Edward Hopper and His Friends
Be prepared to fall in love with Edward Hopper all over again. You might even have had a poster of one of his night scenes in your college dorm room. In the new show of his work and that of some 30 other Hopper contemporaries, Hopper (1882-1967) still emerges as one of the most compelling artists of the last century. "Modern Life: Edward Hopper and His Time" is at the Whitney which supposedly has some 3,000 Hopper works given by his wife Jo, also an art student and the model for most of the women in his paintings.
The show covers American realism from roughly 1900-1940 and documents the way Hopper and his "friends" rebelled against the academic art that dominated Europe. No more lovely scenes of parks and posh picnics along the Seine, Hopper and his contemporaries -- William Glackens, George Bellow, Thomas Hart Benton to name just a few whose works are on view --- painted everyday scenes. They were drawn to tugboats, bridges, railroad cars, the new skyscrapers. But unlike his contemporaries, Hopper disliked regionalism which made a caricature of America. He advocated an "American art that transcended national, local, and regional traits," according to the sumptuous show catalog.
Hopper's urban images of empty streets, lonely people lost in thought, solitary figures whose stories we will never know, capture what some might call the emptiness of American life Long before Judy Collins worried that paradise was being turned into a parking lot, Hopper's static paintings were statements of sadness, often depicting the loss of an American landscape that was rapidly disappearing.
Each section of the show traces the development of realism in American art placing Hopper side by side with his contemporaries. In the first section Everett Shinn's 1908 Revue depicts the vitality of a new age with a racy new subject for American art --- a smiling dancer who coyly exposes an ankle as she curtsies. We can believe this is an actual event. Contrast that with Hopper's 1906 Untitled Woman, dressed in black from hat to toe, her face partially hidden. We never know who she is where she is going. Hopper was rarely interested in stories and was most concerned with form, structure, and the effects of shadow and light. In his 1921 painting New York Interior, we see only the back of a woman in corset and crinolines, perhaps an actress, sitting on her bed sewing. This work is typical of many other Hopper paintings as it captures an ambiguous solitary moment in time.
Another lonely figure is the woman in a bright red dress standing in the doorway of a shuttered rundown house in the 1955 South Caroline Morning. Her arms are folded and she looks as if she is preparing to deal with something ominous that she will have to handle alone. Yet according to the show's Whitney curator Barbara Haskell, Hopper thought the "loneliness thing...overdone." Haskell writes in one of the catalogue's essays: "In the end what Hopper's staged tableaus suggest about human nature is not its loneliness, but its essential solitude and resilience."
Hopper himself said it best: "It's not hard to paint a design...Nor is it hard to paint a representation of something actual. But to express a thought in painting---that's hard." The show is at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City through April 10,2011. Details at whitney.org.