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Hopper’s Theater

Edward Hopper

by Lloyd Goodrich
Abrams, 308 pp., $50.00

Three long, thin bands of cloud stretch out in soft gray-purple against a luminous sunset: the deep pink and gold sky dominates everything for the land beneath is gently rolling, inclined to flatness with a low horizon line, and filled with intense shadows cast by that penultimate moment of sunset when even grass turns a livid and somber color. Fading light glints on a metal railroad track cleaving its way across the empty landscape. There are no trees or signs of human activity. In this bleak stillness, the only opposition to the wide horizontal lines of railroad track, horizon, and distant cloud is the gaunt, vertical structure of a signal box rearing up, with its top story etched sharp against the hectic sky, its base merging into the shadowed bank of the landscape. Close by the signal box, in the foreground, is a short post lost in the gathering dusk; on the far side of the track, a tall pole cuts the sky with its signal plaques down. The scene is richly mournful, and ominous: that wild sunset is about to lose its brilliance at any second, the light will soon depart and you, the onlooker, will be alone.

This scene could only have been painted by the American artist Edward Hopper. In their ordinariness, the ingredients are peculiar to the industrialized urban world of the twentieth century; but Hopper’s use of them is unique because no other artist of comparable stature has employed them so single-mindedly as the dramatis personae of a painting, without abstract metamorphosis into metaphysical, decorative, or surrealist props. Hopper’s achievement in painting Railroad Sunset (1929) is all the more remarkable for having trapped a sensation as well as a scene familiar to people throughout the Western world. The locale in the painting is American, possibly Maine or Cape Cod, but the atmosphere of desolation created by Hopper as well as the sense of ominousness in the approach of night in a deserted place are part of contemporary experience itself. Hopper was more than a recorder: at his best, he was an inspired stage director who could take a cliché situation from city or country life, almost like a snapshot, and revitalize it by special focus.

Hopper’s tenacious and passionate sobriety as an observer of the American city, the countryside, and those forlorn intermediary vistas of semi-urbanized regions is the subject of a huge new picture book with extended notes on Hopper’s life and work by his friend and scrupulous interpreter, Lloyd Goodrich. Hopper died in 1967, two years after a fine retrospective at the Whitney Museum; part of his large bequest was shown at the Whitney this year and is now circulating among other museums in the US. The third in a series of volumes, similar in format, devoted to American artists (Wyeth and Rockwell have appeared so far), the book succeeds in giving a very good idea of Hopper’s art through the sheer number and scale of the reproductions, though the color plates are often far from the fidelity that one might hope for. The text is useful, as far as it goes: factual and warmly partisan; but many questions are left unanswered and paradoxes that arise from Hopper’s curious situation in modern art are largely ignored.

Except one, which Mr. Goodrich partially acknowledges:

Hopper’s early paintings had displayed the technical facility and free brushwork typical of Henri’s students. Fortunately, he did not carry this ability further; instead of becoming more facile with the years, he became more sober…. Some paintings, or passages in them, show actual awkwardness or heavy-handedness, disregard of technical refinements. Textures do not have much variation; sometimes the forms seem made of more or less the same substance. There is little sensuous appeal in the pigment and its handling.

This observation is accurate. But is it not also paradoxical that an artist whose life was dedicated to painting the physical reality of innumerable substances should have had so little feeling for their specific identities in surface texture? Everything in a Hopper painting looks like water-color brush marks or brushwork with oil pigment: only the characteristic color of objects, light, and rudimentary indications of the simpler signs of texture convey the essential differences between the skin of a woman sitting on a bed and the bed itself, or, in the same painting (Morning Sun, 1952), the tactile changes from the interior walls of the room to a row of chimney stacks seen at an angle through the open window.

Although everything in a Hopper painting is paint first and last, with little attempt at elaborate illusion, the paint itself acts in a conventional and usually rather dull way. Uninteresting in its own right and barely functional in descriptive tasks, Hopper’s application of paint is far from impressive as an academic exercise. Yet everyone who enjoys Hopper doesn’t care about the absence of fine painting, and his admirers include many people who normally care a great deal about this aesthetic element, usually so integrally related to what is described abstractly or figuratively.

With Hopper, what counts is the total impact of a clear image seen as an unambiguous solid presence identified through mass and contour, open or closed space, color, drawing, tonal modeling, and above all an insistent structure behind the composition. The planes and angles of a typical Hopper composition seem prosaic enough but are consistently dramatic. The drama comes from the way a scene is ruthlessly bisected by the edge of a house or the corner of a room, or through people in isolation being placed inside the “frame” of a doorway or a window, or nearly touching some other compositional foil. Hopper was a compulsive dramatist, and a stage director who loaded the structure of his scenes and packed the tension tighter by using light as a dramatic agency to emphasize darkness.

Three reasons may account for the fact that Hopper, who was clearly self-aware as an artist, increasingly suppressed any personal expressiveness from the surfaces of his paintings. First and second, he may have grown to mistrust the flashily bravura, debased-Manet style of painting he inherited from his teacher, Robert Henri, at about the same time as he also became aware of personal weaknesses in his own drawing and a certain general coarseness in his abilities as an executant largely conditioned by early years spent in commercial art, a dangerous apprenticeship from which a shallow and easy knowingness can flow into the reflexes of one’s hand and wrist.

Third, in avoiding both pitfalls, Hopper may have found it suited his innately puritan disposition to restrain the indulgence of a “personal” handling of paint in favor of an impersonal anonymity of surface. This would be compatible with Hopper’s puritanical impatience with the refinements necessary in handling impasto to establish the infinitely variable textures of what he perceived, remembered, and wanted to record. He was concerned with the drama and structural tension of a situation, like the cinema usherette in her floppy pajama uniform leaning in bored reverie against the wall in New York Movie (1939), or a scene like the famous Early Sunday Morning (1930), whose row of blank shop façades, fire hydrant, and striped barber’s pole recently graced the covers of Manhattan telephone directories. A workmanlike competence in applying paint to canvas was enough.

Hopper’s solution is not without precedents in American art, from the early limners of the seventeenth century, whose clear pictorial signs, records of estates and gardens, and portraits have in common a lack of any really inspired technical competence and a self-effacing absorption with the objective and accurate depiction of a domestic compound or family group, through to Harnett in the nineteenth century and his meticulously arranged but impersonally executed still-life tableaux (also dramas). Impersonality of surface can become highly specialized, of course, as in the studied silkiness of Ad Reinhardt. But American art is often distinguished by a kind of throwaway, gritty, bare competence in the use of paint, a powerful and concentrated frugality of means which mistrusts European belle peinture and has its own authority.

As a painter with some Dutch forebears, Hopper had an unsentimental respect for physical reality with an acute and deliberate sense of time and place. You are continually aware in his paintings that it is early morning, or exactly noon, or evening or very late at night. The respect, of course, went only so far. Hopper was ruthless in the way he manipulated the scene structurally as well as the degree to which he fixed the lighting. Saying often that he had painted something “after the fact,” Hopper also made no bones about putting together separate sections of different studies to get the interior or the buildings that he wanted. In this, he exercised his freedom as an artist, broke free from mere topography and behaved as autocratically as the way in which he cast people, alone or together, as personages in some imagined play. Sometimes they even resemble dolls or the stiff wax models of clothing store windows, self-conscious in their studied “reality,” even if they usually appear in poses of extreme relaxation.

These lapses could be a remnant of Hopper’s commercial art days, but one senses a lack of interest in anything beyond generalized identity: strapping young girl in a summer dress dreaming at a cafeteria table; elegantly bored lady traveler sitting pensively by her luggage in a hotel lobby. There is much evidence that Hopper sometimes used himself and his wife as models or, more accurately I believe, cast them both in the requisite roles. His last painting, Bowing Out (1965), shows Hopper with his wife in theatrical costumes on a darkened stage. In a more emblematic way, Hopper made use of the features of American domestic architecture as a formal symbol of human aspirations and memories (in House by the Railroad, 1925, or The City, 1927).

Hopper was not Vermeer, however strong his sympathy for light in relation to physical solidity, and had no wish to be even if he had been able to float paint onto his canvases with the virtuosity of that great master. His painting technique derived from a point midway between Manet and the early Impressionists. He also admired Goya and Courbet. But Hopper was born in 1882, within a year of Manet’s death, and a decade after Mondrian’s birth in 1872. He ignored, mistrusted, or did not understand the entire modern movement toward abstraction from Mallarmé and the Symbolists onward, whether in literature or painting. The Cubist vision of flattened and simultaneous planes of reference did not impress him. He deplored what he considered abstract art’s evasion of the task of portraying the reality of the contemporary scene. But there are many realities and Hopper showed as much prejudice as hidebound adherents of abstract art reveal when they attack Hopper’s attitude but miss the point of his achievement.

Hopper’s views on abstract art were negative, but absolutely right for himself. Artists of any persuasion have to be rigid for they are peculiarly vulnerable: to embrace a viewpoint diametrically opposite to their own aesthetic beliefs would destroy their raison d’être. Artists have always been quick to point to aesthetic compromise, betrayal, or the decline of true principles. It is often a subjective exercise. But Hazlitt was right to compare West adversely to Raphael, and Yeats very understandably lamented the slippery descent from Titian to Sargent. The trouble now is to define reality: it is a case of every man for himself.

In going against the mainstream of twentieth-century art, Hopper made something that could have come into existence only in the twentieth century. This was only partly due to his adherence to everyday life around him: the drab motels and filling stations, the seedy urban architecture, and the lone-liness of city streets. It is these nostalgic ingredients that touch a chord in the awareness of many artists in different countries and of widely divergent generations, whose abstract work is so different from Hopper’s and who believe that one of the vital aspects of modern art is its freedom from nostalgia. Other representational artists may be anathema, but Hopper strikes home. What Hopper painted, however, is intensely American although the grim inflections of the life that it presents, as well as its outer trappings, are spreading steadily. Its appearance is recognized everywhere through movies and photography, and these popular arts are an important factor in Hopper’s work. His painting, his sense of composition and structure, would have been impossible without photography (and the automobile: many pictures by Hopper are like views caught through a car window).

Degas could not have painted or sculpted horses in full gallop without studying Muybridge’s photographs; artists have been affected by photography ever since its invention. But Hopper’s art, given its tendency to theatrical effect whether in the menacing dark woods of open landscape or in the blank streets of a city, is notably cinematic. The view from a high point, looking down, was used by the Impressionists referring back to Japanese prints as well as to photography; but Hopper’s figure at a lighted top story window at night, seen from no visible vantage point, comes from the movies, however unconsciously; the famous Night Hawks painting of three men and a woman in the tough, brightly lit oasis of an all-night diner is like a still from the film Winterset. It is this cinematic flavor that commends itself to many younger artists who find it also in the work of a surrealist, Magritte. If he clung to a tradition of painting that seems to many people exhausted, Hopper is still very much of this age through his subjects and the modern angles of vision he used as structure for his work.

He is also with us in his flair for projecting desolation and solitariness. The best known realism in twentieth-century art is without exception melancholic, tragic, or pathologically deformed. Morandi is not a joyous painter for all the innocence of his still lives; Balthus is convulsed by violence; Bacon takes sado-masochism and hysteria for granted; Bérard, Berman, and Tchelitchev are filled with sadness and pathos, and so are the blue, rose, and classical periods of Picasso; from Grosz to the vastly superior Lindner there is a savage view of life; the dreams of Spencer or Burra are uncomfortable or downright alarming; Albright, Wyeth, Shahn, Dickinson, Segal, Kienholtz…this depressing list may surprise those who clamor for good old healthy realism. Hopper belongs to this company.

Where he most emphatically does not belong, however, is in the company of Theodore Dreiser, Sherwood Anderson, Sinclair Lewis, John Dos Passos, Thomas Wolfe, and William Faulkner. Mr. Goodrich believes that he does, and groups these writers without further comment as a literary counterpart to what he terms the nativist movement in American painting of the 1920s and early 1930s. But surely Burchfield, a true if minor visual poet, has nothing to do with the revivalism of Thomas Hart Benton or the illustrative mannerism of Reginald Marsh, for example; and none of these or other artists referred to by Mr. Goodrich relates to the style, temper, and insights of Pylon, Sanctuary, or Light in August, or those, again so different, of Babbitt or Dodsworth. Faulkner and Lewis were certainly writing about the American experience but with creative intentions as different in their time as those of Melville and James in the nineteenth century.

The section of Goodrich’s book dealing so confusingly with national cultural issues is called “National Character in Art” and occupies one and a half pages. Oversimplified, it is also contradictory, for after recording that the decade of the 1920s “saw an unparalleled internationalism in the American art world, and specifically the strong influence of the School of Paris,” Mr. Goodrich goes on to say, “In the Twenties and early 1930s, the American scene school shared dominance of the art world with the social content school, and the trend toward abstraction was in temporary elipse.” So who won?

Hopper certainly cannot be compared with Dreiser, who was touched by pity as well as by moralizing and reforming rage. Hopper accepts, without comment, and commendably does not importune us or levy moral blackmail, like many other social realist painters; his still, self-entranced world is as far from the strenuous narratives and passionate social conscience of Dos Passos as it is from Faulkner’s sense of violation. The one slight point of contact with Hopper in the cinematic “camera eye” imagery of Dos Passos, in U.S.A., receives no attention. Distant precedents for Hopper in the contemporary realism of earlier American art are minimized or brushed aside. But Homer’s Prisoners from the Front, 1866, Eastman Johnson’s In the Fields, around 1880, or Anschutz’s Steelworkers: Noontime, also in the early 1880s, were hardly escapist in their day even if the superb Eakins must perhaps be treated as a more complex figure.

A final qualification, but an important one. Hopper painted approximately twenty-five to thirty haunting pictures which will take their sure place in American art. These paintings could be shown in any other country, for that matter, with justifiable pride. The value of this book is in assembling a large number of paintings and drawings for reference through reproduction. It is interesting to know that Hopper made thirty or forty drawn studies, for a particular interior with figures, and to see one or two of them as plates. But Hopper also made a large number of unexceptional paintings and many repetitive potboilers, especially in watercolor. The book makes no attempt to sort any of this out. If Hopper is best served by seeing him in relation to modern realist painting internationally, where he conforms to a prevalent dourness but stands his ground with easy dignity, and if the wretched word “realism” itself needs closer scrutiny in its innumerable connotations, then Hopper’s own reputation might also be clarified by sorting out the best in his work.

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