It’s fitting that the two floors housing the exhibitions “Picasso and American Art” (reviewed in the issue of October 12) and “Edward Hopper: Highlights from the Collection” are adjacent. These shows typify two different trends of 20th century American art in response to the welter of European modernism: on the one hand, some artists sought to emulate, incorporate, or improve upon the profusion of European formalist experimentation exploding across the Atlantic; on the other hand, some artists, harking back to earlier American masters like Eakins, Homer, and Sargent, sought to deploy a basically realist manner in service of a variety of cultural, ideological, and aesthetic ends (Ashcan school, American scene painting, etc). If “Picasso and American Art” is a masterful compendium of the former, “Edward Hopper” is a preeminent exemplar of the latter. For this exhibition, heavyweight loans from MOMA, the Art Institute of Chicago, and a smattering of other museums supplement the Whitney’s already massive collection of Hoppers. The result is a show which includes virtually every significant work of the artist. No one should miss it.
Like his compatriots working in American scene painting, Hopper drew his subjects from the pedestrian topography of American life: hotel rooms, diners, gas-stations, streets of small-town shops, and the occasional spectral white house or big red barn. But unlike American scene paintings, Hopper’s works don’t exude the typical prefab nostalgia for old-timey America, nor are they awash in the picturesque glow that lights up all those white-bread towns full of cherubic youngsters and hale grandfathers. Yet neither are Hopper’s works consecrated to the plight of the worker, the factitious conditions of his immiseration, and his revolutionary vocation, as one would expect in Social Realism, which was the leftist version of American scene painting. Rather, his works feature simple arrangements from both urban and rural settings in a bright, clean style of naturalism that is nonetheless expressive of the emptiness and angst of modern life. Edward Hopper paints pictures where everything seems alright, but in your heart you know they’re not. Working with an impressive compositional acumen along with his own idiom of stark, gelid light, Hopper depicts the most mundane and ordinary things – a woman reading in a hotel room, someone looking out a window, people in a diner, people in a lobby, people in an office, the façade of a house, an empty street – in order to create poetic moments of hushed alienation, unremarked melancholy, and forlorn beauty. The glazed ordinariness of his paintings seems only to adumbrate some muffled tragedy or narcotized dolor. His figures all appear transfixed in tedium, waiting for something that will never come, whatever it was supposed to be.
The subject of New York Movie (1939) is not, in fact, a movie in New York – the distinction belongs instead to the exhausted-looking woman on the right of the painting, probably an usher or attendant. An ornate column anchors a heavy wall cleaving the pictorial space in half; on the left, the field of perspective coincides with the orientation of the theater seats, exerting a powerful force on the eye leftwards to a point just to the right of the big screen. The woman appears a refugee from the screen’s all-powerful allure. Chiaroscuro introduced by a bank of lights to her left further emphasizes the woman as the focus of the painting, and even the light seems to encumber her. What private grief, epiphany, or repose she enfolds in her closed posture, downturned face, and thoughtful silence, we’ll never know. Ultimately, the privacy of her passion and sideline status dwelling on the margins of spectacle comes to stand for the wayside feeling of the piece on the whole – its evocation of things elided and abraded by the impersonal gears of mass conformity, its Brueghel-like indifference to whatever just wasn’t important enough to make the final cut.
The loneliness of the individual in a crowd was a recurring theme for Hopper. Nighthawks (1942), probably the most well-known of the artist’s works, features a man sitting removed from an apparently genial colloquy taking place down the counter. He sits with his back to the viewer, the jacket taut over tense dorsal musculature, some kind of stoicism for the working day. The entire left half of the painting is given over to an empty street watched by rows of dark windows. Harsh, incomprehensible lighting imbues the scene with a brutal radiance.
Early Sunday Morning (1930) looks like a still from an Antonioni movie that was left to soak in maroon paint. Long, horizontal streaks of sunlight creep down the street in this inexplicably desolate composition. The rising sun imparts more a sense of weary exposure or harried repetition than waking promise. In Second Story Sunlight (1960), two women, one old and one young, sit in poses variously recumbent en plein air. Whereas the old woman leans back in her chair with an air of what Faulkner described in Rosa Coldfield as “embattled virginity,” the younger perches atop the railing as if to solicit the fleeting attentions of some passing flaneur. You get the idea she’s perching in vain because no one’s coming, and even if someone did come, he wouldn’t be coming with what she was really looking for. The secret of the painting lies in its juxtaposition of these two figures – Youth and Age, two moments from the same lonely arc.
What light falling across water was for the Impressionists – delicate shimmering and variegated splendor, at once both formative problem and ultimate emblem– this is what sunlight shining into a room was for Hopper. Those blocky swathes of shadow and light are painted as if the threatened intrusion of an alien and arbitrary geometry into the life-world, more Caravaggist than Impressionist. Woman in the Sun (1961) depicts a nude woman holding a cigarette in the morning sun, sad yet resolute. Her shadow stretches behind her as she is enveloped by the sunlight’s entrance. The bed is unmade. The painting works both as a kind of Annunciation and memento to the decay of the flesh, yet it does so with a pathos and everyday naturalism not to be found generally in either.
If you have even the faintest affinity for American art, you’re sure to cotton to Hopper and this exhibition – check it out before it checks out for good. Remember, the Whitney is free on Fridays from 6 to 9 and usually slap full of young people.