Summertime, 1943 Edward Hooper
From the New York Times
By Holland Cotter
BOSTON, April 30 — A certain slant of light was Edward Hopper’s thing. And he made it our thing, hard-wired it into our American brains: white late-morning light scraping across a storefront; twilight, plangent with heat and regret, settling over a city; slabs of late-night lamplight chilling the walls of Lonely Hearts Hotels everywhere.
Hopper once said that, as an artist, the only thing he ever aspired to do was to paint “sunlight on the side of a house,” and that, in essence, is all he did. Is this an accomplishment weighty enough to support an “American master” title? Sometimes, yes; often, no, at least on the evidence of
“Edward Hopper,” an exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts here.
The show is billed as a retrospective, but it isn’t. Significant pieces of Hopper’s output are missing: the paintings done in Paris from 1906 to 1910; all but a few of his many drawings; and most of what he produced as a commercial illustrator in the long years before he became a star.
To some of us, Hopper was an illustrator from first to last, a just-O.K. brush technician, limited in his themes. His main gift was for narrative paintings with graphic punch and quasi-Modernist additives: Manet touches, de Chirico props. And like any shrewd storyteller, he knew the value of suspense. Reveal just so much of a plot — no more. Mystery keeps an audience hanging on.
Unfortunately, there’s not much suspense or mystery in this show, which travels to Washington and Chicago. Museums are risk-free zones these days, spooning up boilerplates of what audiences are expected to like. On the whole, “Edward Hopper” fills that bill too well. Still, it gets off to a strong start and comes to a striking close.
It opens with a single oil painting, “Hodgkin’s House,” done in 1928 when the 40-something Hopper, his career finally on a roll, was summering in Gloucester, Mass. In the picture, late (or very early) sunlight hits one side of a white clapboard house, leaving the rest of it in shadow.
There are no figures; none are needed. Illumination and architecture engage in an expressive exchange. The house, with its two high-arched windows, seems to greet the light with shy consternation, like a prim Victorian Danae startled by a shower of gold.
This is the Hopper Effect: the impression of everyday life touched with secular sanctity. And the show’s first gallery gives a good idea of how he developed it. In a 1908 painting of a locomotive stalled in a field, he suppresses anecdotal detail to make a prosaic scene inscrutably monumental, even a little sinister.
In the coarsely brushed “Summer Interior” (1909), the first of a long series of pictures of women in bedrooms, he introduces narrative ambiguity: is the seminude woman crouched by the bed hurt, embarrassed, at rest? And he turns light into an object: a sourceless rectangle of it sits on the floor like a Donald Judd box.
Light is inseparable from architecture in a 1913 stage set of a picture called “New York Corner, or Corner Saloon.” The mood they generate is the main character on that stage. All these elements would be combined in famous later paintings like “Nighthawks” (1942) — the show enshrines that one in a room labeled “Icons” — but the mechanics were in place three decades earlier.
After giving the initial impression of a restless artist who resisted settling into a groove, who might have gone this way or that, comes a long interruption in the form of galleries devoted to a lot of Gloucester watercolors and others done in Ogunquit, Me., through the 1920s.
The show seems to argue that in these pictures of sun-bleached lighthouses and village rooftops Hopper was trying to come to grips with depicting light. In fact, he had already done so a decade earlier in Paris. Anyway, the New England pictures are far from experimental. They’re blandly virtuosic tourist-brochure illustration, Chamber of Commerce Modernism.
Maybe watercolor was too easy for Hopper — he was good at it — and maybe the 1920s artist-colony summers were too relaxing. He needed resistance, and in the awkwardness of oil painting, the grit of the city, and the Great Depression, he got it. In the 1930s the work toughens up and turns strange.
In the country he tended to paint houses as if they were public monuments, from a respectful distance. In the city no distances are respected. Hopper’s eye is everywhere. He peeps through apartment windows, catches people undressed, depressed, lost in thought, just plain lost. He looks over shoulders, down women’s dresses.
If Hopper’s rural work can be too simple, his city scenes can be fussily overcomplicated, illustrational in a different way. But when the balance is right, they’re great. In “House at Dusk” (1935), a woman silhouetted by light stares from a top-floor apartment window, unaware of the darkening park and glorious afterglow sky behind the building. She sees nothing; we see it all, from a God’s-eye view.We’re back to light. If art reflects the sensibility of a time and a culture, it also creates that sensibility. Hopper’s light gave Depression-era Americans, and many others thereafter, a glamorous, even heroic image of themselves as solitary and tragic, persevering, deservedly nostalgic. Some people think he invented this, but he didn’t. American landscape painters were there before him.
Hopper grew up in Nyack, N.Y., just up the Hudson from Manhattan. From the bedroom window of his childhood home he had a panoramic view of the river. And in essential ways he is direct heir to the 19th-century Hudson River School tradition, particularly the elegiac work of Thomas Cole.
As the nation’s first “official” artist, Cole was probably expected to create Romantic images of a brave and optimistic New World at its dawning. What he actually painted was a vision of a golden age of innocence already past. His art is far less about hope than about fear: fear of change, fear of the future, fear of the unknown, fear of the brash, crass, will-do America bumping and screeching around him.
Hopper’s art is not so different. Technically, he is a Modernist, but without a drop of Modernism’s utopian rationality, confidence and breadth. He didn’t make a dystopian art, either, one that stakes out an alternative position, as Warhol would do. He went with anxiety and longing, and made them feel-good entertaining, like Hollywood films, which he both influenced and was influenced by.
Often his most ambitious paintings feel Hollywood-fake, overproduced, overwritten. The renowned “Second Story Sunlight” (1960) does. With its Thelma Ritter mother, sunbathing ingénue and light-touched roof peaks, it is a silly, stagy, symbolic affair. You have a sense that the plot, if there is one, isn’t worth wondering about.
It’s when Hopper lets light take over, assume the leading role, that the late paintings work. It does so again in “Morning Sun” (1952), in which a woman — Hopper’s wife, Jo, his principal model — sits in profile, in a pink slip, on a bed, staring out a window as light hits her pinched cheeks and raw-red hands.
You can take the picture as just another piece of Hopper shtick, with soundstage spots, an actor in place, and a director shouting for silence on the set as a scene called “Sadness” starts. Or you can take all that out and just leave light breaking the world into squares and rectangles, dark and bright, exposing it, hiding it, before moving on.
This is the essence, the only drama, of “Sun in an Empty Room,” the last painting in the show. Done in 1963, four years before Hopper’s death, it is what it says: an image of contained space. There’s a window; the trees outside it look wind-whipped, but you can’t hear the wind. Inside is all blank walls and wheat-and-honey-colored sunlight, the two things Hopper loved best and felt comfortable with. He doesn’t strain for a story here, or a sentiment, or skill, or completion, which all but the best of his art tries too hard for. Maybe that’s why this is the least gimmicky painting in “Edward Hopper,” and the only happy one, and the most lucid.