Frontera Digital“Edward Hopper’s New York” at the Whitney Museum of Art

“Edward Hopper’s New York” at the Whitney Museum of Art

Edward Hopper (1882-1967) was born in Nyack, a small town about an hour away from New York City, on the western side of the Hudson River. He became America’s most famous, and likely its most accomplished, realist artist of the previous century. Although he lived long enough to see and experience the extraordinary innovations of 20th-century modernism, he remained faithful to a figurative outlook, made poetic by images emphasizing solitude and a melancholic mood.

Much of his work takes place in twilight and night in New York City (he lived there, in Washington Square Park, for decades)); consider the famous Nighthawks (1942), a study of four people in a diner late at night, seen through a large plate-glass window. The interior is brightly lit, but outside the shop darkness fills the street. This work, not extensively desolate, nonetheless attends to one of the artist’s major themes: the persistence of people surviving not only the loneliness of a great city, but also the isolation affecting people at night, or simply generally in life. In Gas (1940), another lyric statement of remoteness, a man attends to the foremost of three red gas pumps. On the right, a small building, the gas station’s office, sheds light on the pumps and the tall illuminated sign rising behind them. An asphalt road, just beyond the gas station on the left, extends to the right, past a line of evergreens. The trees stand alone; their muted green emphasizes the twilight and a feeling of tacit retreat.

Above the trees is a slate blue sky, its light emphasized by the suggestion of a setting sun’s aftermath, as the day slowly passes into night. The encroaching darkness emphasizes the isolation of the man at the gas pumps, turning the composition melancholic, even otherworldly. The aura of an unspoken sadness is Hopper’s forte: combination of conventional realism and an atmospheric poetry illustrate, in oblique fashion hidden, our slow path toward life’s end. Hopper was an acute observer of city life–its effect on people, its large industrial buildings looming over concrete. But, in a deeper sense, he was interested in capturing the poetry of the moment, as it occurred in urban life. The pathos of urban indifference became an ongoing theme. It is difficult to capture the passing of time, or pay attention to its effect on people’s lives. Yet, inevitably, Hopper’s metaphysical suggestions enter into view. Time is not a visible entity, even as it slowly wears away our surroundings. Inevitably, then, helped by Hopper’s recondite melancholy, we start to see the days as steps toward an abeyance that will turn permanent.

The great 19th century writer Walt Whitman has long been America’s leading poet; he caught America’s strength as a democracy before our imperial drive took over. Hopper has become our most recognized realist. Many contemporary poets in America admire Hopper as an artist whose visual settings match the vulnerability attending New York City, Hopper’s ambience is hard to describe, but it suggests a detachment caused by our inability to make meaningful connections. Hopper’s art restores a depth not only describing but also opposing the psychic dislocations of metropolitan life. This perception is evident in most of the painter’s works; it matters little whether his painting buildings or people.. He illustrates the pathos of contemporary living. And while Hopper mostly paints ordinary people, it is wrong to call him a populist. The rendering of class was not part of his goal; people from all walks of life interested him.

Hopper painted atmosphere remarkably well. That atmosphere was framed by an awareness of the passage of hours.  Often the realism Hopper practices is relatively straightforward in an emotional sense; things are the way they seem. Yet, for many, Hopper attains a profundity larger than description. He tends to rely on an indirect symbolism, which is conveyed by descriptive structure: the weight of buildings, the posture of people. This results in strong emotion. His feeling for things, for the random encounters we experience on the streets, in restaurants, at theaters, are direct, even simple. But the feelings are always present. always, His images indicate a quiet understanding of the hidden life of things, which are most likely puzzles that challenge and also color our perception. Perhaps his lyricism results from a mistrust of the obvious–even if the obvious is the vehicle carrying much of his art. An air of sadness permeates Hopper’s people, often surrounded by a near darkness emphasizing their withdrawal from what we know, even perhaps from themselves. We start to understand why his figures’ tend to stay apart from others, but it happens regularly. In the painter’s hands, psychology gives way to a ghostly metaphysics, an understanding beyond our reach

Indeed, the unspoken subject of Hopper’s oeuvre, in addition to homes and industrial structures, appears to be a sense of imminence, of moments massing into a statement of helplessness in the face of borrowed time. Most everything is unspoke, outside direct explanation. There are times in art when the image presages more than its description, just as heavy clouds can presage rain. Despite Hopper’s presentations of daily life, he communicates strong feeling for what lies beneath common themes. So it happens that his conventional subject matter masks discernment of larger themes. His mood makes it clear that something else, something larger than the usual, encompasses our daily existence.  Emotions are diffused through ordinary things, but a sense of transcendence prevails. Hopper’s undertaking even transforms buildings into manifestations of hidden understanding.The past and present cling like a mist to even the most humble of activities, and the future is outside our knowledge. This is essentially a melancholic judgment, but it is also one that is joined firmly to the poetic. We must catch the moment on the sly as it passes us. If we do not, then our lives remain merely habitual.

Hopper was wonderfully gifted at catching the out-ot-the-way parts of the city. In Manhattan Bridge (1925-26), a distinct view of the bridge comes into play.  Using watercolor and pencil on paper, Hopper produced a stunning study of the bridge, which curves across in a slate-blue span starting in the middle of the composition, crossing the East River, and ending on the upper right. The bridge’s long, steel, rope-like supports extend from the tower behind it, following the structure to keep it suspended. The other major construction is a brown house-like warehouse, perhaps a container for coal, occurring  with two shoots facing the road just in front of it. In the painting’s middle section, we see the East River, and on the other side of the bridge we come to a low skyline of red and tan buildings. The painting is a marvelous version of a New York we won’t see again; the wooden carts, seen on the road in the foreground indicate a time when horses were still used for transporting good, while the coal shutes also speak of an earlier time. We can comment that not only is Hopper considerable in skills as a fine artist, he also acts as a historian–someone determined to record the places, buildings, and industrial structures of his time. He lived in a less complicated city than New York is now, at a time when industry was rudimentary enough to be handled almost as if it were a lyric form.

But Hopper didn’t always focus on the monumental. Drug store (1927) depicts a pharmacy on the corner, lit from within and by a globe just outside the entrance, whose light falls on the sidewalk (a single pole supports the triangular entrance to the store). The rest of the street is swathed in shadow; one can see on the right faint impressions of buildings and the façades of wlndows. At the top of the store, one finds painted letters announcing “Silbers Pharmacy,” while beneath it, on the pane glass window, in its upper part, we see the words “Prescriptions,” “Drugs” and “Ex-Lax.” In the window itself is a presentation of blue gift boxes and, behind them, three colored curtains. Hopper was interested in all aspects of New York City–not only the evidently poetic, but also the pedestrian, made lyrical by his gift for ambience.

This scene, minor in its consideration of the city, is actually a brilliant recreation, via art, of a store providing necessary services at night. Like the view of the Manhattan Bridge from a service road, it is another study of a not widely known site, even though the pharmacy and the road are important to the workings of the city .Hopper often concentrated on the commonplace, investing it with a lyricism we might find hard today to give importance to because of the synthetic nature of industrial materials, and their impact on our lives. Part of the poetry we ascribe to Hopper’s art comes from a discordance in time–when he was painting, industrialism, in the form of constructed buildings was already strong, and gaining more in importance. Yet the city still made use of the work habits of an earlier era,\ for example, the horse-drawn wagons in Manhattan Bridge.

Today, we are seeing this show standing firmly in the 21st century, more than one hundred years after the establishment of cubism and the modernisms that followed. Hopper’s vision, occurring while such changes were developing, remains true to the figurative tradition. Although realism was alive and well in the mid- to later 19th century, and remains increasingly in practice today, it must nevertheless appear a bit antiquarian to people currently in art. How do we look at realism at this moment in time ? Its fate, the lack of interest it occasions, is determined more by what followed it than what preceded its practice. Realism of Hopper’s kind occurs at the end of the movement; we remember that the painter was not yet twenty in 1900. Yet then he lived until 1967, when Pop art had already begun, and intellectually driven movements, such as  minimalism and conceptual art, were growing important.

Generally, as time went on, fine art was turning more and more toward intellectualism and, often, a political stance. But, at the same time, 20th century realists included such figures as George Bellows, John Sloan, and Charles E. Burchfield. Like Hopper, these artists were determined to portray the world as it we see it.. Hopper  poured his energies into atmosphere and implied emotion, in contrast to the conceptually oriented art that dominated the art milieu at the time. It was not that he was a conventional artist; instead, he was an original artist working within a long tradition. Now that art practice has become so broad, Hopper’s oeuvre can look primarily historical, out of date with effort as we know them today. But an entirely historical reading of Hopper won’t do; the feeling we experience in his paintings are very much about humanity, across time. This makes his a current artist no matter when we look at his art.

It is not formal innovation that makes Hopper unusual; rather, it is his depth of emotion. Atmosphere is everything. In Early Sunday Morning (1930), a wonderful study of a two-story building extending the width of the painting, no one is present in the bright sunlight flooding the street. The upper storey consists of red brick, with windows spaced across it. On the first level we find a group of storefronts, most of them painted a metallic green. On the top is a thin band of cloudless blue sky, with a dark structure on the far right, while on the bottom of the work is a thin section of the street, with a fire hydrant on the left and a barbershop pole standing in front of one of the stores. The solitude of a Sunday morning cannot be better portrayed, and while the absence of people in a scene taken from the city is slightly quizzical, it points to Hopper’s penchant for a solitary mood. Inevitably, we expect from Hopper’s work a palpable loneliness, and this scenario depicts exactly that. The ambience of Hopper’s work is hard to describe; it is a mood, a tenor, that is better understood through feeling and intuition than words. But Hopper consistently draws his audience to the attention of unspoken wistfulness, which encompasses a wide, melancholic reach.

Given the consistency of moderate gloom in Hopper’s paintings, it is useful to discuss why he might have painted this way. His life seems to have been quite straightforward; he had a long marriage to Josephine Hopper, an American painter of note who studied under Robert Henri, a member of the Ashcan School. Perhaps the social and intellectual changes of the 20th century, radical in content, affected him, although his work and manner do not recognize such change. Today, Hopper is beloved both by American critics and the general public, who greatly admire his ability to render urban architecture and, more important, the feeling of desolation that can occur in New York City. This may be, more generally speaking, an experience of any city, but Hopper made his memorable investigations specific to New York. He painted at a time before the anonymity of high industrial technology had taken over. His buildings were made of brick, not some synthetic material. Hopper’s great strength lies in his ability to communicate more than the image itself, although he was good at rendering. We can say the effect is magical, although it also is imbued with a distress whose effects are very difficult to pinpoint.

Automat (1927) captures Hopper’s interest in people surrounded by emptiness. The automat, no longer found in New York, was a restaurant in which people chose their meal by placing coins in a slot, at which point a small window would open, allowing the customer to take the food. In this scene, a young woman in a floppy tan hat and jade blue coat sits over a cup of coffee at a round table. Behind her is a large plate of glass looking out toward the night, with two rows of light reflected in the upper part of the painting. To the left is the entrance to the restaurant; a small yellow radiator sits next to the door. The woman wears lipstick; her countenance is neutral, to the point of being meditative. Once again, Hopper captures the contemplative aura of both the person and her surroundings. He is illustrating an existential truth, affecting all of us–namely, that our musings, which most often remain private, become tacit acknowledgements of an earthly impermanence that permeates our thinking, whether conscious or not. Thus, each moment becomes a recognition of the ephemeral, the silent changes surrounding us, often presaging mortality.

In the critique of Hopper’s work, most writers tend to concentrate on content, mostly because the technical aspect of his art is quite good, but straightforward. What does the artist’s traditionalism mean in light of the extraordinary visual innovations that occurred in the 20th century? Does Hopper’s art look old-fashioned, merely historical, in light of current art practice? Is he merely attending to a style that was starting to fail even while he was working? Hopper’s meaningfulness must always be seen in light of his commitment to figuration, which enabled him to accurately record the life of the city and, more obliquely, the mood of the city and its inhabitants. He is a very American artist, arguably the best American realist of the 20th century. But, as I have argued, Hopper’s realism had a hidden content, moving him from the 19th century, in which he was born, into the 20th, given his ability to catch a time and ambience that was rapidly disappearing. He recorded the cusp of change. Today, our figurative art often has a slightly academic air, even when it is good. It is difficult to transform a thoroughly examined past into something new. Now, realism cannot easily compete with abstraction, work whose implications are strongly conceptual, or advances in technology that were not available when Hopper worked. This is true, but neither do we have to yield to the notion that Hopper’s art is antiquated. All outstanding art is never antiquated; instead, it is reflective of its time. Hopper did this wonderfully well.

Blackwell’s Island (1928), the final painting to be discussed in this review, is now called Roosevelt Island. The work is a beautiful combination of blue water in the foreground, mostly low, dark buildings on grass in the middle register, and above a light blue sky containing two columns of cirrus clouds. On the right, a small white boat travels over the water.
Some of the buildings look institutional; we remember that in earlier days, during Hopper’s time, the island housed prisons, asylums, and poorhouses (today it is a site for expensive apartments). There is nothing overtly sad about the scenario; indeed, the bright sky and water, along with the boat, give us a picture of pleasure. But the buildings, institutions of darkness, undercut the pleasantries of the scene; the darkness can be felt even if we don’t know the purpose of the buildings. Perhaps this is the hidden desolation of the painting, although it takes knowledge outside Hopper’s visual statement to determine the obscure implications of the view. America has a bad habit of sweeping away its troubles rather than addressing them, and Blackwell’s Island, however innocent it may seem, points to a site of deep human unhappiness. Hopper, a great student of kunspoken melancholy, may well be noting the troubles the island contained, despite the brilliant beauty of the day.

In most cultures, we have our art heroes–in the United States, Hopper is one of a few. His vision addresses a psychic helplessness in the face of our insignificance over time. Yet this attitude can be countered by a different outlook, in which the act of painting, its inherent inspiration, opposes the gloom of a constrained mood. We don’t often think of Hopper as a brilliant craftsman, although his abilities were certainly more than good enough. Instead, we see him as a chronicler of deep loss, even if its cause is unexplainable. It is hard to say whether the particulars of this distinctive atmosphere are American in nature; the more political among us might see it as a consequence of a capital economy. But, more truthfully, that would be pushing Hopper’s work in a direction it won’t really go. He was, more than most, someone who captured the isolation of life, the indifference of nightfall. He was entirely a poet rather than an activist. The sadness that permeates his meaningful art belongs to an understanding that our time is limited, and our relations with others distant even when seemingly close. This is a difficult principle to support without yielding to the sadness the artist describes so well. Hopper lives on as an American master because of his depth and his truth of feeling. He is one of the best artists we have.

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