Under the Crack of Reality

Edward Hopper saw an America that no other painter had got right. Now we can't see it without seeing him.

by Robert Hughes (1995)

Edward Hopper died in 1967, nearly 30 years ago, but he remains one of those artists whose work—no matter how familiar and often reproduced it has become—comes up fresh whenever you see it. This diffident son of a Nyack, New York, dry-goods merchant had a long working life, almost all of it in America, and a sober style, some of which came from France and particularly from Manet and Daumier. One of his few public utterances—in 1927, to the effect that "now or in the near future, American art should be weaned from its French mother"—used to be taken by cultural America-firsters as a manifesto of secession, but it wasn't. He knew that real originality is made, not born; that it doesn't appear in spasms and tics but rather in a long digestive process, modified by anxiety. And he was a ruminator: placid, sometimes, on the surface, but an artist of incalculably deep feeling. Along with Jackson Pollock, his polar opposite in every way, he was probably the most original American painter of the 20th century.

The largest collection of Hoppers, some 2,500 paintings, drawings and prints, was left to the Whitney Museum of American Art by his widow, Josephine Nivinson Hopper, when she died a year later. Hopper's name is more closely bound to the Whitney than any other American artist's to any American museum, and the Whitney's main show this summer is a reunion of some 60 of his finest paintings from various collections, including its own. "Edward Hopper and the American Imagination" isn't a formal retrospective. It's more an evocation of Hopper's world, and its scale feels just right.

Instead of the usual scholarly catalog, the museum has opted for a collection of texts, poems and stories by (mostly American) writers, ranging from Paul Auster to very early Norman Mailer, from Ann Lauterbach to William Kennedy. These suggest a parallel harmony to the paintings, not art history or criticism but analogies in writing. (Since, unlike most curators, the writers can write, one can read this vade mecum with pleasure after the show.) The idea is to show how pervasive the areas of American experience that Hopper raised have become. The show falls between two more formal Hopper events: the recent publication, at long last, of Hopper's catalogue raisonne, and a definitive biography, due in the fall. Both are by the leading Hopper scholar, Gail Levin, and represent 20 years of work.

Hopper's realism had nothing to do with the prevalent realisms of the 1930s and '40s in American painting. That is to say, it had no persuasive content; it was entirely free from ideology, left or right. He had studied painting with Robert Henri, whose politics were romantically anarchist. But none of the political ferment of pre-World War I New York rubbed off on him, and none shows in his work. The only painting in this show that could be guessed to show an industrial worker is Pennsylvania Coal Town, 1947; and the bald man is posed like Millet's peasant with a hoe, raking grass outside his house in the sunlight, not hewing at the coal face in darkness. No hints of class conflict intrude on Hopper's vision of American society, which he painted one isolated person at a time.

He kept his political views to himself. They were those of a conservative Wendell Willkie Republican who, like his wife—the "Jo" whose presence pervades his paintings—loathed the New Deal and believed Roosevelt was trying to become a dictator. Hopper rejected New Deal cultural programs; he didn't need work from the WPA (his pictures were selling in the '30s for enough money to keep the Hoppers in frugal comfort and privacy, which was all he asked for), but he despised "improving" rhetoric in painting anyway. At the same time, he hated being classed with the equally rhetorical conservatives of "American Scene" painting, like Thomas Hart Benton. "I never tried to do the American scene," Hopper said. "I think the American Scene painters caricatured America. I always wanted to do myself." As a result, you won't find a stereotype anywhere in Hopper—though there are certainly figures and nuances of human relationship that recur because they fascinated him, which is not at all the same thing.

He saw an America no one else had got right; and now you can't see it without seeing him. His baking New York rooftops and rows of stumpy brownstones, his blue vistas of the sea at Wellfleet where yachts lean with plump sails into the light, his isolated people gazing from the windows of dull apartments or seedy motels, have become part of the very grain and texture of America's self-image. They capture what Hopper called "all the sweltering, tawdry life of the American small town, this sad desolation of our suburban landscape." Sometimes this transcends itself and leads to a sense of epiphany, as when the blond woman in the open blue robe appears in the dark doorway of High Noon, 1949, like some secular madonna drawn from sleep by a distant angelic voice.

Moreover, no American painter has influenced popular culture more deeply. A host of vernacular images, some famous (like the palace on the Texas plain in Giant, or Norman Bates' gaunt and brooding Victorian house in Hitchcock's Psycho), seem to grow from his work. Stage designers love him. Cameramen especially are drawn to what his friend, the critic Brian O'Doherty, called "that slanting, film-noir light." He loved movies and the stage, and was deeply influenced by them. He was capable of an enormous enthusiasm for players, not as stars but as workers in the mine of illusion. In that respect he was like a more demotic Watteau, tracing an American commedia dell'arte. The stripper in Girlie Show, 1941, with her fine strong legs, haughty red trap of a mouth and ginger hair, fairly explodes into the spotlight, but there's an ironic memory of Botticelli in the way she holds her veil.

Hopper's theatricality extends beyond his theater scenes. In a great Hopper there is always the moment of frozen time, literally a tableau, as though the curtain had just gone up but the narrative hasn't begun. It gives images of ordinary things their mystery and power, as in Early Sunday Morning, 1930, with its long streaks of raking shadow cast by hydrant and barber's pole, its empty but never standardized windows. It's never portentous, as de Chirico's cityscapes could be; you are in the real world but a stranger world than you imagined. The screwdriver slips under the lid of reality and lifts it a crack, no more. What's inside? Ask early Auden:

         The glacier knocks in the cupboard,
         The desert sighs in the bed,
         And the crack in the tea-cup opens
         A lane to the land of the dead.

Hopper excelled in painting, discreetly and from without, people who are outsiders to one another. You imagine him staring from the Second Avenue El as it rattled past the lit brownstone windows, storing the enigmatic snapshots of home and business for later use. These are reconstructed scenes, emotion recollected in tranquility. In Room in New York, 1932, it is night; a man reads a paper at a round table, a woman turns away in her own absorption and boredom, touching the piano keyboard with one finger. They are out of synch, and their distance from each other is figured in the simple act of a woman with a shadowed face sounding a note (or perhaps only thinking about sounding it) to which there will be no response. No doubt Hopper saw something like this, yet not very like it. The space would not have been measured by his three exact and conscious patches of red: the armchair, the woman's dress, the lampshade. The figures would have been remote. In the picture they are large, and we are close to them, outside their window. You don't for a moment imagine Hopper on a scaffold outside the window or spying on the couple through a long lens. And yet the painting does evoke the pleasure, common to bird and people watchers, of seeing while being unnoticed; it does put your eye close to the window, several floors up; and this contributes a dreamlike tone to the image, as though you were levitating while the man and woman remained bound by gravity. This is not realism, but the scene is intensely real, a vignette framed in the dark proscenium of the window.

Hopper gives us a created world, not one that is merely recorded. Everything in it is shaped by memory, sympathy, distance and formal imperatives. Nothing is there merely because it "was there." Mark Rothko hated diagonals, but loved Hopper's. Richard Diebenkorn loved diagonals and loved Hopper's too. As well anyone might: the diagonal, the slanting patch (especially of light) becomes a wonderfully expressive element in Hopper, acting both as a structural brace for the actual painted surface and as a sign of fugitive reality in imagined space. In Morning Sun, 1952, you are acutely aware that Jo, the long-limbed, middle-aged woman staring at nothing in particular from her bed, will move in a moment, that the patch of light will move too, that nothing will be the same again: but there it is, exactly the same.