped in a towel, emerging from the water as a congregation of well-dressed men continue to fish on the pier above her. Like Pickens in "The Send-Off," the subject of Koerner's work feels surreal, largely because the reason behind the action - in this case why woman is in the water, in Pickens' case what is making the figures lunge so dramatically - is unclear.

What makes the work more uneasy is the veracity with which it is depicted. The drapery of the men's overcoats and the woman's towel are true-to-life, as is the glassy appearance of the water.

Koerner's work "The Sea" is a notable sale by Jonathan Boos.


Dive into the Human Psyche

Koerner, Pickens and Tooker, along with a collection of other artists working within the tenets of  psychological realism, illustrated the uncertain nature of contemporary times and their impact of man’s psychology. Through disassociated imagery, experimentation with perspective and visual juxtapositions, these artists capture our deepest emotions, subconscious fears and more in a way otherwise impossible. 

Below, we highlight a few of the surreal works that we’ve had the pleasure to deal in. 

This work by George Tooker depicts a hand over black, red and yellow stripes
George Tooker
The Helping Hand
Egg tempera and watercolor on paper
3 ½ x 2 ¾ inches
Signed lower left

“I am after reality—painting impressed on the mind so hard that it recurs as a dream,” Tooker once proclaimed. [6] Painting at a time when the Abstract Expressionists held sway, George Tooker developed a singular style that remains difficult to categorize. He also eschewed categorization, rejecting the labels of Surrealism and Magical Realism in his depiction of the particulars of contemporary life. Tooker was introduced to painting with egg tempera while studying at the Art Students League in New York; the medium — quick drying and difficult to change once applied — suited his contemplative nature and became his go-to.

What kind of help is this carefully-rendered hand offering? The disembodied depiction of a soft-skinned hand opened against a precise patterned background in "The Helping Hand" 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?

"The Helping Hand" is a notable sale by Jonathan Boos.

Green and pink artwork showing a character standing under roses and looking at other characters playing sports
Henry Koerner
Rose Arbor, 1947
Oil on masonite
28 x 35 inches

After World War II, Koerner returned to his home in Vienna in 1946, only to learn that his entire family had been killed in the Holocaust. He later explained that "Rose Arbor" was one of seven paintings executed after his return from Europe. According to Koerner, the painting was based on “images that formed themselves through the juxtaposition of having lived in the ruins of Europe and coming back to America … Vienna, Berlin (Harnackhouse tennis court), and Far Rockaway [in New York].” With its stark division of those inside and outside the posh tennis court, "Rose Arbor" captures the psychological anguish of not only being irrevocably stripped from one's home, but watching it change from afar.

Koerner’s 1948 solo exhibition in Berlin was the first exhibition by an American artist in post-war Germany and received immediate acclaim. His first solo American exhibition in 1948, featuring “Rose Arbor” and a selection of works from the Berlin show, was also met with great success. The Museum of Modern Art then acquired “Rose Arbor” for its collection, where it remained until 2008.

This is a notable sale by Jonathan Boos.

Thank you for joining us for our second virtual exhibition! We hope “Summer of Surrealism” has left you with something new to consider and cannot wait to welcome you to the Gallery in person soon.


[1] “Alton Pickens: Paintings, Prints, Sculpture.” Exhibition catalogue. Vassar College Art Gallery. Poughkeepskie, New York. 1977. 

[2]Thomas H. Garver, George Tooker. Pomegranate Artbooks, 1992, p. 74.

[3] Alton Pickens, “There Are No Artists in Hiroshima,” Magazine of Art 40, no. 6. October 1947: 236.

[4] Thomas H. Garver, George Tooker. Pomegranate Artbooks, 1992.

[5] Joseph Koerner, “Henry Koerner, The River, 1948–49,” unpublished essay, July 2019, Jonathan Boos.

[6] George Tooker, quoted in Seldon Rodman, Conversations with Artists. New York: Devin-Adair, 1957, p. 209.