The Magazine

Smooth Draft

The work-in-progress of an American master.

Jul 22, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 42 • By DANIEL ROSS GOODMAN
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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.

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