Recent major exhibitions in London, Paris, Rome, and Madrid testify to the universality of his appeal. It couldn’t be just the way New York looked in the first half of the twentieth century or the dated look of hotel rooms, of people in offices, staring blankly or dreamily into space, that accounts for such interest. Something lifts the paintings beyond the representational registers of realism into the suggestive, quasi-mystical realm of meditation. Moments of the real world, the one we all experience, seem mysteriously taken out of time. The way the world glimpsed in passing from a train, say, or a car, will reveal a piece of a narrative whose completion we may or may not attempt, but whose suggestiveness will move us, making us conscious of the fragmentary, even fugitive nature of our own lives. This may account for the emotional weight that so many Hopper paintings possess. And why we lapse lazily into triteness when trying to explain their particular power. Again and again, words like “loneliness” or “alienation” are used to describe the emotional character of his paintings.
My own encounters with this elusive element in Hopper’s work began when I would commute from Croton-on-Hudson to New York each Saturday to take a children’s art class in one of those buildings on the south side of Washington Square that were eventually torn down to make room for NYU’s law school. This was in 1947. Just a year after Hopper painted Approaching a City (1946), I would look out from the train window onto the rows of tenements whose windows I could look into and try to imagine what living in one of those apartments would be like. And then at 99th Street we would enter the tunnel that would take us to Grand Central. It was thrilling to suddenly go underground, travel in the dark, and be delivered to the masses of people milling about in the cavernous terminal. Years later, when I saw Approaching a City for the first time, I instantly recalled those trips into Manhattan and have ever since. And Hopper, for me, has always been associated with New York, a New York glimpsed in passing, sweetened with nostalgia, a city lodged in memory.
I can’t give it away on 7th Avenue.
Beginning on Thursday and running through October 6th, the Whitney presents a show of Hopper’s drawings.
Another one from the vaults by our man Peter Richmond. This one from GQ, reprinted with the author’s permission.
By Peter Richmond
It’s not that a ’70 BMW 2800 CS Coupe isn’t the most magnificent machine ever designed by man. It is. Or that I wouldn’t orchestrate a major drug deal to own one—or even drive one, just once, along an autumnal Vermont mountain road, en route to a fire-placed inn, with a case of ’85 Canon Saint-Emilion in the trunk, next to a Crouch & Fitzgerald valise stuffed with Thomas Wolfe first editions. I would. These are a few of my favorite things.
But they do not constitute the good life. I find the good life a little farther off the beaten path, in a world full of unsmiling figures, brooding tenements and shadowy streets-although the sunsets are pretty nice. Edward Hopper could always paint light. Hopper’s light is a corporeal thing, heavy and tangible, illuminating a quiet, unhurried place unbeset by the swarm of the modem species—a place where time has stopped,
My idea of the good life wouldn’t be to own a Hopper; it would be to live in one. Maybe in Gas, with its darkening road to unknown destinations, and its overwhelming sense of stillness in the forest of pines through whose needles wisps a wind making music that cannot be heard in my world. Or High Noon, in which a woman wearing only a bathrobe stands in the front door of a clapboard house. In the fashion of all Hopper’s solitary figures, her mouth is closed; her face is passive and yields no clues. It’s a mask of mystery. Unlike her modern-day counterpart, she feels no need to spill her secrets, to yammer endlessly on daytime television about the bad luck that has befallen her. She is at rest.
This stillness must be what people are trying to find when they spend enormous amounts of money vacationing at remote Caribbean resorts or buy whole islands in the South Pacific. I’ve found it a little closer: In 1978, before a minor league hockey game, in an art museum in Rochester, New York. In 1992 in an art museum in Cincinnati. In 1973, in a library in Massachusetts, I even held some Hopper etchings. The curator of the collection made me wear gloves, but I felt the calm just the same.
Does my consideration of a Hopper painting feel as good as the night I persuaded my tenth grade girlfriend to flee her prep school on an interstate bus to meet me in my older brother’s college dorm in Boston, where we fell asleep on the bare wooden floor in front of the fireplace and she slept on her side with her back to me and I awoke to sputtering firelight to find the palm of my right hand resting in the valley of her soft waist between the top of her jeans and the bottom of her ridden-up blue sweater, and it felt as if all of the currents at the heart of the universe were flowing beneath her skin? Does looking at a Hopper feel that good?
Well, no. But the two have something in common. In the contemplation of both (and that’s more or less what my tryst entailed—contemplation), there is something being stirred and stoked that physical pleasures can’t fuel: the imagination, with its promise of the infinite. Of anything you might want. Just beyond the frame of a Hopper, there’s always something more.
Take the country road in Gas: It’s a road to nowhere in particular, but wherever it’s going, things are probably better there. Or the faceless city in Manhattan Bridge Loop: You’d think it nothing but a cold pile of brick. But I know better. I know that inside the buildings, there is more to be found; there’s the soul of a city. And when I spend time in front of the canvas, I find it.
Or take High Noon. The woman’s bathrobe has fallen open, but shadows demurely cloak her. She is turning her face to the sun. Upstairs, behind waving curtains, her bedroom is dark. There might be someone in it. There might have been someone in it not long ago. There might be someone in it soon. Me, maybe.
You may remain unconvinced. You may find it a preposterous notion that the good life could be made up of windows into a state of mind. You may insist that the good life must comprise the sensory pleasures and the sensual ones. But when your Mondavi Cabernet is drained down to the sediment, your Jag needs new valves and your woman has dismissed you like an empty can of cat food lobbed into the trash, I’ll still have this place where, even if the sun reveals a world that’s haunting and bleak, it’s a sun that never sets.