An Edward Hopper retrospective


by Peter Schjeldahl
May 21, 2007

Hopper’s “New York Movie” (1939). The artist bets everything on composition.
Hopper’s “New York Movie” (1939). The artist bets everything on composition.

The scale of the paintings is indifferent, in the way of graphic art. Their drawing is graceless, their colors acrid, and their brushstrokes numb. Anti-Baroque, they are the same thing when looked at up close and when seen from afar. I believe that Hopper painted with reproducibility on his mind, as a new function and fate of images in his time. This is part of what makes him modern—and persistently misunderstood, by detractors, as merely an illustrator.

A visual bard of ordinary life, Hopper imposed a thudding ordinariness on painting. The strangeness of this quality must be contemplated directly, and in quantity, for its radical character to register at full force. It is the basis of his universal accessibility. Laying the cards of his intention face up, it inspires rare trust, which steadies our minds to receive the living truths that the pictures tell. Hopper stands with two other American artists, Jackson Pollock and Andy Warhol, whose likewise monumental styles also trashed prevailing conventions of good painting and have proved to be deathless.

Hopper seems to have liked places possessed of what might be termed negative feng-shui. The couple read voraciously, often in French, and were compulsive moviegoers.

Hopper’s is an art of illuminated outsides that bespeak important insides. He vivifies impenetrable privacies. Notice how seldom he gives houses visible or, if visible, usable-looking doors; but the windows are alive. His preoccupied people will neither confirm nor deny any fantasy they stir; their intensity of being defeats conjecture. Imputations, to them, of “loneliness” are sentimental projections by viewers who ought to look harder. They may not have lives you envy, but they live them without complaint. Another mistake that some observers make is to quibble with Hopper’s crudeness, notably in his renderings of flesh and foliage. His insults to taste are even instrumental to his art, focussing attention on what matters, which is drama. Clement Greenberg got it right when he remarked that if Hopper “were a better painter, he would, most likely, not be so superior an artist.”

“New York Movie” (1939). In a corner of an ornate theatre, a pretty usherette leans back against a wall out of sight of a screen that displays an illegible fragment of black-and-white movie, watched by two solitary people. Dimmed, reddish lights oppose a russet cast to inky shadows. Parted red curtains frame a stairway to the balcony. The usherette’s reverie, if any (she may be dozing), centers our involvement. She has seen the film. Wanting to be elsewhere, she is elsewhere. Where are we? I think we are in Plato’s Cave, perceiving layered dispositions of reality—those of the movie, the audience, the usherette, the theatre, and the civilization that must have theatres. I comprehend the picture’s economy when I imagine something that is necessarily absent from it: noise, the clamor of a soundtrack that fills the space and assaults the usherette’s unwilling ears. Life goes on? No, it roars on, indifferent to all who have temporary shares in it. We exist in the middle of a rush so constant that it resembles stillness.

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