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Hopper’s Polluted Silence

Edward Hopper and the American Imagination 22–October 15

an exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, June

Edward Hopper and the American Imagination

catalog of the exhibition by Deborah Lyons, by Adam D. Weinberg. edited by Julie Grau, with contributions by fourteen others
Norton/Whitney Museum of Art, 252 pp., $39.95; $25.00 (paper)

Edward Hopper: The Art and the Artist

by Gail Levin
Norton/Whitney Museum of Art, 304 pp., $35.00 (paper)

Edward Hopper’s New England

by Carl Little
Pomegranate Artbooks/a Chameleon book, unpaged pp., $21.95

Hopper

by Mark Strand
Ecco, 65 pp., $21.00; $12.00 (paper)

Edward Hopper: A Catalogue Raisonné

edited by Gail Levin
Norton, 1006 pp., $600.00 (three hardcover volumes and a fourth volume on CD-ROM)

The exhibition “Edward Hopper and the American Imagination,” at the Whitney Museum of American Art, consists of two shows, really: there is a splendid one of fifty-nine of Hopper’s best paintings—canvases calm, silent, stoic, luminous, classic—and then there is another, wrapped around it like an engulfing predator, meant to represent “the American Imagination.” This nebulous excrescence can be heard, while one walks along the elegantly diagonal partitions of the third-floor exhibit space, as the unintelligible voice-over and sudden musical flare-ups of a three-screen video show relating Hopper’s imagery to contemporary movies, photography, and art, and it can be read, in the form of large-writ wall mottoes from such exemplary Yankee scribes as Emerson, Frost, and E. B. White.

The thick catalog holds, in addition to reproductions of Hopper’s paintings and several curatorial essays, thirteen pieces of poetry and prose we are to take, Whitney Director David A. Ross states in his foreword, as “a response to and an extension of the exhibition.” Five of these literary contributions—by Leonard Michaels, Ann Beattie, Ann Lauterbach, Tess Gallagher, and John Hollander—are dated 1995 and are more or less about Hopper; at least, they mention him. The eight others date from a while ago—a story by Norman Mailer goes back to 1940, a poem by Thom Gunn to 1971, a piece of a novel by William Kennedy to 1979—and relate to Hopper only through being, presumably, “Hopperesque.”

Well, Hopper’s spell is by now so widely cast, and his portraits of American moments feel so pervasively faithful, that most any prose not by Robert James Waller (and even that, come to think of it) can be considered Hopperesque. What the pages of fiction by Mailer, James Salter, and Grace Paley more distinctly seem is Hemingwayesque—stripped-down in style, lethal in atmosphere. The contributions by Paul Auster, Walter Mosley, and William Kennedy bring a magic-realist touch to low life, and even the poems, by Gunn and Galway Kinnell, seem to arise from the bleak territory staked out by Hemingway’s Nick Adams stories.

One puzzles at the literary emphasis upon the bottom end of the social scale—murderers in Mosley and Paley, bums in Auster and Kennedy, violence in Kennedy and Mailer, nearstarvation in Mailer and Auster—as if Hopper were a Gorky in paint, with John Sloan’s and George Bellows’s and George Luks’s generous love of the urban masses. Hopper did paint a man in shirt sleeves (Sunday, 1926) and a stripper (Girlie Show, 1941), but most of his transfixed, isolated figures seem middle-class. His city streets are the opposite of thronged; his rural landscapes can be stark, but poverty is not one of the issues they raise. If the desire was to locate a literary equivalent of Hopper’s mood, the early short stories of John O’Hara would have come closer—snapshots of a gritty, up-against-it Thirties world, whose inhabitants yet convey possibilities of poetry and dignity. Even such a close match would mostly show us the gulf between the two modes of artistic expression, and how tempting yet misguided it is to marry the two.

Hopper himself put the temptation there. A devoted reader and theatergoer, he seems in his paintings to be on the verge of telling a story; the curtain goes up, in Room in New York (1932) or Hotel Lobby (1943) or Summer Evening (1947), on an intriguing tableau. Dramatic tension is in the air. The lighted restaurant in Nighthawks (1942), the sunstruck house front in High Noon (1949), the lit porch in Summer Evening suggest stage sets, making us conscious of our spectatorship and curious about past and future action. Yet attempts to spell out the drama, as in Ann Beattie’s inventive, good-humored “Cape Cod Evening” in this catalog, or in Joyce Carol Oates’s recent imagining (in the anthology Transforming Vision: Writers on Art* ) of interior monologues for the couple in Nighthawks, however lively as fiction, are projections that slide off the painting, leaving it just where it hangs. Hopper could have elaborated the anecdotal content of his scenes, and in a few late instances—Hotel Window (1955), Excursion into Philosophy (1959)—a decipherable pathos draws uncomfortably near. But in his prime he never gives the tale away; the faces remain proudly blank, and tension and longing are present ambiguously. Hopper had read Freud; his canvases are models of therapeutic reserve. If the narrative content were not submerged but brought to a humorous or touching point, we would have a period magazine cover—wry for The New Yorker, cozy for The Saturday Evening Post—which would win our momentary response and then vanish as a painting, the way all but a few Rockwells vanish. In Four Lane Road (1956), the woman has her mouth open but her mood remains mysterious, as does the impervious attitude of the man presumably her husband. There is something close to comedy in their attitudes, and in the doubling, through the windows, of the gas-pump head. But the painting does not clinch any of these hints, and its abstract pattern remains free to affect us while we puzzle.

Of the many pieces of writing stimulated by Hopper, none is more coolly and eerily attentive (more Hopperesque, we could say) than Mark Strand’s brilliant small book Hopper, showing how we are moved and disquieted by formal elements in the paintings—isosceles triangles tapering to points beyond the canvas, light sources themselves out of sight, specifics of spectator vantage which give rise to sensations of exclusion, of travel or stagnation, of intimacy or its lack. Strand imports, perhaps, his own darkness and nihilism into a formulation like this one:

Hopper’s paintings are not vacancies in a rich ongoingness. They are all that can be gleaned from a vacancy that is shaded not so much by the events of a life lived as by the time before life and the time after. The shadow of dark hangs over them, making whatever narratives we construct around them seem sentimental and beside the point.

But he articulates the scarcely sayable in a description like this, of Hopper’s Sun in an Empty Room (1963):

Done in 1963, it is Hopper’s last great painting, a vision of the world without us; not merely a place that excludes us, but a place emptied of us. The light, now a faded yellow against sepia-toned walls, seems to be enacting the last stages of its transience, its own stark narrative coming to a close.

Hopper’s silence is like that of an old-time public library; twelve of the fifty-nine canvases displayed here show a person in the act of reading. In the catalog, all five writers who actually deal with Hopper are rewarded with illuminating phrases. Ann Lauterbach, scattering words down the page, comes upon “the spirit’s pragmatic example/all that is air melts into objects.” John Hollander evokes “the inexhaustible flatness of painted/Room, of what we stand before.” Tess Gallagher indicts Hopper’s “nearly criminal/sunlight, so white it drives out yellow.” Ann Beattie lets us know that in the Thirties “Cape Cod was emptiness and working people.” And Leonard Michaels, in his affectionate prose riff, offers the sociological observations that “there used to be silence, solitude, and thinking. … There used to be plenty of time. There used to be day and night. … There used to be privacy.” Michaels provocatively pairs Hopper with Wallace Stevens: “two philosophical artists with a sensuous eye, committed to monolithic marriages. They loved French culture, and were self-mocking fellows who saw themselves as comedians, and were fascinated by silence and ghostly presences.”

Both were burly, taciturn fellows who liked to mull the world into its essentials; comfortably born into conservative nineteenth-century towns (Nyack, New York; Reading, Pennsylvania), they were haunted by philosophy and the Ideal. Hopper, who generally discouraged attempts to “read into” his paintings, did joke, of the troubled-appearing man in Excursion into Philosophy, “He has been reading Plato rather late in life.” A woman with an exposed bottom sleeps beside him, and he may be merely pondering the pain of relationships that do not remain Platonic in the sexual sense. But a quest for Platonic archetypes, for the ultimate forms behind each house and cloud and tree, does seem to simplify and ennoble the shapes in a Hopper. In masterly landscapes like Cobb’s Barn and Distant Houses (1930–1933) and Lighthouse Hill (1927), a thrilling absoluteness sweeps in along with the deep shadows carved by the low sun. Unlike the stylized, patriotic landscapes of Thomas Hart Benton and Grant Wood, there is no toylike smoothness and regularity here, yet light and air are given a crystalline firmness; one cannot imagine a single brushstroke other than it is, including the pale hooks of cirrus cloud next to the lighthouse. In this show’s Lee Shore (1941) and in many of Hopper’s other marine paintings we have, in his silky, serried wavelets, less the look of the sea than an idea of the sea, set between, in Lee Shore, a green idea of grass and a pale-blue, cloud-brushed idea of the sky. His skies, perhaps because they can be seen everywhere, remained the best-observed feature of his landscapes.

Hopper, in the early 1920s, as he was turning forty, gave up outdoor easel painting and became a studio painter, constructing paintings from carefully annotated Conté crayon sketches made on the spot. His career, since youth, as an illustrator, and then, in the very early Twenties, as an etcher, prepared him to break with the plein-air approach that Impressionism had made central to the art of painting. His three visits to Paris and Europe, between 1906 and 1910, produced canvases in a subdued and chunky version of Impressionism, and the ten years thereafter were chiefly productive of on-site landscapes executed, with considerable verve and impasto, on Cape Ann and in Maine. He was a slow bloomer; he did not marry until 1924, at the age of forty-two, and that year also brought his first one-man show in a commercial gallery. The show, of Maine watercolors, sold out, and he at last felt able to give up illustration and concentrate on painting.

Gail Levin, in her catalog text for the Whitney’s great Hopper retrospective in 1980, pegs his arrival at artistic maturity to the year 1925 and his by now iconic House by the Railroad. Some might have chosen the little Girl at Sewing Machine of about 1921 (not in the current show). In both canvases, the theme of sunlit solitariness has been found, along with the mature Hopper technique—precise but not edgy draughtsmanship, large planes of fairly flat color, and a way of laying on paint that, without hiding the brushstrokes, tends toward thin layers, sometimes scraped so that the canvas weave shows through. Up close, Hoppers seem less solid—more transparent and scrubby—than the reproductions make them appear. In 1962, at the age of eighty, he said, “I think I’m still an impressionist.”

Professor Levin—whose twenty years of absorption in Edward Hopper bear double fruit, this year, in a three-volume catalogue raisonné, with CD-ROM, and a six-hundred-page “intimate” biography to be published by Knopf in October—feels that after this arrival “few significant changes occurred in Hopper’s art or in his life. … Hence, unlike most artists, Hopper’s work cannot easily be divided into early, middle, and late periods.” In conformity with this opinion, Hopper’s mature paintings are grouped, in the 1980 catalog, by theme rather than period, and in the present show are arranged, loosely, by affinity rather than date. Yet this viewer noticed how often, when he checked the date of an especially admirable work, it came from the decade after 1925. To the two above-mentioned landscapes—full of plein-air immediacy as well as formal rigor—and the superb Room in New York add Drug Store (1927), Automat (1927), Captain Upton’s House (1927), Night Windows (1928), Manhattan Bridge Loop (1928), Chop Suey (1929), Railroad Sunset (1929), the exceedingly iconic Early Sunday Morning (1930), South Truro Church (1930), Hotel Room (1931), House at Dusk (1935), and Shakespeare at Dusk (1935).

As examples of picture-making (as opposed to stage-setting), they have a venturesome vivacity and fullness of color. Shakespeare at Dusk is a Manhattan Monet, the violet of the paths palpably registering the intervening volume of darkening air. Even in a basically factual report like South Truro Church, Hopper searches out the dully vibrant tones on the church’s shadow side, and takes time with the various green and brown tints of ground cover. Railroad Sunset is almost lurid; but its melodrama arises from a purely atmospheric blaze and is tamed by the strict parallel between the linear clouds and the glimmering railroad tracks. Manhattan Bridge Loop—the product, photographs show, of considerable manipulation of the actual scene—strikes an exquisite series of echoes and balances in the service of an utterly nondescript piece of city. Drug Store, with its highly legible Ex-Lax advertisement and uncannily empty sidewalks, has the startling directness of Pop Art: a new thing had been brought into painting’s universe.

Among the scenes of urban life, Chop Suey blends overlapping crowdedness with the static calm of the sunlit tabletop and the two cloche-hatted young women, who both seem to be listening. Hopper’s young females in these paintings are not yet aware of their poignance. The woman in the large, ambitious Hotel Room has scarcely a face; she is entirely given over to the light on her shoulders and thighs and the framing rectangles of flat colors. Gail Levin observed Richard Diebenkorn studying this painting at the 1980 Hopper retrospective, and one can fancy a kinship between its concentric rectangles and the sunny rectilinear abstractions of the California painter’s Ocean Park series. The immense frontal simplicity of Early Sunday Morning (a brick row on Seventh Avenue becomes the very symbol of small-town quiet) returns in Hopper’s work five years later as the haunting window rows of House at Dusk, backed not by blank sky but menacing treemass, beneath a sky the same glowing yellow-green as the lit windows. A relatively unsuccessful painting of the period, Barber Shop (1931), displays, in its repeated diagonals, its slashes of blank wall and oddly furry brass rail, and its bisected clock-face, the interest in tightly organized composition that earned Hopper the (unreciprocated) respect of the Abstract Expressionists.

The paintings of the next decade, which include some of his most famous—New York Movie (1939), Cape Cod Evening (1939), Gas (1940), Nighthawks (1942)—subtly turn more illustrative, more deliberately moody. The solitary girl bravely waiting on the apartment-house steps in Summertime (1943) seems to know she is being watched, unlike the pensive heroine of Automat. With her thigh blooming pink through her gossamer dress, she belongs with the lush street girls of Reginald Marsh, rolling their fierce bodies through the urban gridwork in confidence of a destination. (How much more erotic, I was led to reflect, thin summer dresses are than today’s athletic shorts and halters! Old summertime New York was a harem in clinging gossamer.)

The human presences in Hopper’s later work become more disquieting, more plainly disturbances within the peace of blank walls and half-shaded windows. Their faces have a worried and worried-at sharpness; one wishes, after seeing Morning in a City (1944), Morning Sun (1952), and A Woman in the Sun (1961) in succession, that Hopper had broken his possessive wife’s interdict against his painting any nudes but herself and found himself a model with a softer, more pleasing visage than the formidable Josephine Nivison Hopper’s. Yet Morning Sun is a great painting, Jo’s pugnacious profile reduced to a mask, her flesh and chemise a beautiful blend of the pale green on the wall at her back and the gentle red of the brick row she sees through the window. Western Motel (1957), featuring a woman we have not met before, is fine also, so cold and clean and minimally furnished that we can feel the air-conditioning, as the Fifties highway motel replaces the Thirties inner-city hotel; we see here Hopper’s realism becoming Estes’s photorealism, icily precise but not unfriendly.

Hopper’s colors became cooler and chalkier as he aged; the warm brick-and plush-reds of his New York paintings receded. Another Western painting, People in the Sun (1960), is almost comically unreal—unreal in the Thirties-style street clothes of the fully garbed sunbathers, unreal in the un-Hopperesque absence of any architectural definition of their porch or platform, unreal in the appliqué-like strips of generalized desert landscape. It has no atmosphere but psychological atmosphere: the people, dressed for a luncheon party, seem to be on the deck of a boat without a glimpse of water and, placed all on the left side of the canvas, appear to be sliding toward the sun.

In Second Story Sunlight, from the same year, the white gables and tall windows and ominous tree-mass are less surreal but feel cardboard-thin, slipped up as a setting for the two actresses, the gray-haired matron and the well-endowed bathing beauty. From their dreaming gazes they might be versions of the same woman, the older remembering the younger as the painter is remembering them both. Now in his late seventies, the old conjurer is calling up images with hardly a glance out the window. Chair Car (1965) shows not a fleck of scenery through the big glass panes, and its interior, without racks or a door handle and as high-ceilinged as a little chapel, might have been painted by a man who never rode a train. But Hopper for forty years has been doing more than giving the visual news. Gail Levin’s essay on Hopper’s “legacy for artists” quotes the sculptor George Segal as saying, “What I like about Hopper is how far poetically he went, away from the real world.”

He paid a price for this poetic voyaging. Hopper’s colors, mixed from notes taken on the spot, are elementary, as unrelievedly local as those of a Renaissance fresco. His preliminary sketches in pencil or Conté crayon often have an anatomical rightness and an electric, deep-shadowed singleness of impression which have leaked away in the finished painting: see, in the 1980 catalog, the sketches for Morning in a City, Morning Sun, Conference at Night, and New York Office. The painting New York Movie—one of his most telling and beloved pieces of pictorial theater—swallows in its shadows several fine pencil studies of movie-viewers seen from behind, and gives us a golden-haired usherette, in strapped high heels and a pseudo-military uniform, much more glamorous than the dowdy girl he carefully sketched.

Though he detested the made-to-order dramatics of magazine illustration, his illustrator’s skills served him well in the realm of high art. In Hopper’s youth the line between high art and illustration was a fine one, repeatedly crossed by the American Realists from whom he learned his craft. One of his notable teachers at the New York School of Art, Robert Henri, said, “Low art is just telling things, as, there is the night. High art gives the feel of night. The latter is nearer reality although the former is a copy.” Carl Little, in his modest but handsome volume of 1993, Hopper’s New England, aptly quotes Wallace Stevens: “Reality is not what it is. It consists of the many realities which it can be made into.”

Without turning to an inner reality, Hopper could not have created Hoppers. They give us back a now-historic world with its automats and empty roads and gilded movie palaces preserved by a still-potent intimacy. While the centrally housed video unignorably droned and shuffled its iconography of “American imagination,” Hopper’s quite personal silence spoke. Having stood before each of the fifty-nine canvases displayed at the Whitney, this viewer, at the elevator door, had an impulse to run back in again, as at some lovelorn parting, and make the encounter yield a final word torn from the depths of what Henry James might have termed “the so beautifully unsaid.”

  1. *

    Selected and introduced by Edward Hirsch (Little, Brown, in conjunction with the Art Institute of Chicago, 1994).

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