It was gray today with periods of showers. Perfect for spending time in the Art Institute of Chicago viewing an exhibition of Edward Hopper’s works. Hopper is a mild obsession of mine. But you have to understand that mild for me is probably equal to an off the charts extreme for most people.
Hopper chooses ordinary scenes; houses, streets, rooms, lobbies, buildings, seashores. They are dominated by shapes of color and bathed in light. Squares, rectangles and trapezoids, decorated at times with ornamental curves. Sometimes people are present, sometimes the space is completely empty, save for that Hopper light. If he includes people they strike routine poses, but what they are thinking is omitted. Usually we are peering into their private spaces as we pass by on light rail, or simply looking out the kitchen window. Nature frequently finds its way into Hopper’s works.
I’ve spent hours looking at and thinking about House at Dusk. You can read my in depth study of this painting here.
Mark Strand, a recent poet laureate, has studied Hopper at length. In his 1994 book entitled Hopper, Mr. Strand makes these observations.
Hopper’s paintings are short, isolated moments of figuration that suggest the tone of what will follow just as they carry forward the tone of what preceded them. The tone but not the content. The implication but not the evidence. They are saturated with suggestion. The more theatrical or staged they are, the more they urge us to to wonder what will happen next; the more lifelike, the more they urge us to construct a narative of what came before. They engage us when the idea of passage cannot be far from our minds—we are, after all, either approaching the canvas or moving away from it… Hopper’s paintings are not vacancies in a rich ongoingness. They are all that can be gleaned from a vacancy that is shaded not so much by the events of a life lived as by the time before life and the time after. The shadow of dark hangs over them, making whatever narratives we construct around them seem sentimental and beside the point.
The exhibit was beautifully staged on the second floor of the Rice building. Early works on paper through to the final canvases. At about the half way mark we encounter New York Movie. This is Hopper immersed in the urban environment of a meteoric America. On the left side of the canvas is a crowded movie theater, elaborately decorated in the palatial style of the old grand movie houses. People escaping their daily problems through the newly discovered art form of cinema. On the right side is a lone figure. A blonde usherette, leaning against the wall of a simple space completely detached from the emotional rake of the movie theater. She works in a house of escape, but is tortured by something very real in her life. Perhaps she could use her flashlight to illuminate the answer to her problem. We can see that Hopper’s characters always ponder, we just never know if they are making progress. He floats space on one side, and fixes it on the other. This is classic New York Hopper, showing a dense city that feels completely empty.
Naturally, Nighthawks took center stage in the exhibit. The Art Institute recognized this masterpiece immediately after it was painted in 1942, and acquired it for $3,000. It has been one of the museum’s gems ever since. The image is iconic, so much so I don’t even need to post it and everyone reading this can close their eyes and easily conjure up a detailed picture of it in their mind. Art is power.
There was a glass case in one of the galleries that displayed two of Hopper’s personal journals. He would make a small pencil drawing of the painting just completed and then scribe notes beneath it. Fascinating to get a brief glimpse into his thoughts. The journals were inexpensive hardbound ledgers. He did not require an overabundance of creature comforts and lived in a 4th floor walk up at Number 3 Washington Square North in New York. He and his wife Jo frequented small, locally owned restaurants.
The last canvas in the show, and one of my favorites was, Sun in an Empty Room. Although not his final work, it came less than four years before his death in 1967. There is always an emotional undercurrent to Hopper’s work. More imagination than observation. So much so that it’s easy to forget the work is very personal. When he was asked what he was after with this painting he responded, “I’m after ME.” A truly American response by a pure American.
Hopper once said,
All I wanted to do was paint sunlight on the side of a house.
This once in a lifetime opportunity ends in Chicago on May 11th. If you missed it in Boston or Washington, D.C., or here in Chicago, then you have truly missed something. But you can see Hopper all over the country. Go see it.
Note. Images of Hopper paintings taken from web searches for Public Domain images.