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.