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March 2011, Edward Hopper @ Whitney Museum of American Art


Edward Hopper, 'Early Sunday Morning,' 1930
Oil on canvas, 35 3/16 x 60 1/4 in.
Courtesy of Whitney Museum of American Art


Modern Life: Edward Hopper and His Time
Whitney Museum of American Art
945 Madison Avenue  
New York, NY 10021
October 28, 2010 - April 10, 2011  

Edward Hopper's paintings are emblems of Americana. His placid scenes clutch the threads of nostalgia and emphasize the discomfort of industrial surges, World Wars, and the Great Depression. He contrasts catapulting modernity with the human psyche yet spares folky references. His urban pastoral scenes provoke the serenity of reclusion beside the novel, unrelenting urban sprawl. The Whitney engages Hopper's work with that of his contemporaries throughout his prime periods of output from the turn of the 20th century through the 1940's. Despite his misconstrued homogeneity, the show exposes the dynamism in Hopper's subtlety and the elusive adjustments to his style.

Hopper's timeline at the Whitney begins in 1902 just after he'd moved to New York to study and discovered the Realist painters of the Ashcan School. Influenced by their experience as newspaper illustrators, Hopper absorbed their enthusiasm for the common man's battleground. The first period of his career solidified several fundamentals: drastic lighting, anonymous figures engrossed in daily life, and an unspeakable, ominous moment of silence. His mundane subjects trudge stoically through the same American Dream they bask in. They march in unison, lacking the breezy glamor of those who have 'made it.' Hopper's Untitled (The Railroad) (1906-07) portrays a crowd of people boarding a train. The locomotive admits the sullen, antisocial commuters with open doors. Their backs are turned to the viewer; they are mysterious souls unified by the omnipresent grind. Untitled (Solitary Figure in a Theater) (1902-04) addresses a similarly cosmopolitan double-edged sword. The silhouette of a seated moviegoer occupies a spot in the front row of Hopper's dim scene. Another viewer appears in the foreground, distinguished by his head and shoulders. Both figures occupy the same space but couldn't be more disinterested in one another. They are faceless figments, sharing the physical space of the theater while they transcend reality in their own heads. The bleak negative space that consumes the stage is reminiscent of purgatory, wholly neutral to its viewers' cerebral departures. John Sloan's The Haymarket, Sixth Avenue (1907) compliments Hopper's first increment of production. Sloan depicts several women in evening attire scurrying into an illuminated doorway amid pedestrian traffic. The windows on the second floor are obscured in shadow and bold brushstrokes. The ladies' full white dresses echo the warmth of the lightbulb beyond the entrance. Each person files in with flurried energy, anticipating The Haymarket's notorious social debauchery. The Ashcan School most closely resembled Hopper's stylistic tendencies, but the atmosphere of the coinciding realities differed dramatically. Where Sloan's citizens are reveling in life, Hopper attacks subconscious turmoil tethered to society's unrelenting snowball.  


John Sloan, 'The Haymarket, Sixth Avenue,' 1907
Oil on canvas, 26 5/16 x 32 1/4 in
Courtesy of Whitney Museum of American Art

Social and technical advancements surged in the 1920's, facilitating an off-shoot of the Ashcan School that savored society's newfangled monumentality. Hopper's work was devoid of the era's signature pomp. He refrained from the tendency toward abstraction that rode in with the flappers and excessive leisure. Hopper divulged suspicions about the evolution of society as he knew it through distanced perspectives. Early Sunday Morning (1930) is the quintessence of his attachment to moments rather than people or places. Bold shadows of dawn underline calm facades on a sidewalk awaiting footsteps. Hopper diligently renders a fire hydrant and revolving barbershop pole in acute detail. Sunlight kisses the second-floor's ten windows and obscures them beneath the glint of reflection and Hopper's loose hand. The symmetry in this image is bittersweet, indulgent, and transcendental. Untitled (In a Restaurant) (1916-25) situates two gentlemen in the midst of a meal. The scene is intimate and quietly invaded by Hopper's eye. An anonymous backside peeks into the image at left to balance a billowing curtain at right. These images cement the inherent separation of the observer into Hopper's oeuvre and deepen his appreciation of stillness. Contemporaries of Hopper's like Guy Pene du Bois and Martin Lewis absorbed the livelihood of the era with ease. Lewis' Shadow Dance (1930), for example, depicts silhouettes strolling down the street. Bobs, bowler hats, and silk skirts are staples among the crew. The anonymous squad is masked in abstraction, simultaneously inside and outside of observed reality. Hopper's images defend the breath and satisfaction of life's solitary moments, be it through a billowing sheer curtain or a sunrise descending over a silent town. Droll yet ubiquitous moments outweigh the frivolity of fades.
 
New York's economic growth and architectural exuberance in the 1920's allowed for an expanded palate of extracurricular social opportunities. Hopper was unenthusiastic about the modular evolution of the Machine Age but acknowledged the flurry of activity. Untitled (Two Trawlers) (1923-24) depicts a pair of industrial fishing boats, slightly zoomed to fill the canvas. Hopper's subject matter and his animated line hint at the sparks of industry and commerce. He implies movement, allowing the viewer to engage with the vessel's construction and flow. The boats obstruct the landscape and emphasize Hopper's distrust of industrial evolution. In conjunction with reflections upon industry, Hopper's neutral investigation of architecture differs from his contemporaries, the Precisionists. The Precisionists embraced blossoming razor silhouettes through compositional order and flattened color. Charles Demuth and Louis Lozowick suspend diagonals amid their cityscapes in praise of New York, the burgeoning land of lines. Pristine color and clean compositions reflect skyscraper grids, roads, subways, and progress. Despite his discontent with the tidal wave of modernity, Hopper's observations distance the viewer from sprouting urban scenery. He pulls himself out of the blizzard, allowing an observation of the fervor. Anticipation of the future had chained the individual to capitalist gains, accelerating past the point of Hopper's ideally tranquil livelihood. 


Edward Hopper, 'House on Pamet River,' 1934
Watercolor and graphite on paper, 20 1/8 x 25 in
Courtesy of Whitney Museum of American Art

Toward the end of the 1920's Hopper gained recognition despite his work's thematic dissimilarity. He began spending more time in Cape Cod with his wife and transitioned into portraying a more modest existence. Hopper's landscapes acknowledge the serenity of an evaporating way of life through a fog of nostalgia. Untitled (Street Corner) (1923-4), perhaps influenced by the diagonals of the Precisionists, seduces the viewer into a resplendent neighborhood of dirt roads, porches, and street lights: memorable ideals of a simpler America. His images of Northeastern coastal neighborhoods intertwine the mention of civilization with the beautiful modesty of nature. Railroad Sunset (1929) eclipses the rigidity of the metropolis in its portrayal of an unspeakably euphoric sunset viewed without interruption. In his enthusiasm for his rural subject matter, Hopper also proves that the intricacies of such environments can be as aesthetically appealing as the city. House on Pamet River (1934) renders two homes sliced by the dramatic light Hopper fixated on throughout his career. The homes are morphed into triangles and polygons while the ground reaffirms their true forms. Loosely rendered shingles, broad shadows, and abbreviated areas of grass allow for movement in the snapshot. In portraying a departure from the cosmopolitan, Hopper seduced city dwellers with dreams of peace and quiet. They translate each scene’s natural beauty with energetic perspectives. Hopper's American Scene paintings confirmed an inflamed duality of going back to basics: despite its reclusivity, it seethed with stimulation and expansive potential.  

Moving into the 1930's Hopper frequently revisited his original subject matter: the city. Museums like the Whitney and the Museum of Modern Art took a liking to his work and he was prolific through the 1940's. The last portion of the exhibition addresses Hopper's complete surrender to solitude. While the Social Realists found excitement in the Jazz Age and defied the sadness of economic downturn with bold depictions of sex and social classes, Hopper's figures looked beyond the city for answers. Isolation was physicalized. The Sheridan Theatre (1937) opens up on the void of an empty theater with a figure looking over a railing in the foreground. It is uncertain whether anyone else remains in the theater, but Hopper allows the viewer to decide whether the pause is one of longing, contentment, or regret. Though seemingly cold, Hopper's imagery refuses to let technology's advancement outmatch the brilliance of the human capacity. Humanity is at a standoff, forced to reassess the world every day. Each alteration seemed to only further confirm Hopper's confidence in the individual and quaint self-sufficiency.


Thomas Hart Benton, 'Poker Night (from A Streetcar Named Desire)' 1948
Tempera and oil on panel, 36 x 48 in
Courtesy of Whitney Museum of American Art



Charles Demuth, 'My Egypt,' 1927
Oil and graphite on fiberboard, 35 3/4 x 30 in
Courtesy of Whitney Museum of American Art


Lynn Maliszewski

Lynn Maliszewski is a freelance writer and aspiring curator/collector residing in New York City. She can be reached at l.malizoo@gmail.com


PHOTO CREDIT: Benjamin Norman (
www.benjaminnorman.com)

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