Edward Hopper is the quintessential painter of American loneliness. Would Hopper’s characters ever have Facebook pages? What if they were checking their Twitter feed in the night cafe? Of course, it is absurd to ask these questions. His subjects seem not just like people naturally inclined to isolation but as though they were operating during a lonelier era.
Curators Barbara Haskell and Sasha Nicholas present Edward Hopper at the Whitney along with 34 of his American contemporaries. The comparisons straddle the first half of the 20th century: the Ash Can School, the Precisionists, Paul Cadmus’ Sailors and Floozies of 1938 (which depicts Tom of Finland-like sailors being accosted by loose women), John Sloan, Paul Strand, George Bellows with the greatest boxing painting of all time (Dempsey and Firpo, 1924). Hopper’s teacher Robert Henri is represented by an obsequious odalisque of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney. In My Egypt (1927), Charles Demuth celebrates a grain elevator in Lancaster, Pa., by comparing it to an Egyptian pyramid, all light and angles.
What becomes clear in all this company is that Hopper himself is a loner. It’s not that his time was a lonelier time, although it may be tempting to think of it that way. He was a stand-alone artist. Some people are like that, too. Hopper is that kind of person. Private. People who don’t see themselves as surrounded by a cloud of friends. People who consider participation in larger social movements as a form of submission to a reduction of character and refuse to be reduced. There’s a stoic individualism at work in Hopper’s pictures, present in the loneliness of urban people and the independence of objects that’s relevant today.
Don’t get me wrong. Hopper isn’t an outsider. The world he painted covers a familiar territory, from the West Village to Cape Cod. A youthful self-portrait, painted in 1903 when he was 21, reveals a patrician young man in a somber suit, snub-nosed, soft-lipped and slack-jawed. He grew up comfortably middle class in Nyack, N.Y. Hopper channeled Degas during his first decade back from studying in Paris. New York Interior (1921) explicitly imports the 1870 Degas painting Interior. In it a disheveled, half-dressed woman lit in lamp light mends a garment. She lives in a room crowded with pictures and a clock, a stark apartment too small and shabby to contain the sinewy pale beauty of her naked shoulders. Later, his focus zooms out a little, taking in street scenes and storefronts, and then he becomes an American Atget, our painter of early-morning urban scenes before the action happens. In 1930’s Early Sunday Morning (the best painting in the show in the conspicuous absence of the Chicago Art Institute’s Night Hawks), long shadows and a stage-set quality monumentalize Seventh Avenue South. As for descendents, an unlikely one may be the painter Maureen Gallace. Hopper’s early Queensborough Bridge (1913) prefigures her glacial brushwork on the bridge and simple deft sufficiency in the shed.
As the show makes clear, Hopper grows increasingly nostalgic. In the 1930s, while painters are celebrating skyscrapers and cars and the angular delights of modernity, Hopper’s reaction to the modern is to stake out a timeless urban streetscape or rural view. He retreats to the countryside and paints small towns and American scenes: abandoned morning streets, loading docks, rooftops, under bridges, barns. He makes much of shadows, and his palette is predisposed toward the complements red and green. He tends to be voyeuristic, staging his paintings through windows or from above. His figures are solid, and his compositions emphasize the geometry of the everyday. He likes women in impossibly tight dresses; men rarely escape the costumes of their profession; and public places promise no interaction (for this reason he repeatedly painted the lonely movie theater in his neighborhood). He painted the quality of light with adjectival precision-cool electric light, thin morning light, the lonely light from a cinema screen. (If Hopper loved movies, the movies loved Hopper back: In his House by the Railroad , we see the inspiration for Hitchcock’s Bates Motel in Psycho).
The show is stacked in his favor. Other artists end up looking noisy and glib, their work ephemeral. Hopper weathered a storm of new styles with remarkable conservatism and consistency. A second self-portrait from 1925-1930 shows a more confident Hopper. Six foot five and blue-eyed, he has the steady gaze of the man about to become America’s painter of the 1930s and ’40s. This is one point of view. One could also say that Hopper missed the great and transformative waves of Modernist styles that buffeted and defined the art of the ’10s through the ’50s. The show gives us the unlikely experience of seeing Hopper the great loner in the context of his friends. Those who make art, who write, who engage in any kind of solitary work that relies on a point of view and time and a certain distance from contact, that relies upon individual intelligence, might relate to his position.