On any short list of quintessential American artists, there can be few names more deserving and more welcome than that of Edward Hopper. If anyone cut to the essence of American solitude, of American personal apartness, it was Hopper. In all of his work, he seemed to get under and inside whatever it is that seems to make Americans estranged from one another and from wherever they are. His people seem to be in a still, separate world, a world to which they are resigned. They seem to have no hope of really transcending their isolated spaces — and they seem to be waiting, waiting with a type of Beckettian resignation, waiting, apparently, without any hope that anything will really change. They occupy their spaces, they are where they are — but all else seems alien. Even the paintings without any people at all seem to point to human disconnectedness and estrangement. Buildings standing alone, landscapes, lighthouses, empty rooms, bridges, streetscapes - all beg the question “Where are the people?” Shouldn’t there be people? Are people not present because they wouldn’t be comfortable in these places anyway? Are people always outsiders? The implication is that men and women are off somewhere, out of sight, in their rooms, by their separate selves, alone in their unfathomable and incommunicable depths.
All of this is reemphasized, as would be the case in any exposition of this artist’s work, in “Modern Life: Edward Hopper and His Time” at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York through April 10, 2011. The Whitney has always had an extensive collection of Hopper’s work and many have punned that the Whitney is Hopper but the long affiliation between the two is put to good use here. Employing paintings from its own collection as well as from other museums, the show places Hopper in the context of a number of his friends and contemporaries. This helpful juxtaposition is really the exhibition’s ostensible point, giving us a chance to see Hopper in relation to, e.g., John Sloan and the realist Ashcan School, Thomas Hart Benton and the American Scene painters and Charles Demuth and the Precisionists. We also are led to appreciate both his roots with Robert Henri at the New York School of Art and the influence of Hopper’s early art studies in Paris.
Were a long way from the optimism of Frederic William Church and the 19th century Hudson River School.
But from the beginning, as is clearly emphasized in this show, Hopper was onto something quite different from all of his coincident colleagues. As early as his Sar Bleu, painted in Paris in 1914 and emphasized in the show, Hopper was essentially interested in portraying people that are disconnected from each other. The scene he composes in Sar Bleu at first appears to be like a Renoir outdoor restaurant scene but it is really about people in an urban environment who are searching for meaning and doing so in different directions. Whether looking to a party or a prostitute or a drink or a costume or a cigarette, each is hoping for a way to anchor himself/herself, for a moment, in modernity. The assumption here is that there is no given, strong ontological foundation for any of these people, and that each is left to design a separable, purposeful logic for being in the world.
By showcasing this painting, which does not usually show up in standard collections of Hopper’s work, the exhibit is really helpful in demonstrating that, from early on, this really was Hopper’s theme, in one sense or another. He sees people, in modernity, as being alone even when we’re with others. We do the work that we do, we work with others and live with others because we are modern, social beings. And, of course, we live together, but we are not connected in any strong ontological sense. Modern community is only superficial, an illusion of association. It can’t penetrate the depths of modern (and, of course, postmodern or hyper-modern) solitude.
And we’re a long way from believing that nature is any comfort in all of this. We’re a long way from the optimism of Frederic William Church and the 19th century Hudson River School. For Hopper, nature, the ineffable, is often scary, dark and ominous (Gas, 1940, Cape Cod Evening, 1939) and it gives one no sense of direction. For Hopper, nature doesn’t welcome us to transcendence, as in the Romantics’ vision. It is just there. It shuts us out. It pushes back with foreboding against us. It’s a wall — as are the walls erected by the people around us to keep us out and to keep their privacy in.
But Hopper doesn’t just leave it there. He can be understood, if you will, philosophically, as apposing a further structural position — and the Whitney show helps to make this point by emphasizing Railroad Sunset, 1929 and A Woman in the Sun, 1961, the latter painted close to the end of Hopper’s life. Railroad Sunset looks like a realist Rothko, with its horizontal lines of black and red and yellow and gray above the railroad track that crosses the frame from left to right. There are no people. The painting sets up the viewer against this stark Otherness.. There is almost a spiritual dimension here, as in Rothko. Man comes up against All, abutting whatever there is beyond the self-conscious individual — like Ahab in Moby-Dick. It’s the American individual seeing All, or nature, as abstract thereness. It’s as if Hopper, aware of and having portrayed, in his own oeuvre, the depth of the self, can now place it up against the depth of the universe in a kind of cosmic, modern balance. It’s as if, in searching for human connection and finding alienation, he is finding at least the equivalence of depth between the individual’s immense interior and the enormous, mysterious exteriority beyond the self. He is, in an existentialist sense, pitting the individual, especially the American individual, up against All.
Hopper makes the same case in A Woman in the Sun in which a naked woman stands, with a cigarette, in a bare room, by herself, facing a window and standing on a rectangular shaft of light. Alone and without evasion or illusion, she faces All, the ineffable, her destiny, her mortality. She faces Otherness directly and firmly, on a equal plane with the non-Self — and she is ready, ready to face what is there.
This extraordinary self-awareness, clarified and simplified even further in 1963 in Sun in an Empty Room, one of Hopper’s last paintings (but not in the show), in effect even broaches an anticipatory, postmodern sensibility. But, really, in all of his work, as with Shakespeare in King Lear and Samuel Beckett in Waiting for Godot, Hopper pursues the limits of the human, ontological condition, of the implications of piercing self-awareness and concludes, as with Edgar in Lear, that the “ripeness is all,” that we must face our human condition and our cosmic reality in full, mature recognition. For Hopper, this means that we must bring a cold, unsparing, full light of aesthetic perception to how we see the world. This is why his realism is an eerie, stylized, disturbing realism, why his light, even his sunlight, lacks any sense of comforting, conventional warmth.
...Hopper really knows something about us as we are now, that he seems to know where we stand in late modernity, or postmodernity.
It is also why Hopper is such an American artist. In no other country is individualism writ so large. In no other culture is the self so autonomous. Hopper pursues the implications of this situation for its ultimate, ontological meaning and touches on the question of a transcendent pose. After all, if Hopper is so popular and so seemingly accessible, as is surely evinced by the response to the latest Whitney show, and, really, to any Hopper show, it is because we must all be aware, on some level, consciously or viscerally, that Hopper really knows something about us as we are now, that he seems to know where we stand in late modernity, or postmodernity. We sense we can find a kind of answer in his refusal to blink in that cold sunlight and in his refusal to take false refuge from it. We sense, maybe with our own resignation, that he could be right, that his aesthetic appreciation that “ripeness,” a lucid self-awareness, could be the best we can hope for now, might just be enough or, at least, the most we can now expect.