In some locales, wrote Albert Camus in The Plague, beautiful days are only experienced in the winter. But this is easily belied by the magnificent Edward Hopper exhibition on display at the Whitney Museum this summer. Beyond a showcase of artistic beauty, it is a much-deserved homage to an American master who is occasionally overshadowed by New York museums’ infatuation with European painters. That Hopper was born and bred in New York merely compounds this ironic injustice. For art lovers, Hopper devotees, and connoisseurs of American culture, it is heartening to see that this significant American painter is still earning plaudits.
While Hopper exhibitions are not uncommon at the Whitney, which houses the world’s largest Hopper collection (its most recent Hopper show was held in 2011, and its influential 1980 show helped solidify his place in the pantheon), this particular exhibition is unique in its focus on Hopper’s drawings, studies, and working process. In addition to the box-office showstoppers like Nighthawks (1942), New York Movie (1939), and Soir Bleu (1914), “Hopper Drawing” contains a selection of rarely seen sketchbooks, drawings, and chalk-works, many of which are being publicly displayed for the first time.
One such chalk-sketch is the intriguing Three Men in an Interior Space (1925), a charcoal-like sketch with a sense of depth, texture, and mystery that evokes the brooding chiaroscuro background of Leonardo’s Mona Lisa. Many other small works simultaneously function as thematic echoes of his previous paintings and prolepses of his future works.
As much as this is a show of Hopper’s drawings, it is about his paintings as well. The Whitney’s curators understand that it is through the study of his process that one arrives at the requisite appreciation of his finished product; in this sense, “Hopper Working” may be a more apt title for the exhibit. Through the display of Hopper’s process, we see how his paintings were the result of his internal interplay of reality (his observations) and imagination (his improvisations).
Like any good art student, Hopper drew nudes, but his innovation was to draw them in context. Thus, we see nudes situated in the original mise en scène in which they were posed, such as studios and other unglamorous settings. The general motif of solitary individuals ensconced in wide interior spaces, with the concomitant subsidiary motif of the single nude situated in interior space, informs many of his works, some of which, such as the lovely A Woman in the Sun (1961) and the meditative Sun in Empty Room (1963), can be seen in the last section of the installation. While the former work reflects Hopper’s interest in depicting lone figures in sprawling interior landscapes, the latter painting—his last major work before his death—is eerily devoid of human beings, and thus may have been Hopper’s unconscious premonition of his imminent departure from life.
Furthermore, Hopper made a pilgrimage to Paris; but unlike many of the artists of his milieu, he did not become enmeshed in the ambient avant-garde culture. During his Paris interlude, his interest in open interior spaces bloomed, and the first flickering of this motif is seen in the mesmerizing Soir Bleu—a pastiche of Ashcan School sensibilities, Degas-esque characterizations, Post-Impressionistic inflections, and sundry Toulouse-Lautrec influences. Its several substantial figures (of whom the most prominent is a clown) seem diminutive in comparison with the wider expanses of their interior surroundings. But in spite of his focus on interiors, Hopper still strove to depict the essence of the human figure; he was fascinated by the variety of social types and street characters that could be observed through any decent bout of people-watching. Soir Bleu also exemplifies Hopper’s artistic synthesis of realism and fantasy, with the clown symbolizing the imaginative capacity that lurks in the substratum of reality.
Of course, the exhibition’s centerpiece is the luminous Nighthawks, on loan from the Art Institute of Chicago. The Whitney’s staging is superb; in contrast to the Art Institute’s crowding of the painting into a small section of its American wing, the Whitney is able to showcase a work of such magnitude as it should be seen: occupying a wall unto itself, in the center of the exhibition’s most expansive section. And because this particular show focuses on Hopper’s work process, the two walls flanking Hopper’s masterpiece of urban anomie contain the numerous preliminary sketches that informed the work. These drawings allow us to observe the evolution of Nighthawks from its place in Hopper’s imagination to its tactile reality upon the canvas and in our minds’ eye.
Another significant Hopper motif is voyeurism: the tantalizing possibility of seeing things that we’re really not supposed to be seeing. Hopper, we learn, was an avid cinephile who sought to replicate, through the imperfect medium of pigment, the cinematic “mood of melancholic reverie” that he believed was a constitutive quality of film. He was also fascinated by the way in which the inherent capabilities of film seemed to allow for dialectical voyeurism—that is, how an isolated individual could be the object of others’ gazes while voyeuristically regarding them at the same time. That a cinematic “shot” could more accurately depict reality than could a painterly “shot” did not dissuade Hopper from attempting to capture candid occurrences. On the contrary, it catalyzed him to further hone his painterly praxis, the fruits of which are seen in the melancholic, atmospheric New York Movie (1939).
Hopper’s abiding interest in capturing evanescent moments from everyday life—a transient instant, a fleeting gaze—is as much about the accurate depiction of phenomena as it is about bestowing sacred permanence on the mundane. With the simple implements of paintbrush, pigments, and canvas, an office at night becomes Office at Night (1940) and a gas station along a bucolic country road becomes Gas (1940). And while sacralizing the quotidian is ostensibly a religious concern, it is an artistic one as well. In fact, when it comes to the mundane and the holy, religion and art are not so far apart. Religion eternalizes the ephemeral through ritual: Spring cleaning is transformed into a precious act unto God when endowed with the ascription of “bedikat chametz” (the pre-Passover search for crumbs with the purpose of eradicating any traces of leavened bread). Painters eternalize the ephemeral through art: A late-night cup of coffee in a quiet diner is transfigured into a timeless work when endowed with the beauty of colors on a canvas.
The uniqueness of “Hopper Drawing” is to see that Hopper succeeded in eternalizing the ephemeral through assiduous effort and unstinting devotion to craft. The 20 studies flanking his Nighthawks are testament to Hopper’s unremitting work ethic. The individual components comprising Nighthawks were each sketched separately before Hopper applied color to the main canvas, and viewers can glimpse Hopper’s keen eye for detail: In one sketch, the salt shaker is carefully rendered and given a color. The studies and sketches that accompany nearly every major painting here further illuminate Hopper’s meticulous preparatory work.
“Hopper Drawing” is a paean to the beauty and holiness of any season’s days, whether in summer or winter, and it is a fitting testament to the artistic triumphs of Edward Hopper.
Daniel Ross Goodman is a lawyer and rabbinical student in New York.