If you've spent any time over the past few years looking through the permanent collection galleries at the Columbus Museum of Art, you know the work of George Tooker. Though the museum owns only two of his paintings, they're nearly impossible not to notice and just as hard to forget.

If you've spent any time over the past few years looking through the permanent collection galleries at the Columbus Museum of Art, you know the work of George Tooker. Though the museum owns only two of his paintings, they're nearly impossible not to notice and just as hard to forget.

"Cornice" depicts a man literally staring into the abyss, gazing down from the ledge of a very tall building, and the look on his face suggests he doesn't know how he got there. "Lunch," from 1964, presents a still image of a quietly integrated lunch counter painted at a time when such counters hosted bloody race riots.

According to M. Melissa Wolfe, the museum's associate curator of American art, "Lunch" caught the eye of the director of the National Endowment for the Arts on a tour of the museum in 2006. That led to the museum nominating Tooker for the National Medal of Arts, the highest honor for artists in the country, which he won in 2007.

From there, a desire to launch a new retrospective of the artist's work while he'd still be able to participate turned into a collaboration between the museum, the National Academy Museum and the Pennsylvania Academy museum for a touring show, George Tooker: A Retrospective.

"The show was really instigated by our interest in continuing research and creating interest in an artist important to our collection that we feel deserves renewed attention," Wolfe explained.

In addition to presenting his most famous work, 1950's "Subway," the retrospective includes a number of preliminary drawings, each illustrating Tooker's exacting preparations.

Over six decades, the artist has produced parallel bodies of work, with the museum's holdings fitting alongside "Subway" in his "paintings of protest." These works of social realism are colored primarily by paranoia, but also by fear, menace and a sense of injustice. They speak for those who dared to embrace their homosexuality, as Tooker did, in the nightmarish "Children and Spastics" and for the anonymous cubicle worker in "Landscape with Figures."

Their hallmarks - an imposing use of perspective and geometric patterns, a feeling of being at once isolated and without privacy - come together most powerfully in "Subway."

On a rigidly segmented underground platform, the fears and other dark thoughts of a collection of strangers seem to flow into the central figure - clad in an alarm-red dress, pained, androgynous and larger than life.

The other side of Tooker's viewpoint shares with the protest paintings a concern for humanity and a haunting intensity, but they have a decidedly more optimistic view of our nature.

Included in these are a series of "window paintings" made while Tooker was living in a Brooklyn brownstone with life partner William Christopher. They add an innocent eroticism, with the perfect bodies of couples, mostly interracial, revealing themselves with a pull of the curtain.

Where the denizens of a work like "Lunch" are lit by the cold glare of a fluorescent bulb, the soft figures in Tooker's celebrations of spiritual and interpersonal connections are cast in a warm light. They're brightened by lanterns, a vintage jukebox or the sun.

And even in his darker works, Tooker's medium provides luminosity: difficult, quick-drying egg tempera, a popular choice for the Renaissance painters he strongly admires.

Applying thin layers of pigment with thousands of strokes over the course of months, the artist creates an inner glow on canvas and an astounding appreciation of technique in those looking.

Befitting a painter so adept with paranoia, a feeling created and worked over by an individual's brain, Tooker has always left viewers to read what they will into his work.

"As he has asserted throughout his career, the paintings should have a mystery," explained Wolfe. After working with Tooker to select works and create a documentary for the exhibition, however, she came away with a strong opinion of her own.

"He's one of the most genuine people I've ever met, and his passion for the potential for change in the world is so clearly a profound, driving idea for him," she said."It puts all our jaded pessimism to shame, really."