edward hopper by spencer finch

edward hopper and the american imagination

the whitney museum of american art

One is thankful, at least, that the vaults of the Whitney Museum are thick with the oeuvre of Edward Hopper, rather than, say, Norman Rockwell or Andrew Wyeth. For the dust doesn’t even settle before these popular pictures are yanked out for another exhibition. the latest airing of this perennial favorite is “Edward Hopper and the American Imagination.” A dubious title, indeed, and the crowded gallery and brisk trade of Hopper memorabilia downstairs sadly confirm what many suspect-the American imagination is mostly about money.

W.H. Auden once wrote “it’s rather a privilege/ amid the affluent traffic/ to serve this unpopular art which cannot be turned into/ background noise for study/ or hung as a status trophy by rising executives...” The critical correlate to this is that an artwork cannot be good if it is also popular. Unpopularity is precisely the privilege that Hopper does not have, and it makes viewing his pictures incredibly difficult. To see a picture labeled “Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Frank Sinatra” incites snickering, and, right or wrong, only weakens Hopper’s hand.

As if these paintings did not arrive in the American imagination with enough baggage, the Museum does its best to heap on additional myths and clichés. Excruciatingly obvious quotations from the likes of Robert Frost and E.B. White are plastered over expanses of (obviously) blank walls. And a large central area of the third-floor gallery is transformed into an arena for a multi-media show, the aim of which is to place Hopper dead-center in an American cultural milieu and then demonstrate how his influence radiates out on all subsequent American cultural production. This charade employs such dubious methods as showing every Victorian house on every hill in every image from art, photography, and movies in America since 1940, intimating that without Hopper’s precedent, other miners of the American imagination (e.g. Hitchcock) would have been stuck with the other great national architectural image-the log cabin. (Norman Bates as railsplitter.)

It doesn’t end there. the Museum shamelessly dishes up such discredited notions as: art is one part reflections of the outside world combined with one part reflections of the internal world of the artist. That and the sly suggestions that the “uncommunicative” figures in the paintings reflect the “complex” relationships that Hopper had with his wife, Josephine, were enough to send me off to sulk in a sun-drenched corner, alone.

To the Museum’s credit, someone did manage to get the paintings on the wall. And it is possible, with the right sidestepping and squinting, to ignore the “show” and look at the paintings. the curators collected nearly 100 pictures for the exhibition, including some that had never before graced these hallowed halls. And although the multi-media extravaganza is the big draw, people do look at the paintings. Getting into Hopper groove, I tried to eavesdrop on what these Americans imagined him to be all about. My favorite comment was “I really love the way you communicate what these are about and I don’t think we need to watch that movie.” But more typical, because I heard it twice, was the assessment that the paintings are “beautiful but depressing.” It came as no surprise that the whole enterprise would be interpreted as an expression of national melancholia.

As such, Hopper seems doomed to share the peculiar fate of Robert Frost, whose great talent is obscured by his even greater popularity. It is an unenviable role Hopper has, to carry the weight of our national melancholia, from the walls of dormitory rooms to the partitions in office cubicles to the coffee tables of bourgeois parlors. I know this, because when I was in school and wanted to feel really depressed I would leaf through Hopper reproductions and play Tom Waits’ “Nighthawks at the Diner” in the background for hours. We Americans, in effort to temper our great national optimism, have this pathetic desire for melancholia that is not very deep but which makes it nearly impossible to read Frost or look at Hopper with a fresh eye. to fixate on things that are “beautiful but depressing” is, as Ezra Pound said of Robert Frost, “vurry Amur’k’n.”

So dismissing myself as a priori unable to have a complex relationship with Hopper’s paintings, I was astonished to be bowled over by such a familiar picture as Nighthawks. It really is a remarkable painting. Not for the supposed loneliness the figures convey, but simply because of the way Hopper depicts light. The relationship between inside light and outside light is fantastic. The inversion of interior light casting shadows outside is a common Hopper trope, but nowhere is it so spectacular as in this picture. Here, one is reminded that “content is very tiny” and form is nearly everything. Light spilling across the street, casting a shadow into an empty storefront, carries the emotional punch that the figures cannot summon.

The great problem with Nighthawks and other Hopper paintings, alas, is the figures. He seems to use a set of cookie cutters busty-redhead, hawk-nosed man in fedora, etc.-that provide no sense of an individual. (To be brutally honest, this is one area where Norman Rockwell is more successful than Hopper.) It did not surprise me to learn that Josephine Hopper would not allow her husband to paint any female model but herself. The generic figures succeed only in conveying bathos, because they do not have what it takes to transmit complex emotion or ambiguity; all they can do is stare out in the distance and promote a sense of-well, you know. The figures crudely describe the sentiment that the scenes enact, reinforcing something that needs no reinforcement. Sometimes they work well compositionally, especially in the theater scenes, but that is not enough to merit their inclusion. The obvious question becomes: What do the figures contribute to the paintings? The answer is: Virtually nothing.

Figuration be damned, it is obvious that this guy was crazy about light. Hopper’s work is almost Newtonian in its empirical examination of light and color. He explores it all-morning, noon, dusk, and evening; natural light and artificial light. And in the great American materialist tradition of Winslow Homer, Hopper painted what he saw-just the facts, ma’am. This m.o. is evidence by his copious and specific notes and impressionist approach: Hopper does not paint the effects of light: he paints what he sees. He represents he does not recreate. No dappling of color for optical mixtures, but flat expanses of sundrenched color, with the finest gradations of tone and hue. Early on, Hopper fixed on the window as the golden opportunity to explore these peculiarities and pleasures of light, and windows appear in virtually every picture. (Except for the terrific theater interiors, one of which has a great slice of the silver screen.)

If the window is Hopper’s leitmotif, then the picture Sun in an Empty Room is his most sublime. Since it is such a late painting (1963), one is tempted to view it as the apotheosis of his talent, although there were spare canvases before, and figured-filled one afterward. But this is Hopper pared down to his most essential: inside, outside, light, and surface. What happens here is that the viewer becomes the figure in this picture, welcomed by the startling absence of anything but light. And so it is sort of an American dream come true, to be in a Hopper painting simply by looking at one. You get sucked into this contemplative space, where the architecture serves as a screen for a light show, where shadows are orange and brown and green. Indeed, it is more “beautiful but depressing”; it is about what it means to be a human being with eyeballs. And for a second, one can hear Robert Frost, in his flinty New England accent say “I have been one acquainted with the night” and actually believe it. Of course it doesn’t last. You straighten your fedora or hike up your stockings and re-enter the pageant of false emotion.Spencer Finch

Brooklyn, New York

1995