"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.