20081231

109 West Palm Beach, FL: August in a City



West Palm Beach, Florida: August in a City


By February, I could wrangle a long weekend off of work, and I headed someplace warm and not near other towns with a Hopper. I got to West Palm Beach in the early morning, before the heat rose for the day. I knew it would rise because the town felt more like a Western desert town than a Southeastern shore one. The city was broad, flat, and sandy, riddled with piney scrub. Newts scurried across the soft, unstable ground. Parallel two-lane highways ran north-south through town, dotted with one-story stucco bungalows whose dusty lawns were lined with bougainvillea, gladiolas, and other brightly-flowered bushes.

Sixty-seven miles north of Miami, West Palm Beach (called by the locals simply "West Palm") is the largest city in one of the fastest growing counties in the U.S. Donald Trump called the city's main drag, Clematis Street , the "hottest street in South Florida." Clematis was lined with Art Deco theaters like you might see in Hopper's paintings. The department stores had been converted into boutiques, cafés, and bars, including an "oxygen bar," and the Respectable Street Café--the antithesis of Hopper's cafes.

A chain coffee store was the only populated place when I arrived in the early morning and pulled up just behind a BMW with "Palm Beach Polo" license plate holders. Though the temperature already pushed eighty degrees, the reedy blond woman who emerged wore a sweater draped around her shoulders.

At a round table out front, an odd collection of people had congregated. Three older, gray-haired men (perhaps some of the influx of retirees) faced a young man, a young woman, and a middle-aged cop. One older man with his back to me wore a gold wristwatch and studied the newspaper. The girl wore a white T-shirt, and smoke from her cigarette wafted into the thick hair piled behind her head. The young man's beefy arms poked out from his gray sleeveless T-shirt and sunglasses rested atop his slicked-back hair; he also smoked, while nervously tapping his sandal. The policeman's standard-issue buzz cut seemed superfluous since he was balding. He looked an interesting mix of salty and jolly. His badge read, "Tim, serving since 1971." I asked him as someone who had to intervene in all parts of town what kind of city it was.

He whistled, "I've seen a lot of change. This town used to be filled with pineapple plantations. Was a sleepy town when I first came here fifty years ago. Started as the servants' quarters for the people in Palm Beach. It was seasonal to the point that a lot of people laid off the workers and just closed down during the off-season. It's a big city geographically. There's all kinds of neighborhoods."

"Downtown West Palm Beach," he continued, "was the retail district. Then in the past eight years, they revived it into the club district." He smirked and raised a hand to the streetscape. "As you can see." He pointed to three different street corners from his chair, each home to a chain store. "Those all used to be movie theaters, when I was a kid growing up."

"What's your most common call?" I asked him.

"'Disturbances:' domestic, among neighbors. My other most common call is for water violations. We're under water restrictions now for watering gardens, washing your car. People narc on their neighbors. Where are you visiting from?"

"Chicago."

"I'm from Racine, Wisconsin," the youngest man roared, shifting the sunglasses atop his oiled hair.

"I'll bet you're happy to be here instead, now that it's February," I joked.

"Aww," he snarled, "it's a typical East Coast town: from shacks to mansions; land to sea. I'm thinking of moving back to Racine, even though my dad called and said they got 15 inches of snow. I miss the four seasons."

"They're coming to the local theater," the cop quipped. "I'm serious," he said when we all turned quizzical looks to him. "Check your paper."

The man with the newspaper checked and, showing us the ad, said with an Australian accent that surprised me to hear, "No, I'm afraid, that's Smokey Robinson."

20081230

108 Back in the Lab


New England and New York greatly influenced Hopper, so my experiences and interviews there were important to understanding his life and works. They were also important to my life and work because the region was his home and home to so many of his paintings and towns where they hung. I was starting to learn more about Hopper, his paintings, and people's feelings about them.

I had interviewed everyone from street people to college professors. (Hell, I did that in one town.) Many agreed that isolation could be found in Hopper's paintings and in their hometowns. "This Hopper does make you feel like our city," a Boston museum guard confessed. "It's very depressing. All his paintings are very depressing. That's what I like about them."

My painter friend Julia mused about all the paintings in the Whitney's gallery devoted solely to Hopper, "You get a sensation of being alone. … In Early Sunday Morning, you would know all of the shop owners. … I grew up in this place, but I wonder: will the next generation have the same response?"

In Boston, a thin, red-haired, older woman, barked, "[Hopper's paintings] could be Anywhere USA."

But an earnest, red-bearded young park ranger along the African-American Heritage Trail in Boston hesitated. "I think a lot of people look at Hopper's paintings and feel isolated for reasons having nothing to do with Hopper's motivation for painting."

A dashing young actor who lived in Manhattan but had stopped into Hopper's birthplace in Nyack, New York, agreed. "People tend to want to attach certain events in Hopper's life to the ideas in his paintings," he warned. "But when something becomes universal, it really has to stand on its own."

Though they may quibble whether Hopper portrayed isolation, whether such isolation existed in their towns, and whether that isolation was negative, they nonetheless loved looking at Hopper's paintings. Some enjoyed viewing them for the loneliness they saw in them. But many commented on Hopper's artistry—whether they appreciated it or not.

In New Haven, one of my host's male artist friends carped, "There's something that seems 'unearned' by Hopper. … I think Hopper found a formula for something that worked and then stuck with it. A friend of mine owns a couple of Hopper watercolors. In those, I see Hopper doing more interesting stuff than in his oils."

But most liked his oils. As the Whitney security guard confided, "When we had the big show of Hoppers, we had like a half a millions [sic] people come here for that. This guy [Hopper] he gets visitors from all over the world."

Even a gruff street character in New Haven turned out to be a huge Hopper fan. "[Hopper's paintings here] are really great. You're going to love them," he guaranteed.

The dour Canadian woman at the museum front desk in Manchester, New Hampshire, appreciated that, "You don't have to work hard to understand what he's after."

The woman who showed me the Hoppers in MOMA's storage crooned, "I certainly love him as a painter. He's so much a part of our training, as American artists. He's part of the pantheon. These are like flash cards. I really think that's something nice about Hopper: his paintings have an internal scale based on a certain kind of looking."

The ranger in Boston had posited, "What's great about Hopper's paintings is what they don't have: no glass in the windows, no cars, no trash. You could eat off of that street. In his one of people fully dressed in suits, , they're just baking! It's a harsh, awful light. There's no atmosphere. It's like those pictures of Buzz Aldrin on the moon, just direct shadow."

But when it came to discussing isolation outside of the paintings, most people initially denied that they or their town mates were isolated. Maybe it was defensiveness. No one likes to associate their home with negative attributes. And most people viewed isolation (especially Hopperesque isolation) as negative. But after a while, people usually admitted to that they were isolated in some way. And even when they didn't, I often saw ways in which they were isolated.

Geography was one form of isolation. Hopper's home and subject, New York City, had a big-city anonymity that made people feel isolated—perhaps most so there, in the nation's biggest city. In New York's Whitney Museum, a stocky, energetic young man spat, "New York is kind of a lonely place, despite being around people constantly." The young Manhattan actor I had met at Hopper's birthplace realized, "I've experienced that my whole life: being around so many people but being alone."

The man behind MOMA's store counter said Hopper's paintings did capture New York as he had experienced it over the course of his 50-plus-year life and that he had often found himself alone like the woman in Automat. He also spent all day looking at reproductions of Hopper paintings, so maybe the images merged with his memories. Or maybe his recollections matched the images. Hopper's paintings are like memories we had forgotten, like stumbling on a forgotten snapshot in our keepsakes box that brings welling back up the emotions of the moment.

In the second-largest city I visited, Boston, Ted Kennedy's double on the boat from Charlestown Navy Yard told me everyone wanted to move there when they saw what a great town it was. But many there felt that the "great" city was filled with mean, isolated people. The park ranger had complained, "We are isolated in the United States, and Boston is one of the worst places for it. I sympathize with people who come here and talk about how mean, how downright mean, Bostonians can be." Deborah, an acquaintance of mine who moved cross-country from Chicago to Boston noted, "Everyone in Boston is in their own little world." Perhaps Hopper's beautiful but slightly creepy renderings of American scenes are perfect depictions of our duplicity about whether our communities are isolated or not, for better or for worse.

People in Brooklyn, a large populous New York City borough, muttered that the town was too big to summarize as isolated or not. A friend who lived there e-mailed, "I don't think Brooklyn is a lonely place at all. … it's one of the most diverse places on the planet. There are a lot of neat neighborhoods. Then again, just because it's crowded doesn't mean there isn't plenty of loneliness." The fact that Brooklyn had different enclaves that each had a unique flavor implied that certain people might be drawn to one or the other (and, by inference, feel isolated in one or the other).

Ironically, unlike big-city denizens, people in the smallest towns, the most geographically isolated, felt least isolated. A museum employee in Williamstown, Massachusetts, joked that the town was the exact opposite of Hopper's world : "Besides the obvious (i.e., there is no city to gaze out at), it's pretty hard to remain an isolated, anonymous person in Williamstown. If the world is separated by six degrees of separation, here it's more like three! This is, as I'm sure you've guessed, both a blessing and an annoyance." A Williams College student there told me, "Your neighbor knows your every move." Yet the town seemed ideally geographically isolated out in the Berkshire Mountains. The Clark Art Museum was placed there during the Cold War so that the works would be safe from a nuclear explosion because Williamstown was equidistant from New York City and Washington, DC.

An Andover, Massachusetts, resident who had graduated from my prep school protested that Andover (like Williamstown), "doesn’t have that urban isolation of Hopper [because it's a] commuting suburb of Boston."

In Purchase, New York, in Manhattan's wealthy suburban Westchester County, I didn't find many locals who felt isolated--but then, I didn’t find many locals. A more nowhere place than Terre Haute, Purchase was home only to two institutions (one State, one private): the commuter college SUNY-Purchase and the corporation Pepsico. No one lived there—"except the volunteer fireman" gibed a SUNY-Purchase student.

Westchester's Armonk was not even a town but legally a "hamlet" that was also home mostly to corporate headquarters. But Armonk's nowhere was about to be wiped out by housing developments. On the outskirts of town, at one of the last remaining farms, the owner's wife cackled, "There's a lot of new, stock market money here. I don't know who's making it, but they're making it." And after my visit, they used it to buy her farm and make it a subdivision of homes.

Like the buyers of those homes, many people were using geographic dislocation (moving) to find or avoid isolation. The period in which I researched the book was one of the hottest real estate markets in U.S. history. Maria who hosted me in Nyack, believed, "[D]islocation [is] the American dream, in an odd way." My friend Chris, who joined me in visiting the Hopper in Manchester, had overcome isolation by moving to Hanover, New Hampshire. He complained that his former town (DC suburb Alexandria, Virginia) "was a 'planned' suburb, but felt more like a 'contrived' community. … People there buy half-million-dollar homes put up overnight on a tiny bit of land, then have to move further out ten years later to afford what they had ten years earlier."

Some came to a certain town to find others who were like-minded. A town's reputation became a self-fulfilling prophecy for a community definition. The woman at Hopper's Nyack birth home insisted, "We moved [here] because we wanted more of a feeling of community." So did the woman living there in Carson McCullers's old house: "We moved here because it is Main Street."

Montclair, New Jersey, residents proudly told me that the town was unique in that its racial mix all got along. People like my fellow prep school alum moved there because it was known as a place for interracial couples like in his marriage. But it seemed to me that if you lauded the town's races getting along, you were assuming that isolation was a given when races coexist or reside in the same town. That alum admitted that there was still friction in Montclair, but "At least it's out in the open."

Others, like the natives of Armonk, New York, weren't moving of their own free will to find a certain community; they were being driven out by real estate speculation. Economic refugees, they were about to be overrun by houses for the wealthy. The few people that lived there were changing from the farmer and fireman/short order cook I met to the "stock market money people" the farmer eventually sold to. The line cook said that the new residents, "all want to be left alone, which is isolated. They want the peace and quiet of the country. … gotta get away from the hustle and bustle."

In New Haven, real estate flight from the city had helped to fuel the inner core's demise. Yale is one of the few remaining institutions in the former industrial capital's dying downtown. Though New Haven's wealthiest resident, Yale pays no taxes to the city, damning that town to ruin. My host Joe's co-op apartment building was going bankrupt. "Nothing downtown can hold its value," he groaned.

The Brooklyn boroughs' constant change in character was often due to real estate turnover driving people out of their neighborhoods and/or importing outsiders. It was summed up by a woman, who said people, "Buy a house and it's gone back and forth again. … Downgrade and then turn around and upgrade."

Some transplants didn’t like what they found when they moved to a city. An older woman who had retired to Manchester from New York City rolled her eyes, "I grew up in Manhattan, so you can imagine what it's like to be in Manchester. To me, it's small town in every way." Her coworker was no happier, but for the entirely opposite reason. "This is like New York City for me," giggled a fresh-faced nursing student who had moved to Manchester, New Hampshire, from a small rural town in the state. "That's just not me because I'm a country bumpkin." She was living the pattern many have seen in Hopper's subjects: a country person overwhelmed after moving to the city.

The Canadian woman at the museum front desk in Manchester, lamented, "There is a much higher individualistic attitude here [than in Canada]. … Hopper does capture the isolation, and I think that isolation has become more pronounced. I think it's pretty awful."

Another font of isolation was wealth, education, power, and class. These interrelated tangibles that dictate social pecking order were subsumed in one phrase by brilliant French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu when he coined the term "cultural capitol". Cultural capital is what he called having the kind of knowledge and experiences that the wealthy have and therefore relate to and respect. Money alone is not cultural capitol. Few who win the lottery become wheeler dealers; they have the money but not the connections or the same experiential vocabulary as the dominant class.

Many of the towns that I visited with Hoppers were dominated by educational institutions, and education is part of cultural capital. One cannot be self-sufficient without proper schooling. No one is born knowing everything. But the knowledge, skills and views that one learns ally one with a certain class. Certain people appreciate those who know how to leverage stocks, while others admire those who can pick locks. The key is to have the kind of knowledge and experiences that you can parlay into other kinds of wealth and power. And wealth and power created a ruling class, especially noticeable in New England. A prep school classmate, Meg, said, "That Old Boston Brahmin (associated with exclusivity and pretense, because after all they did come over on the Mayflower, lest you forget) is definitely very much alive and kicking even today."

In New Haven, cultural capital was a source of isolation that the locals described as "town and gown." An Eli (Yale student) studying "Security Studies" admitted, "I don't know a lot about New Haven, and that might be a good sign that we at Yale are set apart and isolated. And Yale is, what, the fourth richest university in the entire world? They could do a lot more for the city's economy." Her boyfriend agreed. "Socioeconomically: the haves and have-nots are separated. The best of the best and worst of the worst, right next to each other, crossing paths down the street. But one is just so far away from the other." And a gruff street character groused that he had lost his job because Yale employees didn’t want to lose theirs. "If you step outside the [campus] area, it's a ghetto."

In Williamstown, most residents were connected to Williams College the biggest resident in this tiny village. "There's a big rift between the college and town," a Williams College student said. "The college owns most of the prime property in town. Now, the college wants to build a multimillion-dollar performing arts center, and the residents are fighting it tooth and nail. It's kind of interesting because, like we said, some of the residents are Williams teachers. So they're in a tough situation."

Northampton, Massachusetts, is home to many students from the five local colleges: temporary residents geographically isolated from their homes. In Andover, I was told, "Philips Academy defines the social life here." And the posh prep school there was a way for the wealthy to determine who was let "in" to the inner circle and who was left out. Boston was a bigger, more diverse place than most college towns, but still had a sizeable student population. Deborah, noted, "Most of my roommates have come from elsewhere for school and stayed." A fiftyish woman, prim yet square-shouldered as a football player, who was in fact a banker, but couched her answer in terms of academia, theorizing, "If I was an instructor, I would point out to students that this is more of an example of the inner world of the painter: alone, isolated, and desperate. I don't think of the people of Boston like that."

The studio where Hopper had lived was now part of an educational institution: New York University. The studio was in theory open to the public, but a trollish teacher who seemed the very spirit of Jo Hopper's short feistiness, tossed me out nonetheless. I guess she didn't feel isolated enough. Or maybe she was trying to impress me by pulling the trump card of her cultural capitol, the "power" conferred upon her by being associated with a large educational institution. If so, that failed because I got invited backstage at New York City's prestigious Museum of Modern Art.

But New England and New York's emphasis on culture and schooling created a bond that overcame the inclination toward estrangement. Those who had similar educators shared a language with each other. And I was fortunate enough to have received such an education through my prep school. In Nyack, Maria, Grey, and Leslie welcomed me into their home because they connected to the idea of my project and responded to my question in a Socratic dialog around their fireplace. "What you are doing has very few precedents," Grey complimented me, "'anthropological art criticism.'"

In New York, cultural capitol has more currency than in most towns; thus, celebrity and art can be added to the components of cultural capitol here. Artists are outsiders invited in because they create objects that can be transformed into money. Artists had been known to be able to pay for meals in the finest restaurants by just leaving a drawing. In The Whitney, I had a brush with a modern artist: standing next to Annie Liebovitz in the lobby. But I respected her right to isolation even though she was a celebrity. Celebrity invites people to violate your isolation; they feel they know you through your works and name in the papers, but you don’t really know each other.

Many of those who have cultural capital don’t want to share it. And that might be related to the region's (and country's) worship of the DIY ethic. Pull yourself up by your bootstraps. Don’t accept any handouts. Of course, that frees you from offering any either. This also might explain the residents' notorious gruffness.

At New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, the stubby Slavic security guard who steered me to the correct gallery after I had been given wrong directions at the front desk sneered, "Do me favor; go back to front desk and tell woman she is donkey." This un-neighborliness attitude might explain New Yorkers' feeling that they are isolated; they can't count on the "kindness of strangers."

The Yalie's beetle-browed boyfriend discerned that "Even if you have good relationships, people who love you, you still can be feeling isolated from what goes on around you. They don't know who you are. Lots of people, you figure they're happy if they smile. But they're hiding their minds."

In Armonk, where corporations were headquartered, the locals were warm, while the corporation that held the Hopper and had invited me to see it resorted to asking me not to talk it or about them. In Purchase, the whole town had been divided between two large institutions: a corporation and a state-run institution. Money had bought each half of the town. There was no room for residents.

In Andover, the guy who had graduated from my prep school was the only one to answer my question. Unless you count a woman who patronized me with, "You're only as isolated as you want to be," then waved me off. The grammar of her sentence seemed passive-aggressively damning, given my experience in town. I couldn't get a quote from book store employees or workers in city hall (where, ironically, they all listen to each other in the open Town Meeting. And I couldn't get close enough to even try to get a quote at the local coffee shop. In Andover people were isolated. But they liked it that way.

In Northampton, Massachusetts, I found people unwilling to talk, especially the Smith girls. I suppose it's not every day that a guy approaches you asking your feelings. But it shows a suspiciousness that I think is American and due to various ethnic groups not having a common set of cultural nonverbal communication signals. Most Americans arrived from somewhere else, isolated from their original homelands and cultures. A Swede who moved next to a Greek might remain isolated from fear of not knowing what cultural expectations his neighbor had.

A man did say that the locals in Northampton were mostly well off. This might also lead to an isolation typically American and related to my point above. We seem to fear others because it means we will have to share. Again, this is ironic: we all came from somewhere else, and all wealth we have is off of lands seized from Native American tribes.

In a way, this region, which was the country's oldest, was also isolated by its history. Connecting with the past perhaps results in disconnecting from the present to some degree. It was a NEW England. The English thought of it as theirs, and now the locals consider it theirs. There is a possessiveness, a fierceness to the individuals and the mentality of the place. Like the New Hampshire flag warns, "Don’t Tread on Me." The region that spawned the war of Independence is now waging the War of Isolation.

A lifetime resident said that the Internet companies were new Boston and old Boston didn't relate. "But that's new," she objected. "It's not, I think, the way Bostonians think of Boston. If there is an isolated community, I would think of that as being it. They're new."

Manchester still called itself the Mill City and seemed to think of itself as that. But the shoe mills are now inhabited by cottage industries. I visited the town with a friend who embodied that change from manufacturing, a college buddy who consulted in "System Dynamics," which analyzes how elements of a situation affect each other to produce a result. Ideas are the new shoes.

Just as people in Boston were duplicitous about what kind of town it was, I also saw there the paradoxes of the Freedom Trail's myths versus the reality of U.S. history. In Brooklyn, a large populous New York City borough, was too big and shifting to define itself by its past or even cop to an identity in the present. Three older women in Brooklyn jeered, "There used to be a downtown. I wouldn't go back there any more now; you'd be shocked."

The people in Boston were called by my friend who moved there from Chicago "very very. Whatever they are," she warned, "they are intensely." Boston was peopled by those whose self-identities were like theatrical roles into which a Method actor throws himself or like Hopper characters. I saw that intensity, the ferociousness of New Englanders. A Ted Kennedy clone who I met on a boat tried to send me away, "I wouldn't touch it with a ten-foot pole," he said of Boston, and then admitted, "That's just what we tell visitors because everyone who comes to Boston wants to live here."

Maybe Hopper and/or his paintings reflected this regional attitude of alienation. As Maria observed in Nyack, "Hopper had everything he wanted, yet the paintings don't depict even marginal happiness."

Due to New England's population density (and its locals' attitudes), isolation might be a welcome respite from the crush of humanity. And this was Hopper's home. He often said (and some critics have read his paintings this way) that not only was depressing isolation not what he intended to portray but that isolation might be a welcome thing and not depressing at all. When he and Jo were walking along a ridge on Cape Cod viewing a gorgeous sunset late in the fall and late in their lives, she commented that this must be what heaven is like. Hopper thought about it. "Better," he muttered, "No people."

So people in New England said that they did not feel isolated like the people in Hopper's paintings--if you read his isolation as negative or depressing, as most people do. But how honest were people being with me? Anonymity allowed responders to be more honest, but it prevented me from fact-checking whether they actually believed their answers.

My personal interpretation that Hopper was trying to get at the isolation of an inner life versus the outer community was offered only by a couple of people, like the Yalie's boyfriend. Maybe I was one of only a handful of people to interpret Hopperesque isolation (or isolation in general?) as relating to internal life. If so, that made me feel more isolated than ever.

20081229

107 Newark, NJ: Waning


[Newark Today]

My flight home was late night, so we were in the museum right before it closed. Somehow, a fall dusk seemed the appropriate time to view a town so associated with urban decline. However, being closing time, my only interview options were the security guard and Sean.

The guard was sprawled in a chair when we got upstairs to where the Hopper hung, but he obsequiously snapped to attention and spouted information about the galleries and museum that seemed from a required script. He said he had moved to nearby Bergenfield form Nigeria and was surprised to hear of the painting's Manhattan connection. "It's supposed to depict somewhere in New York? I don't know where. So maybe that's why it's not my favorite. But there's quite a number of people have stopped by it for long time. People recognize it." That was all that he was willing to offer, so I turned to Sean.

"There's no end to what's above her. It seems to go up to heaven. There seems to be a lot more light up there. We're in the dark. It seems like a lull in things. Not a lot of activity. And really, I'm surprised there's not more people. The lights are on so it's not during a performance."

When I pointed to what I thought was an exit sign, Sean noted, "I'm not sure that isn't a painting on the wall over the stairs. 1937, it wouldn't be a lit sign I don't think. '37: they're still sort of in the throes of the Depression; that could explain the low turnout; why she's alone. She still has shape to her. She looks put together: black high heels, red dress."

I thought she was wearing a dark gray stole or scarf, but Sean felt otherwise. "You think that's a stole? I thought that was her hair and she's wearing a hat. It's a much more appealing idea if that's a blond in a fur collar. I was thinking she was rather dowdy."

After that, we went to the airport, and I went home to try to make sense of the New England trip's notes and experiences.

20081228

106 Newark, NJ: Museum


[Newark Museum]

"The art of Europe is finished—dead—and America is the country of the future. Look at the skyscrapers." -Marcel Duchamp, 1915. Written on the wall in the Newark Museum.

Built in 1926, the Newark Museum was donated to the city by store owner and Newark champion Louis Bamberger. A huge entrance court with a café did not prepare me for the museum's narrow hallways that shoehorned into small rooms stuffed to the gills.

In one of these narrow hallways hung Hopper's The Sheridan Theater.
The painting is tiny by Hopper's standards: about one-and-a-half feet by two. It shows the back of a woman looking over a theater balcony railing. She wears a tight red ankle-length skirt, white shirt, black hat, and black high-heeled shoes. Jo called the blond "a Mae West effect." She is looking into a pit of seats, as indicated by a brass railing to her right and an usher far left talking to someone atop a stairway. Her red-and-white combo is mirrored by the red and white in the rooms above her where the theater opens up. The odd red chandeliers on her level seem like scabs on the ceiling. Is she looking for someone? Has the play started? Ended? Is it intermission?

20081227

105 Newark, NJ: The Sheridan Theater

Newark, New Jersey: The Sheridan Theater


In Newark, I barely had time to see anything. Sean took me there on our way to the Newark airport, from where I would fly home. But that alone spoke of Newark's identity. It has become a travel and flight hub for the New York area. With much of its civic and business life draining away, what it still has to offer is sheer proximity to a livelier city. That also afforded Newark one of the highest-occupancy hotel markets in the country--a Hopperesque population if ever there was one. It also has the largest Portuguese population in any town outside of Portugal, and those people may feel isolated from their former country.

Founded in 1666 by other exiles (New Haven, Connecticut-area religious colonists fleeing their brethren's wrath), Newark is the third-oldest major American city. Current residents are not isolated from one another domestically: Newark occupies the second-smallest land area of America’s 100 most populous cities. And many ride on the city's Hopperesque 1930s-era subway. Ship-loving Hopper might also like knowing that Port Newark/Port Elizabeth is the third-largest commercial container port in the Western Hemisphere.

But the more Newark tries to convince everyone that they have changed, the more we are sure that it hasn't. Their Web site is stuffed full of information like the previous about their famous buildings, people, facts, and new developments. The more they crow, the more we are reminded of how bragging of accomplishments often masks feelings of shortcomings. The city's Web site advises visitors to ask for advice and assistance from the Downtown District's "Safety Ambassadors."

When I actually visited Newark, rather then merely fleeing their airport as usual, I found streets reminiscent of 1950s Life magazine photos: broad streets, murky lamps lending the town an eerie glow; large plastic letters drilled into concrete facades announcing a variety of variety stores: pawn shops, department stores, corner grocers, family-owned restaurants, fix-it shops, etc. The new buildings were the bottom-line-driven architecture of late Capitalism. The beautiful old buildings were soot-scarred and crumbling.

One of these was the Newark Museum.

20081226

104 Montclair, NJ: Divisions

[Downtown Montclair]

My friend Sean had driven me over from his house in Weehawken to visit Montclair. As advertised, Montclair felt like a town that was both a suburb and a dying industrial city or inner city with troubles.

The upper part of town (literally the north end and on a hill) that we drove through to get to the museum had big homes, cafes, book stores, plastic surgery centers, SUVs in the driveways, and people wearing sweaters that read "Dartmouth" and "Bucknell." Downtown, chain stores filled Montclair's old storefronts. We passed a lot of arts-related businesses or organizations. A furniture store was housed in what looked like it was once an art deco cinema from the golden age of theaters that Hopper painted. The Bohemian Restaurant looked like it was named for the ethnicity but now might refer to locals' lifestyle.

When we got to the other side of town, we found shorter streets, smaller rundown houses carved up into apartments, rusty cars, and the Baptist church. We had come here for Sean's favorite soul-food place, but it was closed, so we went next door to a place advertising "original St. Louis cuisine." Posters of St. Louis's athletic teams and African American entertainers adorned the buff-paneled walls. The service was St. Louis slow, too, though, and after waiting 20 minutes without anyone taking our order, Sean and I left.

Just as the Hopper painting here was one that failed to capture my interest, so too was the town.

20081225

103 Montclair, NJ: Coast Guard Station

Montclair, New Jersey: Coast Guard Station

[Montclair Art Museum]

Montclair seems an unlikely place for an art museum. It is mostly a bedroom community. It houses some prominent corporations and some prominent homes for their executives, one of whom founded the museum, which lies just south of the downtown, atop the crest of a hill in a grove of trees. In 1909, William T. Evans offered 30 paintings if a suitable fireproof building were provided. The next year, a group incorporated "to establish and maintain in the Town of Montclair, a museum."

The museum looked like one of the well-sized homes that surrounded it, except the parking lot was slightly larger than the nearby homes' driveways--but only slightly. The main building looked like a converted dentist's office. Greek-revival Ionic columns created a porch on the blond brick front. The campus is also home to an art school, administrative offices, library, and an arboretum. All those institutions under one roof made it too crowded, and, when I visited, the museum was under construction for expansion and the Hopper had been put away.


Though Hopper is often associated with his urban subjects, the Cape Cod landscape here, Coast Guard Station, is a favorite of the staff and visitors. A museum employee e-mailed me that she was sad I wouldn't get to see what she considered an excellent example of Hopper and one of her favorite works in the collection. The day I visited the museum, their store was sold out of the post card version of it. There are no figures in the painting. Instead, the title structure is set on a barren shore, and we see it's dark backside.

The museum focuses on American and Native American art, and one of its biggest donations was from Morgan Russell, an originator of the American movement Synchromism. Being near the mouth of the Hudson, the Museum also has a large collection of works by the Hudson River School and by Montclair's best-known artist, George Inness. A new specialty is 20th-century works by African-American artists. Part of the museum's mission statement is "evolving with our audience's needs." It even added a separate "Diversity Credo."

Montclair is known for its multiracial make-up, and one of its 38,0000 residents was one of the first African Americans to graduate from my prep school back in the 1970s. He was continuing the tradition by working in development for a private school near Montclair. I had met him once at a reunion, so I called him to get some background on Montclair. He answered in a baritone, his words measured but flowing swiftly.

"I don't think it's isolated," he opined. "It's a suburb, but it's only about 19 miles to Times Square. And it's a very participatory suburb. It's more like the Upper West Side than the Upper West Side is any more. The New York Times did an article about race in Montclair; out of a whole series on race, the culminating article was a story on Montclair. It called us an 'urban suburb.' There are a lot of ethnic restaurants; a lot of artists and writers choose to live here."

"I've lived here since 1987. We moved from Park Slope--which is a diverse neighborhood in Brooklyn--to raise our kids here. It's one of the best places to raise kids and the best town for an interracial marriage like ours. It's about 33% African American. It's one of the most diverse, warm…. Well maybe not warm. We argue a lot over school board issues and such, but argument is OK here. At least it's out in the open. Other towns," he chuckled, "consider a class on World Literature a high achievement."

20081224

102 Brooklyn, NY: A Difference of Opinion



A friend who lives in Brooklyn, a newer resident, e-mailed a different view, "I don't think Brooklyn is a lonely place at all. In fact, something like one of four Americans can trace their roots to Brooklyn. It is the largest borough in New York at 77 square miles and 2.5 million people. And it's one of the most diverse places on the planet. It's also almost completely residential. Then again, just because it's crowded doesn't mean there isn't plenty of loneliness. It's a big city. But it's not really a tourist destination, just a place where people live. There are a lot of neat neighborhoods. Some of the oldest Italian neighborhoods in the country are here. There's arty Williamsburg and Cobble Hill, tony Park Slope and Brooklyn Heights, and Prospect Park, one of the largest urban parks in the world. Can you tell I'm a Brooklyn partisan?"

20081223

101 Brooklyn, NY: Olga, Eunice, and Shirley



At the museum shop counter, three older women displayed the borough's notorious brashness. One who was plump and spoke with a European accent I imagined as named Olga. Another was small and dumpy, waddling on one bad leg; I called her Eunice. The third was tiny and well-coiffed, wearing big glasses and lots of jewelry. Her I dubbed Shirley.

When I asked if people here were isolated, they answered en masse as a Greek chorus. "Yep. Yep. Always. Too many people in the city. People are leaving New York, leaving like rats from a sinking ship. Really."

"I love living in Brooklyn," said dumpy Eunice. "I used to want to be only in Manhattan. And then I came here and see that it is very nice. You feel like you are in family."

Coiffed Shirley said, "I met my husband in Brooklyn, many many years ago. He was going to college at the time, then he went away to war. I've lived in Brooklyn for all my married life."

"We originally came from Massachusetts," said Eunice, "and settled in downtown Brooklyn for years. My husband had a parking lot down there. But then it started to go down, and he sold out."

"The neighborhood's changed," groused Olga, and all three rolled their eyes, followed by lots of clucking, head-nodding and frowning.

"Yeah, mm hmm," they all reinforced Olga, so she added, "It's unsafe a lot of areas."

"The city even has changed," said Shirley. "I remember at fifteen, I used to get on the subway, go in with a bunch of girls. I'd go in with my fur coat and dressed up to see a show with my husband--on the subway! Now? Forget it! I make sure that nothing on is good. But I remember as a kid even going in the city. My mother let me do that with a bunch of girls. Now if I had a fifteen-year-old girl I wouldn't let her go on the subway to the city, come home ten or eleven at night. It's safer, but it's still hard. Now? At night? No. I wouldn't go."

Eunice hit her coiffed friend on the arm, "Now it's turning around. Coming up again."

"Yeah," agreed Shirley. "There's lots of change. Buy a house and it's gone back and forth again."

"Downgrade and then turn around and upgrade," Olga ruminated.

"They're buying like sundaes now in some areas," Shirley exclaimed. "But a while back it was just scary. Way way back, it was considered 'the place.' I mean if you could afford to live there. Better that than the other direction. Now it's going back. Now it's very residential. Mixed: everything and everyone. You ought to see what was going on there. Never saw a neighborhood like that. Isolated? If anything, what would be the opposite?"

"Inundated," Olga piled on.

"Oh yes. Lots of people," Shirley assented.

"There used to be a downtown [here in Brooklyn]," jeered dumpy Eunice. "I wouldn't go back there any more now. You'd be shocked! But this is a big city. There's always a different group coming in. They wanted to change the language to Spanish. How could you do that? Every group that comes in had to learn English. I remember my husband's folks came here from another country: Poland. They were proud to be here. She went to school at night just to learn English. Because that's what they wanted in those days. But nowadays the people coming in they want you to change. They may say I'm prejudice, but I don't think it's right. Now you have Russians coming in. I went to San Francisco and everything's in Japanese, and I thought, 'What country am I in?' But that's where the money is. All the Japanese; they are dying for their money."

"Where do you live now?" I asked.

"Sheepshead Bay."

"Oh. It's nice there," said Olga.

"Yeah," sneered Eunice. "Nicer than downtown Brooklyn."

20081222

100 Brooklyn, NY: They Say I Am Lonely

Macomb's Dam Bridge shows a pretty landscape, yet a big dumpy gray bridge dominates the middle of the painting. There are actually two arched trusses holding up different parts of the bridge. At left, a concrete pillar with rubber tires around it sits on a long grassy island below the bridge. The river is sky blue, while the sky is mostly white. The water might be so pale partly because it's reflecting the white of the clouds. This composition inverts his usual structure, as the river provides a substitute sky below the bridge.

Brooklyn is notorious as the landing place for immigrant families who couldn't travel far from Staten Island. It's a melting pot, roiling and seething from the mélange of cultures contained within its borders. Much of New York is that way, and a "realistic" view of Macomb's Dam Bridge would have to include many figures. So it's odd that Hopper has left out all the people in his scene of Manhattan. Asked why, Hopper replied dryly: "I don't know why, except that they say I am lonely."

I was not lonely, however. I was viewing the painting with a white-haired woman in a pale blue sweater who was making her way through the gallery. She seemed sweet but a bit edgy. I asked her thoughts about the painting.

"I don't remember it," she said. "I'd have to see it again." We walked back to the painting. "It's very realistic."

Three shrill whistles filled the gallery, and I suspected an alarm had gone off. The woman smiled to calm me.

"It's a little scary. It's my husband. He whistles for me like a puppy dog. It's a little frightening, a little forbidding."

"Yes," I agreed. "You can hear him from miles away."

"No, the painting," she said, flinging a finger at it. "Just forbidding. Isolation: that's exactly what comes through."

Her husband rounded the corner just then. He was a gaunt man wearing a dark blue overcoat. He had heard my questions, and jumped in to answer in a deep round voice as if his throat were coated with oil.

"It's not his usual bright light. It's a distinct lighting situation. We all know that kind of a day where there are those clouds there. I'm looking for some sort of bright light or beautiful situation or something. This painting really doesn't have any. It doesn't strike a special note, particularly when you see something with the eye of a painter. There's nothing stimulating." With a nod to his wife, she skulked behind him and they continued walking through the museum.

Whistling to call to heel your absent wife is one way to overcome isolation.

20081221

99 Brooklyn, NY: A Bridge


Brooklyn, New York: Macomb's Dam Bridge


After driving up into New England, I came back down to stay with Sean and Laurie in Weehawken and hit some other Manhattan-area towns. That first day back, I took a train to Brooklyn. A Hopper hangs in Brooklyn.

Like I mentioned above, this is a great example of how Hopper has exported pieces of America from their original locales. Brooklyn's most famous tenant may be the Brooklyn Bridge, which painters love painting because it is supposed to represent the beauty of modern American engineering. Hopper started to paint it in the background of his painting Room in Brooklyn, though he ended up omitting it. Room in Brooklyn hangs in Boston, while a bridge he eventually did paint, Macomb's Dam Bridge, ended up here in Brooklyn.

Macomb's Dam Bridge is housed in the Brooklyn Museum, a six-story behemoth along Eastern Parkway, itself a monstrous six-lane roadway. The museum is most famous recently for displaying an artwork made with elephant dung. The Brooklyn museum was actually the first to purchase a Hopper painting for its collection. However, it was a watercolor, not an oil. It shows a mansard roof (titled The Mansard Roof), one of Hopper's favorite subjects. Mansard roofs were invented in Paris where you were taxed according to number of floors. Landlords claimed the mansard roofs (which cover a whole floor) were actually roofs and not floors. Hopper, with his sly sensibility, would have appreciated the trickery.

The museum's three-story Beaux Arts lobby looked like a converted school, floored in dark linoleum. On the weekday I was there, it was filled with actual school kids, screaming and clambering, slapping each other. I waited a long time in line while the woman at the front desk stared at me and continued her phone conversation with a friend. When she hung up, she deigned to sell me an entrance ticket. I had to stop at the restroom first and found the children in there filling the toilets with paper. The toilet seats were all missing.

20081220

98 Manchester, NH: Bootleggers



Afterwards, I rooted around the museum, which had a fine collection of paintings by Hopper's contemporary Andrew Wyeth. Wyeth had his first one-person museum exhibition at the Currier in 1939, and developed a relationship with the museum much as Hopper did with the Whitney. Interestingly, Wyeth's favorite model had the same name as the woman at the front counter, Helga, and his extensive series of paintings of her parallels Hopper's exclusive use of Jo as a model. But the museum was as deserted of people as the city's abandoned mills down by the river that Chris and I had visited earlier that day.

So I sought out more employees in the gift shop where they sold reproductions of Hopper's paintings--bootlegged images. The shop's glass display counter and old-time register reminded me of the payout spots in Hopper's diners. Two women tended the counter: Annie was young and blond and pale, wearing a soft cloth dress. She had green eyes, a strong jaw, and a large nose. Maria was old and gray and olive-skinned, wearing a rayon shirt carved into different colors like a stained glass window. Pendulous silver earrings dangled across her patterned shawl. She sat on her stool, while the younger one leaned against the counter.

"When I think of isolation," Annie answered in a nasal tone, "the only thing I can think of: the mills of Manchester. That kind of isolates Manchester, not in a bad.... Well I guess it could be a bad way. People have different opinions on the mills. I think of isolation as distinguishing Manchester as the mill city.

"I never really thought of Manchester as being isolated. I'm from the country, an hour north, nothing like Manchester. I moved down here because I'm going to school here. I love the history of Manchester, the mill buildings, the great old stories about this mill town. I don't necessarily enjoy today's Manchester. This is like New York City for me. There's a lot of people. There's a lot of new stuff: condos, apartment buildings. But I don't appreciate it. They're building a new civic center for basketball and hockey, and that will overpower the whole section. Downtown is crazy on weekends. That's just not me because I'm a country bumpkin."

Maria finally cut in, in a raspy voice. "That center was voted out for so long, but they finally got it through. I tell you: the original people here, I mean really old, they don't want the changes at all. They still talk about the mills closing; they think that's terrible that that happened.

"I grew up in Manhattan," she continued, "so you can imagine what it's like to be in Manchester: old-fashioned in every way. I'll tell you what's different: the air is cleaner. I still haven't gotten over it, and I've lived here about 13 years. When I came up here, I loved the country. But the town? They consider this the big city. To me it's very small town."

"That's funny," giggled Annie. "You see how…"

"So opposite," Maria nodded.

As we left, Chris noted a pattern, as was his job. "Annie was an example of living out what you said Hopper often portrayed: coming from a small town and feeling lost in a big one."

We got back in the car and headed home. On the highway, we passed signs I had noticed earlier: "Liquor store and rest area."

"That seems like a questionable combination," I mused.

"Here in New Hampshire you can only buy liquor at a State-run store."

"I want to get some wine for dinner," I said. "Should we stop there?"

"No," Chris waved his hand before his face. "It's more expensive here. We'll go over the border and get it in Vermont; that's what everybody here does."

Bootleggers, it seems, is among compatriots.

20081219

97 Manchester, NH: Helga


[Andrew Wyeth, Braids (A Helga Portrait)]

Bootleggers hung in the lobby, opposite the Currier Museum's admission desk. I asked the woman working there, whose name tag said "Helga," what she thought about it, having to stare at it all day.

"I started working here six years ago," she answered in a husky whisper, "and this is the first time that they have had art in the lobby." She shook her tired, pallid face with a put-upon demeanor, sighing, "I didn't sleep the first night after the curatorial staff hung it here. People are sort of taken aback that it's right there for them immediately.

"It's marvelous. Hopper is one of my favorite painters. You don't have to work hard to understand what he's after. The house in this is a Hitchcock house to me; and the people are very anonymous. I always think the water is moving, that the boat is actually moving.

"I have a fun little association with it," she giggled. "I was involved in the docent program and gave tours to schoolchildren, and I happened to mention that the title was Bootleggers. One of the little boys in the group didn't understand. He associated it with bootleg tapes."

"Do you think," I asked, "people in your community are as isolated as Hopper portrayed Americans?"

"I think isolation is a theme with everybody here. I'm from Canada, but I've been here since the '60s. I love both countries. But there is a much higher individualistic attitude here. I had much more a feeling of belonging up there. Down here, everyone is very challenging. Your egos are much more highly developed. In Canada, our reference was to England, not to a president or a government but to a homeland. Americans are quite different. Even though there's the same language, there's a different philosophy. You have isolated people for lots of different reasons.

"Hopper does capture the isolation, and I think that isolation has become more pronounced as we've gotten into the latter part of the twentieth century and into the twenty-first. But Hopper was from an era and a generation when people were involved. People are so spread out now. Families are separated by distances. There's so much information now. You can not be in the same pool. You're your own little pool. I think it's pretty awful."

20081218

96 Manchester, NH: Mills

We learned at the history display at the Mill Yard that settlers tapped the Merrimack River in the 1600s to create the first mill, but the town remained a small farming community until it changed its name from Derryfield to Manchester in 1810 and began trying to rival England's industrial center of the same name. Soon, mills lined the river, and the city's population swelled, but in the twentieth century, the mills closed down and they were now rented to boutique businesses.

When we stopped at the information counter at City Hall, we met two gray-haired women who were living reminders of that part of Manchester's history, much as the statue in front of city hall paid tribute to another part: Brigadier General John Stark rallying his troops to victory in the Revolutionary War battle at Bennington by declaring, "There they are boys. We beat them today or Molly Stark sleeps a widow tonight." The two women were sharing a split blueberry muffin and a small cup of coffee when we entered. One wore a sweater decked with puppies and flowers; the other sported a cream-colored turtleneck and bright red blazer.

"My mother worked in the mills," the one in the blazer exclaimed when I asked. "She started when she was 11 years old. At 21, she was a widow with three kids, then she married my dad." She smiled and nodded, "I was the second batch."

The other chimed in, "After the mills closed down, we had famous shoe factories. They're building us a new civic center right here on Elm Street, which is important to the people around here. Not us," she smiled. "We're too old. There are a lot of beautiful things about Manchester--you'll find out. We have the mountains; we have the oceans; we have beautiful lakes; and we're near Boston."

20081217

95 Manchester, NH: System Dynamics

Manchester, New Hampshire: Bootleggers

I drove down to see the painting in Manchester, New Hampshire, with my friend Chris, who had kindly put me up in his hometown an hour north, Hanover, home to the Ivy League's Dartmouth College. The Hopper we were going to see was Bootleggers, a nighttime scene of a boat heaving toward a shore where stand a solitary grand house and a man in a bowler hat. You, the viewer, are placed alongside the bootleggers' boat, possibly an accomplice. The garish moonlit colors and thuggish figures imply that something unsavory is going on. It could be the bootlegging or it might be Prohibition, which Hopper hated and was in full swing in 1925 when he painted this.

I thought that Chris might offer a unique perspective on my question because his job was selling a way of looking at the world. "System Dynamics" aims to solve problems by looking at elements of an equation as affecting each other. When I visited, he was helping to figure out how to keep shrimp populations from being overfished. I asked him to consider the equation that adds up to Hopperesque isolation.

"It all comes down to what is your community," he asserted, turning his gentle blue eyes to mine. His lips, as usual, were tense with calculation. "In the inner city, is your community your gang? Maybe to a churchgoer, the church is their community. What lengths will they go to, to find that? People often look for a community where one does not exist. My wife and I used to live in Alexandria, Virginia, right outside of DC. It was a 'planned' suburb, but felt more like a 'contrived' community. They designed everything to be as efficient and pleasing as possible and of course pleased no one. People there buy half-million-dollar homes put up overnight on a tiny bit of land, then have to move further out ten years later to afford what they had ten years earlier.

"Hanover really has a community because of the college. Jane and I are willing to pay to be part of a community of people who are intellectually stimulating. Our neighborhood has incredible people like a retired astronaut, a midwife, and our friend Kadzo, who is one of the most prominent authorities in the field of how elephants interact with humans. Our property in Hanover is close to town, which has the movie theater that's been there since 1958, the pharmacy, and the grocery. People pay a premium for proximity to resources.

"Someone I work with is co-founding a co-op down in Vermont. Their idea is creating this sustainable group, yet they're in the middle of nowhere. They're going to have to raise their own food and all that other stuff. She'll have to drive twenty miles up to her job at Dartmouth then back. The houses they are building are more expensive than the one we bought in town. Not many people who want to live that way can afford to. It's not being done enough to be economical. Our living in Hanover is more sustainable. We can walk everywhere," he rejoiced.

20081216

94 Williamstown, MA: White Walls

Ever wonder why all museum walls are white. It's to show off the art better. By looking at a white wall, you have an opportunity to rest your eyes and come back to viewing a painting with fresh eyes, a "clean palette" as it were.

Why white? An interesting thing about color is that it consists of both pigment and the light reflecting off of that pigment. In pigments, black is the presence of all colors at once (think what you would get if you smeared all your paints into one blob). So white gives you the chance to look at a color absent of pigments so that you will be better able to see the painters' chosen colors when you go back to looking at the paintings.

The paradox is that in light (as opposed to pigment), white is the presence of all colors (wavelengths), and black is the absence (where was Moses when the lights went out?).

Ever wonder why I am telling you this?

(To rest your eyes.)

20081215

93 Williamstown, MA: THE Coffee Shop

[Williamstown in a postcard]

Before my visit, when I inquired by e-mail about the artsy coffee shop in town, a museum employee replied, "You have never been to Williamstown, have you? There is not an artsy coffee shop but simply the coffee shop. You'll get every coffee drinker in the town, artsy or not. This is a town of 8,000 people, so just ask anyone if you get turned around."

That employee also answered my question about Hopperesque isolation in Williamstown. "Not at all. Hopper's figures are usually lone female figures gazing out at the city. Besides the obvious (i.e., there is no city to gaze out at), it's pretty hard to remain an isolated, anonymous person in Williamstown. It's a small town, and everybody here knows everybody, including the family history both good and bad. If the world is separated by six degrees of separation, here it's more like three! This is, as I'm sure you've guessed, both a blessing and an annoyance."

The coffee shop was clad in dark green walls and can lights focused on the glass-and-wood display case full of mugs and brews. One room over was situated a lounge with a plank floor where an interesting mix of punks, preps, and woodsmen populated the tables. Around a fireplace in the middle, a group of college-aged kids huddled--my best opportunity for interviews. An Asian guy with spiked black hair and sporting silver oval glasses and a heavy blue wool overcoat sat playing with two long coffee stirrers, putting them in his mouth or drumming them on the table. He told me he was from the Chicago suburb of Oak Park. An energetic, tanned guy with a light goatee and orange fleece vest said he was from L.A. but had lived in Williamstown since graduating the previous spring. Lastly, a bright-eyed, broad-shouldered girl in a big gray sweater who also graduated the previous year and moved back home to Cody, Wyoming was back for Homecoming weekend.

The girl from Wyoming said, "I think I studied Hopper, but I can't remember what my paper was about."

"Do you feel people here are as isolated as Hopper's characters?"

"Yes," she answered. "Everybody here just goes to their houses, even the Williams professors who live in town. Hardly anyone really lives here. Sometimes you wonder if the larger community knows that there's a larger community. And it's easy to forget how very large it is. Our borders run up to New Hampshire and over to New York. It's bigger than Boston in terms of area. But most of it is forest."

"There's a big rift between the college and town," the Asian announced. "The college owns most of the prime property in town. This whole strip they own. And it's the only business area in town. Now, the college wants to build a multimillion dollar performing arts center, and the residents are fighting it tooth and nail. It's kind of interesting because, like we said, some of the residents are Williams teachers. So they're in a tough situation. It's such a small town your neighbor knows your every move."

"There's a lot of historical buildings here," added the kid from L.A. "The locals are wary of what the college will do. I wanted to see what the East Coast was like, but I think I'll go back to the West Coast."

20081214

92 Williamstown, MA: Morning in a City

Williamstown, Massachusetts: Morning in a City

[Williams College art museum]

On my way to see the Hopper in Williamstown, I stopped for an early breakfast in a diner along Highway 6, the solitary road through this tiny Berkshire town where large houses sit on generous lawns. The Hopperesque décor included checkerboard patterns, pink neon circling the old clock, and 1950s memorabilia. The smell of bacon rose through the steamy air, as did cries from children awaiting pancakes, neighbors hallooing good morning, and college kids laughing about their hangovers.

Ah, morning in a city. Which is the title of the Hopper painting I came to see in Williamstown and hung just up the road from the diner, on the campus of exclusive Williams College, in a tiny rock octagonal building that looked more like an ancient English church than a house for modern art.

Morning in a City depicts a very different morning unfolding. A lone woman stands in a small room, naked, absentmindedly holding a chemise and looking out the room's only window, through which sunlight illuminates her yellow-pink skin in the otherwise dark blue scene. Unlike most of his character's indistinct faces, hers is detailed, with round eye irises and bright red lips. Painted in 1944, she might be alone waiting for her man to come home from the war. The bed offers no haven, as it is way too small for her to fit in. In the building opposite hers, two windows with half-drawn blinds seem to be eyes peering back at her. The painting is about three-and-a-half feet by five, so the woman appears almost life-sized, thus lifelike, and you the viewer are in the same room with her. Unfortunately, no one was in the same room with me. So I sought out others where they could be found during morning in a city.

20081213

91 Northampton, MA: What Am I Doing Here?

Pretty Penny was painted in Nyack but ended up in Northampton because a Smith alumna donated it. How Hopper's paintings ended up where they did is interesting to consider. I think that his paintings were accessible to nontraditional art collectors. They show everyday subjects and scenes, not blobs like Jackson Pollock.

Another thing in Hopper's favor was that his paintings were affordable in his lifetime and shortly after because his kind of realism was out of favor with art buyers at that time. An interesting subculture is those who need to collect anything, especially art. (One gallery owner confided, "I have been in the collector's circle. I was dealing with art collectors, and, for some, it becomes a life and not just a hobby. They all are trying to scam each other. They want to put their name in front of a painting's name.") The art buyers dictate the price of a painting, but not the value. Nighthawks has always had a grip on the American psyche. But art buyers were convinced that an abstract painting or unmistakable Van Gogh was worth more. Now, Hopper's paintings fetch top price.(1)

Perhaps the most telling example of how his paintings ended up where they did is provided by a lesser work in a less well known museum. The Santa Barbara Museum of Art has November, Washington Square. The painting has two dates: 1932 and 1959. That is because he started it long before he finished it. He finished in the year that one of the museum's great patrons was on an art-buying spree in New York. I can't help but think that Hopper's dealer called him and asked him for a canvas, any canvas, and Hopper picked out an old one already half done and finished it quickly in hopes of a sale.

Another great story is Wichita's collection. It includes some of the finest works of certain individuals, including Hopper's Conference at Night and Sunlight on Brownstones. The buyer was Elizabeth Stubblefield Navas, the former interior designer for the wife of the man for whom the collection is named: Roland P. Murdock. She inherited the money and his charge to keep buying good art and sending it back to Wichita. One local art insider told me he thought Murdock wanted to force-feed high art to the lowbrow plains people whether they wanted it or not.

Many of Hopper's buyers were similarly nouveau riche. In West Palm Beach, the buyer was named Ralph Norton (like a merging of the characters Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton on the 1950s sitcom "The Honeymooners"), and his business bore the cartoon-worthy name "Acme Steel." Neuberger in Purchase was a self-made millionaire. And Helen Hayes gained fame through theater. But many other buyers were old wealth. Stephen Clark was heir to the Singer Sewing Machine money. Edward Root was son of Teddy Roosevelt's Secretary of State.

So in many ways, Hopper pleased people of all walks of life. Only those with money could actually buy his paintings. But the range of buyers shows that he was not only a painter of everyman, but also bought by everyman.

(1) Addendum September 21, 2008: I saw a great movie over the weekend: Who the #$&% is Jackson Pollock? It's about a female truck driver who buys a painting that may be a Jackson Pollock. A noted forensic scientist finds strong evidence that it is: a fingerprint matching one on Pollock's paint cans in his studio; dust on the canvas that matches dust from his studio; etc. Yet the art world refuses to believe that it is a Pollock or (more importantly) even consider that it might be a Pollock. A most telling moment is when a former bigwig at the Met says that art world opinion is worth more than scholarship or science. Also tellingly, a Wall Street investor says that the painting would have more chance of selling if it were signed, even if the signature were a fraud!