For those who came of age in mid-century America, Hopper was – and remains — emblematic of the Whitney’s role as the leading museum of 20th century American art. Hopper’s widow, Josephine, bequeathed more than 2,500 drawings, plus paintings, watercolors, and prints, to the Whitney, in 1970. Most have never been seen before and are the subject of this altogether fascinating exhibition. (Above, Self-Portraits, 1945)
Edward Hopper (1882 -1967) and the Whitney Museum (1930) grew up together and belong together. Hopper’s studio was a few blocks from West 8th Street, where the Whitney first set up shop as The Whitney Studio Club and where, in 1920, Hopper received his first solo show. His work was included in the Whitney’s first Biennial (1932), received two major retrospectives (in 1950 and ‘64), and continued to be featured in major Whitney shows (in 1970, 1980, 1995 and 2010).
David Hockney, among others, has called Hopper, “The greatest American realist painter of the 20th Century.” But Carter E. Foster, the Curator of Drawing at the Whitney, who assembled this first-ever show of Hopper drawings, thinks otherwise. He suggests, instead, that Hopper conveyed “the illusion of reportage.”
In fact, the 200 drawings in the exhibition, many of which are shown in close proximity to Hopper’s most famous paintings, largely support Foster’s view. Hopper may have worked, “from the fact,” as he put it, but his final oils are not strictly factual, nor were they meant to be.
It is dramatically evident from this exhibition that Hopper was a traditionally trained master draftsman of the first order. He drew all his life and turned out exquisite nudes, portraits, figure studies and landscapes, as well as endless preparatory studies for his oils, that are as close as we will ever get to peering into his creative process.
One wouldn’t necessarily know, from his oils, what a master draftsman he was. His figures, in particular, his nudes, often appear to be awkwardly posed and anything but exquisite. I now suspect, after viewing this show, that while Hopper found painting much more difficult than drawing, his distortions are deliberate, part and parcel of the dark, surrealistic and more innovative work he discovered during his early years in Paris.
A small room in the exhibition, Hopper in Paris and Soir Bleu, devoted to his oils, watercolors and drawings from the first decade of the 20th century, resonate with Hopper’s harsh, Lautrec-like images of prostitutes and pimps. These are bitter caricatures and one suspects that this period in his life transformed him from expert illustrator to penetrating artist.
Those who love Hopper’s work – and I count myself among them – are drawn to his haunted horizontals, his lonely roads, his meticulous melancholy, his streets without people, and the solitude his work conveys. Even though Hopper filled notebooks and drawings of real scenes and people he wanted to sketch, it is clearer than ever that Hopper brings us his vision of the inner reality of life in America, not illustrations of the actual reality.
Take, for example, his famous oil, New York Movie. Not only are there 52 preparatory drawings – the most for any of his paintings – but there is a notebook crammed, in tiny handwriting, with Hopper’s meticulous observations about the inside of a New York movie palace. Yet, the actual oil is a haunting and, yes, one has to say, somewhat sad creation, as are so many of his most famous works, from Early Sunday Morning and Nighthawks to Office at Night, Gas, and Morning in a City.
Altogether, these are memorable works whose inner truth about the human condition still resonate with 21st Century viewers.
Hopper’s very last oil, Sun In An Empty Room, is a fitting distillation of his personality, his art, and his lonely yet beautiful vision.
I commend this astute and penetrating exhibition, whose curatorial insights – and iconic work — can be enjoyed by professionals and casual visitors alike.
Photos by Eleanor Foa Dienstag
May 23 – October 6, 2013