16 Indianapolis sightseeing

[Indiana Capitol]

Architecture buff Hopper would have a field day with the bevy of beautiful buildings left downtown. (Even the New York Times said about Indianapolis, "It's a hell of a city if you just give it a chance.") The domed State Capitol is built with Indiana's famous limestone. The International Association of Architects designated the gray block Scottish Rite Cathedral "one of the seven most beautiful buildings in the world" shortly after its completion in 1929. The Indiana Theater is a rococo confection on Washington Street, and the 1909 Murat Theatre is a vision from the tales of Aladdin.

Minarets launch up from the Murat's light-and-dark striped walls riddled with windows flaunting leaded glass images of a curved sword dangling a crescent moon and star. This ornate piece of Morocco dropped on New Jersey Street is a perfect Hopper subject: breathtakingly beautiful and horrifyingly out of context. Right across from the Murat stands the 1897 Renaissance Revival-style German cultural center, the Athenaeum (changed from Das Deutsche Haus due to World War I anti-German sentiments). The building was designed by Bernhard Vonnegut, grandfather of writer Kurt Vonnegut Jr.--probably Indianapolis's most famous son besides David Letterman, who once bagged groceries and spouted weather forecasts here.

Now, Indianapolis has made itself famous as the nation's amateur athletics capital and home to the world's largest single-day sporting event: the Indianapolis 500 car race. The college basketball tournament also often comes here, where basketball fever is known as "Hoosier hysteria," inspiring Hollywood to name its film devoted to high school basketball Hoosiers. (The origin of the word "Hoosier" is unknown, and there are dozens of theories about it.) [Hopper drew this illustration]

As I walked the city's open spaces, flat terrain, and sparsely populated streets, the place felt as if the air had been sucked out. This may explain "Hoosier hospitality:" in this atmosphere, even the least interaction with another person qualifies as entertainment.


15 A Decent Docent

Soon, an older woman wandered into the gallery. Her legs were blanketed in a tweed skirt, and a green badge pinned to the mud brown vest covering her satiny shirt proclaimed "docent." I asked if people in Indianapolis were as isolated as Hopper characters. She breathlessly demurred, "Oh, I can't say."

For a town where "everyone talks," no one seemed to want to answer my question.

"Well," I asked, "as a docent, what would you tell people about these paintings?"

"It looks like a hotel you just wouldn't want to stay in," she despaired. "You have four people, and nobody is paying attention to anyone else. If there were a human touch, it would make all the difference in the world. I find myself avoiding a lot of Hoppers. They make me feel lonely."

"Are there any old hotels like that downtown?" I inquired.

"Not any more. There was one: Forty-ninth and Meridian. I think they made it into apartments." She nodded goodbye, and I headed downtown, hoping to find a Hopperesque hotel lobby of my own.


14 A Hotel Lobby

The weekend after visiting Muskegon, I took another four-hour drive, this time south.

I woke up in Indianapolis in a highway motel and partook of the free continental breakfast in the lobby. The tiny room was bisected by a Formica-covered reception desk, with thin industrial carpet laid over the hard floor. One humming fluorescent tube in the middle of the ceiling threw light that grew dim by the time it reached the concrete wall slathered with white latex paint. There stood a table of food. Tiny fruit flies swirled around bananas in a bowl next to plastic-wrapped Danishes, coffee maker, orange juice pitcher, and cereal dispensed from a retired lemonade churner.

This was hardly the kind of hotel lobby I came to Indianapolis to find. But then, the one I came to find was in the Hopper painting Hotel Lobby that hung in the Indianapolis museum.

That lobby was spacious, with wood trim, thick carpet, and tasteful furniture. In it, an elderly man stands by a seated older woman. In an early sketch, the man's hand touched the woman. In the final painting, Hopper separated the two. Across the lobby from them lolls a young blond reading alone. This was painted in 1943: most men her age were overseas fighting. A bellboy behind the counter is all but invisible.

Indianapolis is one of only two towns west of Washington D.C. to have more than one Hopper painting in its art museum. Beside Hotel Lobby in the museum hung New York, New Haven, and Hartford, named for the rail line that ran past Hopper's Cape Cod house. (Hopper sent the museum a note stating, "If any serious objection arises regarding the title, it can easily be changed.")
Dawn light broadsides a house on a bluff above railroad tracks, making the hillside grass and trees burn at their fringes. The scene resembles the farmhouses, fields, and sky I drove through to reach Indianapolis from Chicago.

As I pondered the paintings, over waddled a man in jeans with a large shoulder bag slung over his starched shirt. The graying, rust-colored beard covering his chubby cheeks made him look like an aging red squirrel. I asked him about Indianapolis's Hoppers and isolation.

"Ooh, boy." He shook his head, so I switched to an easier question.

"How long have you lived here?"

"Almost 35 years," he chuckled flamboyantly. "I've been through the times when you wanted to be from Indianapolis; you didn't want to be in Indianapolis. People were all moving to the suburbs. And really there was no downtown any more. Now that's all changed, and the downtown is very active. Musicians and artists are moving to the Fountain Square neighborhood. Not quite New York, but at least they're characters that give a city flavor."

He wrinkled his brow. "Now, ask your original question again."

"Do you feel that people in Indianapolis are isolated like Hopper's characters?"

"I don't think so. This community is quite cohesive. Unlike in Hopper's other paintings, I feel like those two in Hotel Lobby are talking to each other. In this city, everybody talks. 'Hoosier Hospitality' is something we're known for."

"Do you know any lobbies like that in town?" I asked.

"Not those typical small twenties- and thirties-type places. Those kinds of intimate places still may be left in New York and Chicago. But I think intimate spaces here are gone."

He continued his viewing, and I was left thinking that the characters in the hotel lobby that he considered "intimate" were anything but.


13 What I Was In For

Forty-seven towns. Over one hundred Hopper paintings. Nearly a thousand interviews.

A mere four-hour drive from Chicago, Muskegon had been a trial run. Without too much investment, I could see whether people were interested in Hopper's art and my question. But Miriam's plea made me feel that I had an obligation to see this through.

Little did she know it, but she launched me on an adventure that would take me backstage at New York's Museum of Modern Art; into a bank president's office; on a tour of the strictest town in America with the former mayor as my chauffeur; inside a major corporation's headquarters; onto the campus of posh Phillips Andover prep school; and down an endless road of dingy travelers' hotels, restaurants, and roadside attractions. I would meet a man who was a freelance art curator and got into the business by going blind; a Yale professor who hosted a dinner party to discuss my subject; a woman who was an up-and-coming star on the national fine arts scene; a man working as a greeter on the deck of the very ship where he had been the crew's dentist 40 years previously; a homeless man who was a big art fan; and a million other people with stories as compelling as the characters in Hopper's paintings.


12 The Call

The Call

The next morning, I went for a getaway breakfast at a Hopperesque diner. I was seated beside a group of white-haired women in their Sunday finery who I had heard in line talking about the sermon they all had just sat through. Noticing that I was alone, they kindly engaged me in conversation. When I told them why I was in town, they perked up.

"Ooh!" shouted one spry, sharp-chinned woman, raising her eyebrows and adjusting her white knit shawl. "What do you want to know? I'm a docent at the Hackley."

They were just such nice ladies that I couldn't bring myself to disturb their Sunday morning breakfast by asking about Hopper and isolation. Instead, I said that I wanted to tell people about the fine art in smaller towns; that Muskegon, Michigan might actually have a New York Restaurant. They were very glad to hear it. One woman insisted I look up her brother in New Haven, Connecticut, when I went there to see the four Hoppers in Yale's collection. The project was gaining momentum.

Out in the parking lot, I ran into Miriam, one of the women from that group, by herself. She had kept quiet during our earlier talk, but the pouting lips on her round face made me think she had strong opinions. Maybe because she was alone or because I was getting ready to leave town, I drew the courage to ask her outright, "Do you feel that people in your community are as isolated as Hopper's characters?"

"Ooooh yes," she replied without hesitation. "Emotionally isolated," she emphasized. "We have this community spirit, but inside I think each of us is lonely."

With that, her friends called her back over, and we went to our separate cars. Before I drove away, she came back to my open car window, put a warm wrinkled hand on my arm, and looked into my eyes. "Please," she said. "Please tell them about us."


11 A Dream

A Dream

That night, I dreamt that I was in an underwater world. Everything was murky and dark, and I had to hold my breath. I could sense others around me--humans or fish I couldn't tell--who could breathe the water. They were waiting to see whether I would learn how. But they offered no help. I swam up through the gloom toward a bright patch where there was assembled a large group of people, millions it seemed. I searched the crowd for a friendly face I might rise up to. I woke up gasping.


10 The Persistence of Memory

The Persistence of Memory

My waitress was a petite young woman with a pixie nose, sun-freckled cheeks, and bushy copper-colored hair. I grabbed two crayons from their holder between the salt and pepper shakers and started to sketch her on the butcher paper tablecloth. I can't draw; words are my medium. But I had captured the color of her hair. I looked at the two crayons I had picked: "rose" and "brown." Back in the museum, I had spied a particularly lovely Whistler painting titled A Study in Rose and Brown. The title was a pun by Whistler on the name of the model, Rosie Rendell, and the painting's predominant color. The project was creating startling coincidences.

I went upstairs to my room, which had a Formica dresser and boxy bed, both bolted through industrial carpet onto the floor. Above the bed was a poster reproduction of a painting by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, giving the room a frisson of high art. I opened the curtains onto the endless asphalt parking lot of the 24-hour supermarket across the way. The lot's mercury lamps flooded through my hotel room window to radiate me, a lone traveler staring out the window of a nondescript hotel room. I wasn't just studying Hopper paintings. I was living in them.


9 A New York Theater and Cafe in Muskegon, Michigan

I left her to her kiln and continued back downtown, where the recently renovated Frauenthal Theater was open. This 1,800-hundred-seat theater is the prize jewel of Muskegon's downtown. A crew was loading in a touring Broadway production of Grease to be performed that night, so I found a side door open and entered.

Gilt pillars lined the walls, and a huge crystal chandelier hung from a recessed cupola in front of the sweeping balcony (Hopper's usual seat). The Frauenthal looked like the theatre in Hopper'sTwo on the Aisle, and I was seeing it from the same oblique vantage point he painted that painting from.

I walked from the Frauenthal to the storefront coffee shop on the next block that Bill had recommended that morning. "Ask for Kim," he had added with a wink. "She's a friend of mine."

[Frauenthal Theater Interior]

The place had the musty smell of an old general store, which it once was. Thickly painted white shelves now held books, knickknacks, coffee, and antiques. At one of the big wooden tables scattered about, a college-aged girl bent close to her homework, and at another a longhaired man read a self-help paperback plucked from his backpack. On the stage, rigged up in the front window that once displayed store items, a baby-faced kid with a buzz cut and earring played guitar and crooned with his eyes closed. He had plenty of feeling and a guileless rapport with the audience, like he was just thinking out loud. His lyrics spoke of Midwestern landscapes and artistic dreams.

I worked my way to the back, where at the serving counter I found Kim. She looked solid beneath her billowy salmon shirt under loose overall cut-offs. Her pale cheeks flushed with sunburn or intensity, and her brown curly hair quivered as she fixed me with her stare and answered my question.

"I started this place to overcome isolation," she declared, "to get involved more in the community. I am trying to bring people together who are disconnected. With the Web, I've had some people meet in here after meeting online. People twenty-five to thirty-five are using the Web to be social rather than antisocial; they're starting to go out more and get involved in the arts. You might see a group of high school kids in here and a family and some senior citizens--all at the same time. One of my best customers is ninety-two and lives in the retirement home, but she still paints watercolors and they're good. But I'm really into mentoring young people. Anyone who asks to play, I give 'em a chance."

Kim had to serve some new customers, so I sidled off and listened to the music. When the musician sat his guitar aside between sets, the girl doing homework picked it up and sang a song she had written herself. Her voice was as sweet and clear as any I have heard, and she sang from a depth alarming in someone so young, holding the whole café in thrall and inspiring our spontaneous applause afterwards. She shrugged off the appreciation and went back to work.

Kim beckoned me over and introduced me to a thin, sunken-eyed woman and a grade-school girl. "This is Mary and her daughter Diane." Diane was reading a book off the shelf because (she said yawningly), "I've already gone through all the ones in the library." Kim had been telling Mary about my interest in isolation and prodded her, "Tell him about your sister."

Mary rolled her eyes and said, "Oh, her. She moved out to the country a couple years back, and now she won't visit me in the city. She says there are gangs downtown. She knows there's no gangs here; she grew up here. I think she's just gone country, too much time alone. She's getting real conservative." After that, new customers broke up our group, and I headed to the restaurant in my hotel for a late dinner.


8 Art Cats

As I circled back from Pere Marquette into town, I passed a sign for Art Cats Gallery. I decided to stop in and see what a Hopper stand-in would experience as an artist in Muskegon. Also, the name of the gallery reminded me of Hopper's wife, Jo, who often included cats, especially her beloved Arthur, in her paintings. Until she married Hopper, that cat was her only companion. But Arthur soon after wandered into a cold New York night never to return.

Art Cats' owner, Louise, was firing pots when I walked in, but she stepped from the linoleum-tiled studio in back to meet me under the low ceiling of the carpeted showroom where thrift store shelves held furniture, paintings, sculptures, and jewelry. She had the air of an aging beauty. Her long legs were jammed into jeans caked with clay, an apron draped her torso, and her hair was wrapped in a sporty kerchief. From the studio came the sound of music by Seal, and, soon after I asked if she had a second to talk, there emerged a longhaired man in a black biker T-shirt who leaned silently against the doorjamb throughout my interview.

Wiping away some plaster from her cheek, Louise grinned at my question about the arts scene in Muskegon and answered, "Progressing," as if there was nowhere to go but up. "The area from here to Pere Marquette Park used to be a thriving arts colony in the days when Buster Keaton lived here. Then it became a factory city, blue-collar." Even as she said this, my throat was tickled by the tang from the paper mill smokestack on the waterfront across the road.

"Now, there aren't a lot of galleries in Muskegon," she continued. "I've lived here 15 years and just opened the gallery in December. A gallery on Apple Street only lasted three days. There is a hard-core group of arts supporters here, though, and it is a nice museum that the Hopper's in. Muskegon is 'in transition' now. There's been an influx of people from other areas with more interest in culture. People are hungry for something more like what we offer rather than regular stores."


7 Muskegon Sightseeing

Muskegon's modest downtown was dotted with beautiful buildings faced in large, rough-cut, gray or red stones, Richardsonian Romanesque bequests of Hackley. They rose to looming spires or sported sculptures, pillars, and stained glass. In the surrounding neighborhoods snoozed brightly painted Victorian mansions, and down by the lakefront's railroad tracks brooded monolithic brick warehouses that were falling into disrepair. In short, the town was filled with buildings Hopper might have portrayed.

Long ago, the area's Ottawa and Pottawatomie joined the French in annihilating other local tribes until the French asked them, too, to move on. In the middle 1800s, easterners came to log. During Hackley's lumbering era, Muskegon boasted of having more millionaires than any other town in America and was called "Lumber Queen of the World" and "the Riviera of the Midwest."

But when Hackley and other barons used up the local forests, the economy faltered, and Muskegon wooed industrial factories. The booms during two world wars were offset by lulls during The Great Depression and the 1970s, and Muskegon when I visited was a rustbelt city rebounding as best it could. Civic leaders pinned their hopes on a former lakeside industrial scrap yard rehabbed and re-dubbed "Heritage Landing," with new buildings for businesses, condominiums, and restaurants.

Also out by Heritage Landing was a lighthouse, like Hopper often portrayed, and Muskegon is one of the few Midwestern towns that boasts several. This one lay on the end of Muskegon's pier. A mere 100 yards across the water, I could see the pier of the city of North Muskegon, but no bridge connected the towns. "Sometimes a ferry runs between the two," Micki had told me. "But that's not in operation right now."

Muskegon's most famous lighthouse lay out at the tip of the bay jutting into Lake Michigan, in Pere Marquette Park. In April 1675, the famous French explorer spent a night here two days before his death. Now, teenagers cruise the triangular parking lot blaring rock and roll out of convertibles, and people of all ages swim from the grand beach, stroll the dunes or pier, or visit the retired submarine Silversides.


6 Muskegon museum card shop

The store was sold out of the card, so Bill hustled off to requisition one from storage. But not before introducing me to Sonya, the cherubic, middle-aged, African-American woman behind the counter. "He's working on a book about Hopper," Bill whispered conspiratorially as he left. Sonya flashed a winning, serene smile that bore his exuberance with the patience of a mother towards her child.

When I asked her about the Hopper, she sighed, "I have to confess, it's not one of my favorites. It's more like in a big city. I used to live in Chicago, but I moved back here. In Chicago, you’ll be walking downtown and you know you're annoying people who are trying to walk faster. They don’t say anything, but you can feel it. Muskegon has the best of both worlds. People are friendlier here, but it still has a lot to offer culturally."

Bill came back not only waving the card, but also towing a spry, gray-haired woman he had recruited to be part of the project. She weighed me through big, slightly skewed glasses, which she gingerly adjusted with the tips of her two middle fingers.

"Hi," she croaked and announced her name in a voice redolent of ash and gravel. "Micki. I moved here from Detroit and worked in this store for eight years. What do you wanna know about Hopper? I love his work, and New York Restaurant is certainly one of the more popular works here. When it went to a show in Japan, it was chosen for the cover of the exhibition catalog. All of my children have prints of it, and they live now in Denver and California. I think everyone can relate to his paintings. The things are recognizable, and he puts you right there. You can imagine that you are in his paintings. You can imagine what the man and the woman in New York Restaurant are like."

"Is there a place like that in Muskegon?"

"No. There used to be. It was called 'On the Avenue' and had big windows, with the café curtains and a banana tree plant and a fireplace. But you don't see those places any more."

I thanked her for her time and paid Sonya for the card Bill had fetched. Then, I set off to get a feel for the town.


5 A New York Restaurant in Muskegon, Michigan

"Although Muskegon, Michigan was and still is far from major art centers, there are cases where remarkable foresight has put this museum ahead of its time."
-Sign under painting by Henry Ossawa Tanner obtained by Muskegon's Hackley Art Museum one year after the artist's death and decades before his first retrospective.

And so I found myself searching for clues as I stared at a New York Restaurant in Muskegon, Michigan.

True to its title, the painting depicts a New York restaurant. Slightly right of center, past the back of a woman's red hat, the face of her patrician male dining companion tilts toward his food. A waitress to the left of the man turns toward him the big white bow on the back of her apron, like a present to be untied. In a dim booth at back, a dark couple silently looks in different directions. Balancing the waitress's white uniform is a mysterious black figure running the length of the right edge that I thought might be Hopper himself. It turned out to be an uninhabited rumpled coat and hat on a rack.

The colors are muddier and the composition a little more cluttered than Hopper's later light and airy paintings. But the sunlight was undoubtedly his, streaming through the café window to the right of the dining couple and brightening not only the waitress at center, but also the table at the painting's far left edge. This was also his first oil painting depicting Americans going about daily life in a modern city.

Hopper said, "The idea was to attempt to make visual the crowded glamour of a New York restaurant during the noon hour. I am hoping that ideas less easy to define have, perhaps, crept in also." So, despite later protestations, maybe he hoped to express the characters' isolation. The plane of the central couple's table is sharply tilted toward the viewer and white on a dark background, making it seem to float--as if an absence or a void existed between the two figures, something unsaid perhaps.

The security guard at the museum's front desk (whose nametag read "Bill") was a bear-like man, with a large ruddy face below thick white hair. When I explained my project and asked him where the painting hung, he exploded out of his chair and pulled me by my elbow. Since he was still at the ready by my side, I asked if the painting related to life in Muskegon. "Well," he warmed up, "this whole museum does. It was given to the town by Charles Hackley. He was a lumber baron who showed up with seven dollars in his pocket and died here worth $12 million. Most of the lumber that was used to rebuild Chicago after its great fire sailed out of Muskegon's harbor." He added in a whisper, "There's a lot of old money here."

"Is this the museum's most famous painting?"

"No," he said, and dragged me over to a large painting by the American regionalist John Steuart Curry. The painting resembled a 1930s ad for milk or meat. [Tornado Over Kansas, John Steuart Curry]

It shows a tornado coming across an open field toward a farmer with swelling forearms. The farmer's waifish but stern-faced wife holds open the cellar door for their children, who clutch animals as if Christian beneficence personified. "When kids come in on school trips, they always tug my sleeve, 'Mr. Guard, Mr. Guard, where's the tornado picture?'"

Duty called Bill back to his desk, and I was left in front of the painting with a grandmotherly woman with wispy white hair, the strap of her purse dangling over a forearm like a maitre'd holding a dinner napkin. She was orbited by two school-age girls who played with their fingers to keep from touching the art. When I approached and asked her if there were any place in town like the one in the painting, the woman clutched her purse a little tighter, and murmured, "No, not any more." Then she ushered the girls out.

Just then, Bill's clacking heels approached, and his big padded hand grabbed the back of my neck.

"I have a friend who can get you a deal at his motel tonight," he informed me. I politely refused and ducked into the museum store to look for a post card of New York Restaurant. Bill followed. I had worried about getting people to talk or help with my project. Now I had to worry about getting them to stop.


4 How It Started

When I was eighteen, my parents and I visited my uncle Ed and his family who lived in a suburb of Toledo, Ohio. I had befriended a budding painter in high school, so I asked if on this visit we could take in the art museum, which we had never done. There, I caught sight down a long row of galleries of a beautiful old-time theater, where people were taking their seats. I would be starting that fall majoring in Theatre at Northwestern University, and it looked like some performance was about to begin, so I went to check it out. As I walked closer, I realized that it wasn't an auditorium after all, but a painting hung perfectly to trick my eye into thinking that it was real.

The painting was Hopper's Two on the Aisle, and the mini-drama that the characters played out, with a man glancing sidelong at a single woman while his wife looked down at her chair, made me sense that Hopper noticed the same things about life that had drawn me to the arts and theater in particular: that everybody led a secret, internal life invisible to those around them. People feel unknowable and therefore alienated. As an actor, I was charged with embodying the inner lives of characters. As a painter, Hopper was charged with portraying scenes in a way that captured hidden meaning. Seeing Two on the Aisle vaulted Hopper atop my list of favorite painters, and finding it in Toledo made me realize that revelatory art works would pop up in unexpected, out-of-the-way places.

Later, in college, a friend gave me a calendar of Hopper paintings, and I noticed that many hung in just such overlooked places: San Marino, California; Montgomery, Alabama; Manchester, New Hampshire; and Lincoln, Nebraska--among others.

If Hopper could home in on what was most important about a scene (as I felt he had in Two on the Aisle), maybe the clichéd interpretation that his scenes and characters epitomize a uniquely American form of isolation held a key to our culture--our communal inner life.


3 Two Comedians

[Hopper's late painting Two Comedians]

And Edward and Jo did think of his subjects as characters. Jo had been an actress in a small theater troupe (the Washington Square Players), and she wrote journal entries imagining stories about the people appearing on Edward's canvases. Theaters were favorite subjects of Hopper, not only to paint, but also to attend.

He and Jo saw a wide variety of the film and theater that New York had to offer. The visual storytelling of these mediums seems to have influenced how Hopper portrayed scenes on his canvases. Some commentators suggest he got ideas for his settings from plays. Many have likened his paintings to film stills, and many film images have been based on his paintings.

Like Jo, I had been an actor in my twenties, so I loved Hopper's theatrical tableaus and the stages on which they were placed, such as theaters, old buildings, travelers' way stations, and coffee shops. It would be a joy for me to seek out similar scenes in the towns I was headed to.


2 Edward Who?pper

Edward Who?pper

And who was Edward Hopper? Born in 1882 to religious parents of Dutch descent in the Hudson River town of Nyack, New York, Hopper grew up loving water and boats, which appear in many of his paintings. He reached the ungainly height of over six feet by the age of twelve, resulting in the usual story of a teacher asking him to sit down when he already was. Maybe because of his freakish height (he topped out at about 6'5"), Edward grew withdrawn and remained taciturn throughout his life. Also possibly related, he developed a gift for expressing himself through drawing.

At eighteen, he left for New York City to study art, and afterwards traveled to Europe three times, returning with his Impressionist-style canvases showing his fascination with the unique light and sordid street life he saw there. One such canvas sold in the famous Armory Show of 1913 that introduced European Modernism to America. But he didn't sell another oil on canvas for ten years. Meanwhile, he took up etching, and a show of those at the Frank K.M. Rehn Gallery sold out. Rehn put up a show of Hopper's watercolors. That show nearly sold out, and Rehn remained Hopper's lifelong representative after that. Now established as a fine artist with a dealer, Hopper turned his efforts back to oil paint and coupled the luminescence of his watercolors with the urban scenes, minimal compositions, and human figures of his etchings. He had found his mature style and subject: oil paintings depicting America and its people.

He moved into a studio atop 3 Washington Square North in lower Manhattan in 1913 and called that home until he died there in 1967, though he later spent summers at a studio he had built in Cape Cod. In 1924, he married fellow aging art school classmate Josephine Nivison, a painter in her own right.
[Portrait of Jo by their art teacher Robert Henri]

She was as short as Hopper was tall and as social as he was retiring. Jo's journals and their visitors' tales told of constant bickering and savage fights. Yet they remained married until death did them part, and she posed for every woman character in his mature oil canvases.


1 Hunting Nighthawks

Hunting Nighthawks:

On the Road with Edward Hopper

I sensed trouble. The couple in the restaurant looked fine enough. But she slumped and stared into the distance, and his torso leaned jauntily as if he didn't notice her detachment or care. I suspected they wouldn't be together much longer. I had no real reason to believe this. I couldn't even make out their faces. Besides, they were in a painting: Edward Hopper's

New York Restaurant.

Maybe I felt that way because Hopper's paintings are notorious for showing people isolated from each other and from society. I saw that most notably in his masterpiece Nighthawks, a scene of four lonely souls loitering around an all-night diner counter, which I had pondered often in my hometown Chicago where it hung.

But maybe I interpreted his works that way because I was an aging bachelor and struggling artist who felt unappreciated, much like Hopper, who only became famous for his oil paintings in his late thirties and didn't marry until age 43. I had often been called "intense," "cynical," and other epithets that implied I related to Hopper and his remote characters more than did most; maybe I was even like Hopper or a Hopper character. Or maybe I was falling for the cliché that made Hopper bemoan, "The loneliness thing has been stressed too much."

Was I an unhappy misanthrope, a lone societal castoff, or did others feel isolated in a Hopperesque way? I decided to survey people as an excuse to see in person Hopper's paintings in 47 towns spanning the United States.

I would have no trouble approaching strangers because I'm more loquacious than the notoriously reticent Hopper, though I certainly sympathize with his feeling that folks aren't going to understand when you express yourself in speech or art. My interpretation of the supposed isolation in his paintings was that he captured how unknowable anyone's inner self is. My journey and interviews were attempts, invitations even, to bridge that gap, to offer my inner self and allow others to share theirs with me. I hoped to write about people's answers and my experiences, so that my art would mirror Hopper's, who said, "I never tried to do the American scene. I always wanted to do myself."

1B Why Hunt 'Hawks?

(If you have a friend who doesn't know or like Hopper or Nighthawks, ask them to read this entry.)

Maybe you don't like Hopper. That's OK, but you can't deny his influence on the popular culture around you. Nighthawks has been reproduced substituting movie stars, Santa and his reindeer; and even dogs playing poker (I couldn’t find an image of those, but I've seen them). His House by the Railroad was (allegedly) the inspiration for the house in Psycho--as well as Giant andAddams Family. He's inspired other artists to base work on his like Tom Waits's album (and performance) Nighthawks at the Diner, shots from Steve Martin's Pennies from Heaven and Stuart Dybek's short story "Nighthawks." He's also inspired other artists in how they see the world and create their works. Earlier Impressionist paintings' urban scenes of vibrant street life, swirling colors and thick paint he trimmed down to static folks, broad colors, and flat surfaces. It's like the difference between flowers by Louis Sullivan and his student Frank Lloyd Wright. This would lead to straight renderings of color fields, Abstract painting. Many, including John Updike and Joyce Carol Oates, have been inspired like me to write by merely musing on his paintings. Poet Laureate Mark Strand's slim book Hopper is by far the best of these.