Playing tunes upon the eye: Edward Hopper's impact

It's a very real pleasure to report that the Edward hopper retrospective at the Whitney Museum here is a major art event -- and that Hopper was a better painter than I had thought.

Not that his stature as a major American artist hasn't been clear for quite some time, nor that a great deal hasn't been known about him. It's just that this exhibition brings the full range of his art so clearly into focus that we become dramatically aware for the first time of the exquisite painterly sensibilities beneath the rather austere facade of his best known paintings.

He was born in Nyack, New York in 1882. After graduating from high school in 1889, and with the intention of becoming an artist, he began to commute to New York City during that year to study commercial art and illustration. In 1900 he decided to try his luck at painting and became a student first of William Merritt Chase and then of Robert Henri.

In 1906 he went to Paris to look at art and to paint, but the latter part of 1907 saw him back in New York with a job as a commercial artist. this, however, did not prevent him from exhibiting his work for the first time in 1908 and returning to Paris in 1909.

He started to work seriously as a commercial artist in 1910, an activity he was to continue until a successful show of his watercolors in 1924 made it financially feasible for him to quit.

He was represented by one painting in the Armory Show of 1913, began to make etchings in 1915 (which he discontinued in 1928), and managed gradually to devote himself fully to painting from the late 1920s on.

Anyone looking for an account of an exciting, Bohemian life will not find it in the history of Edward Hopper. As with so many other artists whose essential lives were lived through the growth of their art, Hopper spent most of his physical life in familiar surroundings doing pretty much the same thing year after year.

Nor is there any dramatic alteration of style, any real hesitancy as to his creative identity, throughout his long career. Whatever is dramatically atypical of Hopper was done early in life while he was still examining alternatives.

But even here there is a consistency to what he did: We don't, for instance, find him bouncing back and forth between traditional and "modern" styles as so many other young artists did -- Diege Rivera and thomas Hart Benton spring to mind -- in the years preceding World War I.

No, for Edward Hopper the road may have been hard, but it was always pretty much straight ahead.

Even knowing this, it still comes as something of a surprise to see the superlative things he could do with paint and color, things which caused his 1907 and 1909 Paris canvases to sing with light and luminosity -- things he would soon relinquish and sacrifice to his harsher and more interior vision.

Who woule have thought this man we know mainly for his austere paintings was also responsible for these shimmering, optically vibrant, and totally unmelancholy studies of Paris and its environs?

Except for their labels and presence in the show, I would not at first glance have attributed "Pont du Carrousel in the Fog" or "River-boat" to Hopper. And yet, having read the labels and looked once again at the works, I could then only respond, "Of course!"

And the reason for that is the rock-solid pictorial structure upon which they are built. No matter how shimmering its surface, every Hopper oil, watercolor, or print is built as solidly as a brick wall.

I was also impressed and a bit surprised by Hopper's very obvious natural gifts as a draftsman, although I shouldn't have been, on the basis of the drawings and prints I've seen over the years. Quite a few of the drawings he made as a child are included in this show, as well as a number of his student works.

Then there are the watercolors which run like a lyrical thread throughout his career and which present us with a liveliness and informality not to be found in his later nad larger paintings.

As expected, however, it is the large number of oils depicting "typical" Hopper people sitting, lying down, or standing about in interiors, doorways, or in the out-of- doors, which steal the show. And quite rightly so, for they represent Hopper's major contribution to 20th-century art.

A great deal of nonsense is going to be written about the meaning of these paintings during the next few months, for Hopper seems to bring out both the best and the worst in art critics, writers on art, and almost anyone who has a point to make about contemporary art.

During the exhibition's press preview I overheard one individual heatedly arguing that really to grasp the point of Hopper's art we should ignore all evidence of humanity in it and concentrate exclusively on its formal elements, on the way shapes interlock colors interact, and lined and masses relate to one another.

I was fascinated because this was being argued while we were surrounded by dozens of paintings pulsating with Hopper's particular vision of human meaning, works in which structural clarity was pursued and realized only to articulate human experience and feeling and not for the sake of formal theory.

It boggles the mind to see otherwise intelligent people refuse the evidence of their own eyes and sensibilities in order to use Hopper's art as justification for their pet theories.

I can think of no other American painter of this century who worked as hard as Hopper to make the point of his art easy to grasp. We may not be able to put that point precisely into words -- and neither could Hopper for that matter -- but having once experianced his work, we know quite clearly what he intended, as well as what the work is notm about.

What it ism "about" is a very dense mix of feelings that can be called poetic. It is all very well to say his art is "about" aloneness, alienation, dignity, self-sufficiency, the difficulty -- even the impossibility -- of true communication. That it is about anxiety, boredom, courage, moral strength, etc. , etc.

But is it really?

I would say that so, but only if we include allm these qualities, if we do not isolate them and say this painting is about loneliness, that one about dignity, still another about failure of communication. In other words, we recognize that a Hopper painting is a complex emotional and formal instrument designed to play particular tunes upon our sensibilities. They are not a signpost that says "This is about dignity even in despair" or "That is about bored people in a theater waiting for the curtain to go up."

If ever an art existed which must remain all of a piece and to which we must respond in tote,m it is Hopper's. We can study his art all we like for its formal sophistication, its highly personal quality of light, its color, its psychological implications. But we cannot pull any one of these apart from the others and say "Yes, thism is the real, the essential Hopper," because his art is incredibly rich in nuance, in the subtle overlapping of one mood over another. It cannot be taken apart in any manner without destroying its delicate balances.

the only true response to a Hopper painting is a simply human one. We must stand in front of it and allow ourselves to feelm what it is all about. Only if we can do that and can resist the temptation to re-invent Hopper in the light of theory or dogma will we perceive what he was trying to do.

It's that simple -- and that difficult.

For this new insight into Hopper's art we have to thank not only the Whitney Museum, but also Gail Levin, curator of the Hopper Collection and organizer of the show, and the fact that Hopper's entire artistic estate was left to the Whitney in 1969 as a bequest from his widow.

We should also be grateful that many of the earlier works, including some from his student days which had been stored in an attic, were recently cleaned to bring them back to their original condition. This may not seem like much, but a few decades' grime on a canvas can easily turn a painting of a sunny day into a cloudy one.

But while we may have a museum, a curator, a bequest, and a cleaning to thank for the new insight, we have Hopper himself to thank for the art.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.