Cars, highways, and isolation in Postwar America

George Tooker, Highway

George Tooker, Highway, 1953, egg tempera on gesso hardboard, 58.1 x 45.4 cm (Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1992.134 © Estate of George Tooker). Speakers: Peter John Brownlee, Curator, Terra Foundation of American Art, and Dr. Steven Zucker

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Tooker, Highway

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Key points

  • The post-World War II era was a period of economic prosperity and growth in America. The automobile came to be a symbol for postwar wealth, and the dream of the open road was joined with the construction of new interstate highways.
  • While technological advances such as the automobile and television had the capability to bring people together, they were also new products that facilitated individual, rather than communal, experiences. Some people considered these innovations a threat to American culture, as people were divided and isolated by these new products.
  • George Tooker’s Highway presents a dystopian vision, with a dehumanized, unnatural landscape populated with menacing machines and isolated people. He blocks the viewer’s vision, instead confronting them with an elevated highway that seems to go nowhere.

Go deeper

This painting at the Terra Foundation for American Art

Read more about postwar suburbanization

Read about the dark side of postwar suburbanization

The cultural impact of the Interstate Highway System

Read George Tooker’s obituary in the New York Times, which contains an extensive biography

Hear conceptual artist Josephine Meckseper discuss George Tooker’s Government Bureau

More to think about

The video discussion of George Tooker’s Highway describes anxieties around how American culture following World War II became centered around individual rather than community experiences. How would you compare those anxieties to concerns about modern American culture? What might today’s version of this painting look like?

Explore the diverse history of the United States through its art. Seeing America is funded by the Terra Foundation for American Art and the Alice L. Walton Foundation.