Edward Hopper at the Whitney


Through April 10, the Whitney in New York City is featuring an Edward Hopper show from its permanent collection. It’s a smallish show, only three rooms, nothing on the scale of the huge Hopper we saw a while back at the National Gallery in DC. But still, what a nice treat to get to see a bunch of Hopper.

The show, “Modern Life: Edward Hopper and His Time,” aims to put Hopper’s work (approximately from the 1910s to the ’50s, but mostly in the ’30s and ’40s) in context with those of selected contemporaries. And there was some stunning stuff by some very interesting contemporaries, including George Bellows and Thomas Hart Benton (see below). And it was interesting to see their similar, and dissimilar treatments of topics as Hopper worked in, with, and alongside various movements, including the Ashcan School and Precisionism. The Whitney has some very good material on the exhibit up on their website; you can access it here: http://whitney.org/Exhibitions/ModernLife/History — check out the slide shows; the art is really stunningly reproduced.

But when you walk in to any of the rooms, you spot the Hoppers immediately. It’s that quality of the light. How can you make sunlight streaming on a gas pump, a face, a lighthouse, like that? And look at his composition. It’s that odd feeling of isolation, of being off and out of the picture but yet being the picture. I’m not coherent. Here. Look at this:

It’s titled “The Barber Shop.” But what do you see first, where does your eye go? To the manicurist, sitting in the foreground, dead center, reading a magazine. She’s not part of the action — the barber is cutting the customer’s hair way over there, in the shadow, cut off by the edge of the painting. And the customer’s face is a blur in the mirror. They’re not the focal point. She is. She sits there, not interacting, not reacting, reading. What is she thinking? She fascinates. And also, look at the lines — they’re part of why you’re looking at her. See the three diagonals, from the barber pole, the staircase, and the shaft of 1 p.m. light coming into the shop’s front window. They’re all leading the eye to her.

And even though it’s easy to see similarities with his contemporaries — just drawing from the two above: Bellows’s working class subject matter; Benton’s shadows — Hopper is so quiet, so focused, so solid, so simple. There’s not the rhythmed movement and flow you see in the Benton, where the characters look almost insubstantial and light, as if, like a Chagall, they might dance up and off the canvas, disappearing upward. The Bellows is closer in spirit to the Hopper, but there are all those clashing lines, creating a sense of movement and urgency.

Comparing the Hopper to the work of another contemporary, Guy Pène du Bois (see below left), there is a more similar feeling and tone, as well as color — look at their whites. (Interestingly, when I saw Pène du Bois’s Opera Box flapper, the upraised shoulder, long arms, profiled face, and tightly framed subject, boxed in by her circumstance, reminded me of Picasso’s Woman Ironing.)

But back to Hopper. The exhibit pointed out that he had visited Paris and absorbed much — not from Picasso and Braque and all the others moving into cubism and other modern schools, but from an earlier style — from Degas and Manet. And you can see that in his blacks and in his composition. The similarity between these impressionist masters and Hopper I found particularly revealing in this work, Le Bistro, from his time in Paris. His bistro ladies are in the dark, which of course makes sense, because they’re escaping the heat of the day — and hot that day looks! And all those dark-colored clothes they had to wear. But is it too much to read into the painting to see them as being outsiders? They don’t fit in the bright world of sunshine and trees and blue water. They are huddled, crammed against the picture’s edge, isolated from their setting. If it’s not intentional here, it certainly is a theme of many, many Hopper paintings to come. His movie and theatre ushers, in the dark and outside of the action; his apartment dwellers; his nighthawks.

I really enjoyed the opportunity to commune with the Hoppers. The one I’ve selected at the top of this post is one of my favorites, and I can’t say why, really. There’s an air of melancholy, threat, in the darkness, and this vulnerable, mostly invisible woman in red — trying hard not to be invisible by wearing red? and yet fading into her surroundings nonetheless, while the curtain billows in a hot city night breeze. I think I like that frozen curtain in the hot night too.

There were a lot of interesting early Hoppers that I had not seen before. Check these out; the one on the left looks like an Alfred Kubin. The painting in the middle is titled Solitary Figure in a Theatre, and it evokes such loneliness. I also liked the painting on the right, by Hopper’s friend, Charles Burchfield.

It was a good show, with lots of interesting things to think about regarding modern life, particularly regarding isolation and urbanization. There was a film projected on the wall, about New York, taken I think in the ’20s. What I liked about it came at the beginning, where a whole fleet of businessmen are taking the ferry into the city, docking, I think, near Wall Street. There they are, all nearly identically dressed in suits and bowlers, flowing off the ferry and onto the streets of lower Manhattan, dwarfed by the buildings, anonymous and seemingly interchangeable. Doing this every day.

Then we went to other floors in the museum. And because I have rattled on so long, and realizing how impossible it is to convey what I felt and thought seeing these pictures and ruefully recognizing that it is impossible to talk about art without sounding pompous, for which I apologize, I think I will try to wrap up by quickly noting some of the extremely cool and disturbing and exciting works — in the Singular Visions show (http://whitney.org/Exhibitions/SingularVisions) — on the 5th floor. These are full-room installations, most of them. Big unusual pieces. Here is the one that made me cry; it’s by Paul Chen [mute the sound]:

And Edward Kienholz’s The Wait must be seen up close (click here: http://whitney.org/image_columns/0004/5211/66.49a-m_kienholz_imageprimacy_640.jpg). It’s a room with an old old lady made of bones and wearing a lace ruffled collar of mason canning jars, with her youthful photograph on her face and her husband’s photo above her head and photos of her children and marriage beside her. And those words “the wait” — she is very old and obviously waiting for death, but the pictures indicate that perhaps her whole life has been a wait. The only thing live — and it really is alive — is a bird in the cage next to her. Extremely thought provoking.

And I have to at least mention Warhol’s Myths and Segal’s Walk, Don’t Walk.

It was a good day at the museum. The only thing that bothered me was the fact that this cost $36 for Steve and me to spend a couple hours. I don’t begrudge the money; not at all.  But it seems so very very wrong that art, like theatre, like music, all too easily becomes the province of the well-to-do when it should, MUST, be for everyone. It is hard wired into the human brain to make art, to respond to music. It is what makes us human. And that only those of us with leisure and wherewithal can attend doesn’t make any sense to me. It is VITAL to put ourselves in a room with an artist whose thoughts may challenge, complement, or controvert our own — how else will we learn and grow?

AFTERTHOUGHT: A cool feature about the Whitney’s website that I just discovered. There are buttons labeled “Collect”; clicking these allow you to make your own virtual gallery — now that’s a very very good thing, and goes a long way toward ensuring access.


One thought on “Edward Hopper at the Whitney

  1. Bobbie troy

    Nita: What an amazing and educational write-up. You know so much. I will have to read it again and again. I do like Hopper’s use of light. It reminds me of Vermeer.

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