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 and 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


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…

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