Thursday, April 10, 2014

The Old Normal

"Hopper Drawing:  A Painter’s Process,” Walker Art Museum, running through June 20, 2014

Occasionally the Walker (Minneapolis, US Art Museum) brings a heavy-weight show that resonates beyond the ‘post-modern art’ rubric that has isolated the Walker for so long.  This would be one of them.  Hopper is most famous for his picture, “Nighthawks,” (1942) of a lonely corner diner at midnight, peopled by 3 diners and a cook seen through glass.  It has become one of the best known American paintings, and has inspired kitsch artists, musicians and filmmakers. 

This show brings some of the New York’s Whitney Museum of American Art’s Hopper pictures and the accompanying sketches he did to prepare for them, in one show.  ‘Nighthawks’ is not here – it is on the walls at the Chicago Institute of Art, while others are at New York’s MOMA.    Yet some of the Nighthawks preparation sketches – of the back of a man, the arm of a woman, the coffee urns, the corner building (reportedly somewhere in Greenwich Village) are here.  The Whitney’s collection was willed to them by Josephine Hopper, his widow and the female subject and model for many of his paintings. 

Hopper painted from his apartment in Washington Square, in the heart of Greenwich Village, and then from his many walks and train rides around New York.  He was like a voyeur, who peeked through windows and painted what he saw.  After purchasing a car and then getting a summer house in South Truro on Cape Cod, he began to paint ‘road scenes’ made up of unexceptional woods or buildings, stark factories, hotels and gas stations, as if also shot from the window of a passing car.  He painted ordinary people, usually alone or in small groups in a vaster human landscape – a theatre worker, a man and his secretary, 3 people having a meeting in a room, a woman waiting on the stoop of a building, a naked woman looking out a window into New York.  Grasping architecture was an early skill he developed and here it envelops the people – or stands alone.  Light and shadow are prominent – sort of filmic New York noire.  Isolation and alienation are everywhere, even in the summer, even in the sunlight.  The domination of the environment is taken for granted.  Early on he painted a series of French paintings, as he visited Paris 3 times and was enthralled by French culture, but these are atypical of his later master works. 

The black and white charcoal, ink and pencil sketches show the work that went into every painting – in one work almost 50 signed preparatory sketches were done, trying to find the right overall visual structure and the details.  Hopper would also indicate what colors were going to be used in each area by writing the color on the sketch.  He didn’t do color sketches.  He also made extensive notes sometimes on the bottom of the sketch.  One sketch, in which a woman is hitting a man off a bed with a club, stands out for its violence and movement, something Hopper almost never did.  Another humorous sketch is of small cluster of people peering at paintings in a large gallery – just like the viewers peering at the small cluster of humans in the sketch in the real gallery.  Another large painting, of a motley group of strange and classical Parisians, stands out for not being based on something he saw, but on imagination… something he returned to towards the end of his painting life.
The painting ‘Office at Night’ (1940) is one any white collar worker will understand.  We’ve all been in that café in ‘Nighthawks.’  Anyone looking out a window onto the vast built expanse of the city will understand ‘Morning Sun.’ (1952).  The bored usherette of “New York Movie,” (1939) is a person we’ve seen many times.  We might even have been that person.  The painting “Dawn in Pennsylvania” (1942 apx.) is of a factory near a railroad station in a coal town – not a house in Malibu.  We might have worked there.  We’ve driven by the non-descript woods in the painting, “Road and Trees,” (1962) many times.  “One of his paintings, “The House by the Railroad,” (1925), though not in this show, was used as a model of the house in “Psycho” and the farm house in Terrence Malick’s “Days of Heaven.”  - an isolated yet ornate structure in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by nothing.  We’ve seen that too out on some rural hill.  Hopper makes the ordinary noticeable. 

Why does Hopper matter?  Hopper (1882-1967) was born to middle-class parents, was inward and conservative, interested in Freud and painted for years before his great paintings clustered in the 1940s.  Yet Hopper matters because of the emotional resonance of his painting, and especially because of his subject matter.  It is ordinary, not extraordinary.  It is normal, not meant to shock.  It is more real than reality at times, as it captures the human feelings behind visual reality.  It shows the isolation permeating capitalist life and the overwhelming constructed environment dwarfing human beings.  In a way, the humans are lost in the environments and sometimes completely absent.  It is sober, not hysterical or agitated.  He painted factories, tenements and warehouses, bridges, working people, isolated nudes, lonely houses and woods.  Part of the historical ethos of the Depression, World War II and its aftermath soaks his paintings – a kind of realistic and historical gravity that is unmistakable.  Time is present in paint and sketch.   

In that, his paintings pre-date abstract art, pop art and post-modernism.  You might consider him part of the U.S. ‘regionalist’ movement of Thomas Hart Benton, Grant Wood and John Steuart Curry.   His paintings communicate more directly to most viewers, representing a reality that people are more familiar with and understand.  Art for everyone, not for someone. 

And I saw it on Sunday, April 6, 2014
Red Frog
April 10, 2014

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