Though an average person, I was made to feel a celebrity when I visited New York's prestigious Museum of Modern Art (MOMA). When I called to arrange a viewing, I was told that their Hoppers were all in storage; the museum was given over to a series of installations in the galleries. My heart fell. "Did you want to see them in storage?" the voice on the other end of the phone asked. "I was just about to ask that," I answered. The idea had, of course, never occurred to me, but I wasn't going to turn down the opportunity.
Susan, the woman who escorted me to storage wore a black turtleneck beneath a black-and-white checked coat, and her short black hair formed a shell around her head. Above her round cheeks, dark eyes bugged out due to her glasses' thick lenses or her infectious energy. "Take as much time as you need," she said cheerily on the elevator.
We made our way back to a space that reminded me of my college theater set-building shop. Twenty-foot-tall white walls led to a concrete ceiling humming with fluorescent tubes recessed in trenches. The racks of works that lined the back wall were like an index to twentieth-century art.
"Is that a…?" I began.
"Warhol, yes," Susan said offhandedly.
"Yes," she assured me, "Rauschenberg."
We ignored the hundreds of museum-quality works looking over our shoulders to focus on the Hoppers that had been pulled out of the stacks by a worker Susan introduced as Elizabeth. Elizabeth wore blue jeans and thick-soled black shoes. Blond disheveled hair straggled down to the shoulders of her black sweater. When she learned I was from Chicago, she said that she grew up in Wicker Park, Chicago's Polish neighborhood.
"Are you Polish?" I asked.
She merely whipped off her black oblong glasses and leaned her face into mine, as if her craggy nose and strong jaw were evidence enough.
Elizabeth had placed two of the Hoppers upright on a cart and hung two others on the wall. This surprised Susan as being beyond the call of duty. The paintings were House by the Railroad, Gas, Night Windows, and New York Movie.
Hopper's House by the Railroad was the first work to enter MOMA's permanent collection. It shows a house that the Addams Family might have lived in, and Norman Bates did: Hitchcock allegedly based the house in Psycho on this painting. Hopper's image of a hulking white house looming out of a featureless landscape above railroad tracks is also supposedly the source of the houses in the movies Giant and Days of Heaven.
Gas shows a bald attendant in tie and vest fiddling with bright red gas pumps silhouetted against the evening sky that makes the tiny white boxlike office glow like a Swiss cheese lit from within. Jo said Ed was after "an effect of night on a gasoline station. He wanted to do one for years."
Night Windows shows the backside of a woman in a hot pink slip glimpsed through a second-story window in a brightly lit room behind a dark urban façade at night. Sharing the room with her suggestively are a corner of a bed and a radiator.
New York Movie I did not know of before starting this project, but it is a Hopper masterpiece. A contemplative female usher stands bathed in lamplight at the back of a movie theater. A stairway beside her leads up. (A punning "Ascension of Mary?" Three glowing lamps above her head mimic halos). She upstages the murky film on the screen behind her that everyone in the audience watches. Only viewers of Hopper's painting see the real drama, which is her in the theater. Not only is the film image on the screen a New York movie, the scene as a whole is a New York movie, and the usherette is the star.
"This is great," Liz raved, "getting these out. We never get to appreciate them because we're always processing them. 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. This gal in New York Movie: I've known her since I was a kid. It was such a surprise for me to haul it out again. I really like the fact that when they're on the wall, the paintings maintain their scale. I really think that's something nice about Hopper: his paintings have an internal scale based on a certain kind of looking. In installation, they appear bigger. Their impact on the viewer really does magnify them. "
"Are the Odilon Redons gone yet?" Susan interrupted.
"They're just packing them up now," Elizabeth replied. "I'd love to see them, but what about him?"
They eyed me for a moment. "We'll have to take him with us." I mentioned that I had just seen a Redon show in Chicago, and Susan boasted, "I bought tickets to that, then I broke my foot. But I still flew to Chicago and hobbled around that show because I was not going to miss it."
Whereas I was banished from Hopper's studio, at MOMA I ended up getting a private viewing of not only the Hoppers, but also dozens of gorgeous Redons.
I went down to the lobby to meet Julia for our farewell. As I waited, I stood next to a person I recognized from photos but couldn’t place. Then I realized: the photographer Annie Liebovitz! I did not think quickly enough, but I should have pretended to have no idea who she was and asked her to take my photo since I was alone on vacation in New York. When Julia arrived and I told her my idea, she rightly noted that Annie probably would have found an excuse to decline. But for a while I had hopes of receiving the cheapest Liebovitz portrait session ever.
Julia had proved as charming and New York brassy in person as in her e-mails. And her practical understanding of how Liebovitz would have dealt with me was something only a New Yorker would think so quickly about. In fact, seeing Annie was part of the charm of New York: celebrity seeking. But I was seeking Hopper. And normal people's thoughts about him. Enough attention has been paid to celebrities and their opinions.
Directly opposite the elevator back to the lobby hung Hopper's Soir Bleu, an early work from his days in Europe that shows garish revelers in a Paris bar. In 1907, Hopper wrote to his mother from Paris of the Carnivale "the broad sun displays their defects--perhaps a neck too thin or painted face which shows ghastly white in the sunlight." Though painted before 1922 and therefore not on my list to study, Soir Bleu emerged from the pile of paintings inherited by the Whitney as one of Hopper's more popular and significant works.
An older couple stood discussing it. He was appareled in a tie and coat, and she flaunted a long elegant dress and flashes of diamonds on her wrists, ears, and heart. She also bore a badge saying, "Volunteer." I told them of my project, and she raised an eyebrow.
"Oh, you're a writer? What have you done?"
"A couple hundred book reviews, film reviews, travel pieces, cultural commentary…"
"Oh," she cut me off with a flick of her wrist, "you've done nothing yet. Where have you found the most Hoppers?" she wanted to know.
I may have done nothing, but I had done some research. "Well, your institution received the Hopper estate, so naturally they have the most in their collection."
"Really?" she squealed. "For the longest time, we didn't have any Hoppers up. I'm at the membership desk downstairs and people would come specifically and say, 'Where are the Hoppers?'" Turning to Soir Bleu, she pontificated, "The clown is very lovely. And the blue in the sky: the night we went out on the roof of our hotel and looked out over Montmartre, the light was a little like this. I can't believe so many people say he did the same thing over and over again. You go and see the repetitiveness of some modern artists. I'm just sick of people talking about Hopper's paintings' loneliness. Because that's not the big thing."
Her husband interjected, sounding like a British military officer from an old-time film. "I'm interested more by the drama."
She steamrolled over him, "I don't think you really say, 'what is this woman thinking?' I really don't care. The woman's just another element there for balance. So many pictures I look at, I just want to add something to. But not Hopper."
"He's a great composer," I commented.
"He is a composer," she chipped, surprised by my word. "This is music."
"The music of the spheres," the man declaimed, pleased with his cleverness.
"No," she undercut him. "Music of the rectangles."
No one walked into the gallery for a while, so I approached the security guard. He had a long, gaunt face the color of burnished teak, and he answered enthusiastically with a slight accent. "Everybody loves Hopper. I hear people comment. That woman," he whispered conspiratorially, pointing to Woman in the Sun, "was his girlfriend. She lived in Europe. That was why Jo was so jealous. Jo didn't like him to use other women so she posed for him." This is an interesting theory, but by all accounts Jo herself posed for all Hopper's figures.
"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. Everybody that comes to New York wants to see Hopper. They got this tourist book comes in different languages, right? And they look at Hoppers in there, and I have to tell 'em, 'what's in the book is not out.' They get very disappointed. They say, 'Boo hoo. Where's the Hoppers? No Hoppers?! Boo hoo.'"
The Out-of-Towners The In-Towner The About-Towner
Up walked a man and a woman who seemed to have stepped off the pages of some outdoor wear catalog. He wore a flannel shirt, and she had on a sleeveless fleece vest. His glasses were round and beard full, while her glasses were square and her lean tan face sported crow's feet. She did most of the talking.
"We're in town to study these too," she cooed. "I'm supposed to give a mini-lecture in conjunction with a film about him at the art institute in Kalamazoo. We had a visiting curator, and he boldly titled his lecture, 'The Ten Most Significant Paintings of the Twentieth Century,' which of course is the way to get yourself into trouble right away. He picked Early Sunday Morning as one of them. He talked about how it was American Realism, but it bridges to more abstract ways of looking at things.
"I was just saying to Tom that, 'cause I've seen them mostly in reproductions in glossy books, they look much harder, less painterly. I think Hopper always kind of goes, 'unh'." She makes a fist to show how solidly Hopper places his shapes.
Tom finally jumped in, "The way in which he placed things is so much more sophisticated. It's like the way the Orientals look at balance. He has such big spaces that are not busy. You have maybe two main figures. It's difficult to achieve balance with such big spaces. There's a confidence in his drawing, and drawing is so important. They [Hopper's paintings] really open up the more time you spend in front of them."
The woman frowned, "There's a very old film interview with him. He totally sounds like he's inarticulate. But he isn't; he just doesn't know what to say. Maybe one of the fascinations with him is that he's such a mystery. In America, we don't like that much."
A stocky twenty-something kid bounded in, wearing a tight gray T-shirt whose long arms he had pulled down over his hands and crossed over his chest. White teeth slashed a smirk across his ruddy five o'clock shadow beneath wide green eyes.
"I'm no expert," he shrugged when I asked about the paintings. But when I clarified that I was interested in how they related to New York, he exclaimed, "That's my town! A little different than Hopper's towns." He spoke with the clipped phrases of an entrepreneur spouting business aphorisms. "That's very New York," he asserted. "Claustrophobic."
I pointed to Early Sunday Morning. "That's Seventh Avenue."
"New York?! If it is, it's not there any more."
"Do you feel people in your community are isolated like these characters?"
He screwed up his face. "Contrary to how it might seem, New York is kind of a lonely place. Despite being around people constantly. Generally it's got a neighborhoody feeling--possibility of. I don't think of Hopper as really gloomy. I guess they do seem isolated, but you get the sense of a community somewhere around them. Seems that there is an environment around them of people, and that's what they are isolated from." He bobbed his head goodbye and bounced off to the next gallery.
After him, in swept an older woman dressed in black with a rust-colored shawl dramatically tossed over her shoulder. Her long fingers tightly folded over her tiny black purse.
"Can I ask you about these paintings?" I asked.
"About Hoppah?" Used to having her opinion solicited, she continued without waiting for me to confirm. "Lonely. Sad. You kind of find yourself in the middle. And that's hahd in any situation. The middle…," she paused for dramatic effect and demonstrated with her hands, "opens out." Then she flicked a smile and stalked out.
Everybody knows somebody who lives in New York. And I arranged to meet my friend Julia, a poet and painter from the Bronx who I met through my brother, Irish. One day at work, a young co-worker had a bad headache, so Irish drove her to the emergency room. She died that night from a condition so rare that the doctors claimed she may well have been the only person in the U.S. to die from it that year. That co-worker was Julia's daughter, and at the funeral Irish gave her my number as a fellow writer. We traded e-mails and phone calls for three years, but I had never set eyes on her before our meeting at the Whitney lobby.
I spotted her exactly how she said I would: "I'll be the only one wearing a big white floppy hat." Julia had the big unjudging eyes of a deadpan comic and a narrow face, sanguine and brown, that reminded me that she often mentioned her immigrant Italian parents. I sought out her thoughts as a painter about the Hoppers.
"You get a sensation of being alone," she calculated about all the Hoppers in the gallery. "In Early Sunday Morning, you would know all of the shop owners. It's a town we all recognize, and you can still find hints of it in our cities. I grew up in this place. But I wonder: will the next generation have the same response?"
Julia noted about Second Story Sunlight, "You can't be seeing the house from where you think you're seeing it from. You're raised up. So we're standing in a building across the way in the second floor leaning over our own little balcony. He moves things around to make the paintings work." She shrugged and added like someone who has done the same for her art, "You make things up in order to make it right. That's why the painting is on the wall there in Woman in the Sun. Your eye makes sense of the light falling equidistantly from that painting. It doesn't read as incorrect that that painting's the source of light. There's something so wrong about it and you wonder, 'well what is it?' Everything is just wrong about it. This is not a facial expression," she concluded about the woman in the sun. "But it tells you about her," she nodded slyly, "It tells you a great deal."
On the Whitney's second floor, in a white-walled room whose hardwood floors resounded with heels clacking like cue balls, I stood in a gallery devoted solely to Hopper's paintings. Here were Seven A.M.: a storefront eerie in the thin morning sunlight; Early Sunday Morning: "The most famous row of windows in American painting," Hopper's biographer Gail Levin rightly notes; South Carolina Morning: Hopper's only painting with an African-American character; A Woman in the Sun: a merciless depiction of a nude woman having her morning cigarette; Second Story Sunlight: a disorienting view of a second-floor balcony holding a buxom young girl and an older woman; and Cobb's Barn and Distant Houses: a Cape Cod landscape.
It was like entering a different land: Hopperville. The sun is always brilliant. Houses are kept immaculately in the era in which they were built. No words are ever exchanged. People do normal things like eat, go to theaters, work jobs, and lie on beaches. But they never seem happy about it. They almost seem not to know why they do it or even that they are doing it. Occasionally, you glimpse the neighbors. But mostly when they don’t know you're looking. You hang inside, too, and hope nobody finds you here, on the lam from a crime you committed somewhere else and long ago. And a boat always stands ready in the harbor to steal you away.
The Whitney grew out of the Whitney Studio Club, begun in 1918 by Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, who championed Hopper. Jo jealously felt Gertrude had other designs on Edward, too. He became one of the earliest members, and in 1920, the club gave him one of his first one-man exhibitions. Reviews were underwhelming. But the Whitney made his Early Sunday Morning one of their first purchases. They also sponsored a nighttime studio that the poor bachelor Hopper could attend for free to sketch nude models. (The woman in charge of the classes said Hopper never missed one.) Hopper remained devoted to Gertrude and her museum throughout his life. He said, "I guess they considered me a safe man to deal with."
[Mecca]New York not only is home to most Hopper scenes or subjects, but also holds more Hopper paintings than any other. Here in one room in the Whitney Museum, I viewed more Hoppers than I would see in any other single site. Hopper and Jo had no children. When she died the year after Edward, she bequeathed everything to New York's Whitney Museum. It took the museum more than a year to catalog and photograph all the works. Jo's bequest included cartoons Hopper drew as a kid, his love letters to Jo, and lesser works he'd buried in his studio. The Whitney is now the largest repository of works by or about Hopper.
As soon as I stepped into the front room, a stubby woman with curly gray hair blocked my path and glared at me through her oval spectacles with her hands on her hips. "What are you doing here?" she barked.
"Researching a book on Edward Hopper," I stammered.
"Well, I have an issue with you being in here. I'm meeting with a student. Who said you could be here?"
Taken aback, I blurted out the last in the string of people who had told me it was OK. "The receptionist out front." Almost immediately, I realized my mistake.
"Come with me," the stumpy academic said, like a third-grade teacher curling a finger before her eye, and we marched back out to the Latina in a silky orange mini-skirt working behind a shoulder-high brown metal divider who had pointed me to the studio.
"No one is to be allowed into that room when I am having a meeting with a student," the older woman chastised the younger. The trollish social worker waddled on back down the hall, and the Latina receptionist shrugged.
The NYU takeover of the studio was complete.
[Edward Hopper, Self Portrait, 1903-1906]
In some ways, my subject was a New England and New York one: Hopper himself. And I was working from it the way he worked from his. I was there studying and fact-finding, and then I would take my notes back home to study and write up. Hopper often sketched on site but usually painted final versions in his studio.
Hopper's studio was in a building that is now the offices of New York University's Social Work Department. NYU took over the building near the end of his life. Jo wrote, "The war of Washington square is going on. …nefarious NY University has obtained a lease on our house and is trying to throw us all out [from] where everyone has turned up at one time or another: Eakins painted a portrait, Paderowski gave a recital, Dos Passos wrote Three Soldiers, Guy Du Bois, William Glackens, Ernest Lawson, Eleanore Mylie, Frank Harris, The Dial born in the first floor, etc." But Hopper managed to live there until the end of his life in 1967, and Jo died in the apartment the next year.
I nervously asked the co-ed at the front counter whether I could see the studio, and she sighed with the world-weariness of a New York cop, "Take that elevator to the top floor; studio's on your right." The elevator seemed old enough to be from Hopper's days, though they didn't have one, which Jo so lamented that she immortalized it in a picture titled 40 Steps up to Chez Hopper.
The room had the Spartan, light-filled feel for which Hopper's paintings are famous. A huge slanted skylight sifted sunrays onto the white plaster walls and bowing wooden floor slathered in gray paint.
Here, out a sooty back window latticed with black wires, lay the view that he immortalized in paintings like City Roofs; My Roof; Skylights; and Roofs, Washington Square. Here, dominating the studio's front room, squatted his huge printing press through which he rolled the etchings that launched his career, and here also loomed the ten-foot-high easel built by Hopper's own hands shortly after moving in here. This top-story studio was a perfect perch for a voyeuristic painter like Hopper, and here out the front windows remained the view of Washington Square that he painted in his canvases Shakespeare at Dusk and November, Washington Square. Maybe he used people he spied below in the park or sidewalks as models for characters in other paintings.
Here also huddled the tiny fireplace, untouched, above it a portrait of Hopper by Jo. And here, in a little nook between the back and front rooms, sat a dorm-room-sized frig and zinc sink. A tiny decrepit oven rested behind the other door. These appeared to be the same appliances as were left there when Jo died.
[Edward Hopper, Self Portrait, 1903-1906]
Of course, Hopper's hometown of New York City provided many subjects, too.
Nighthawks was suggested by a local restaurant on Greenwich where two streets meet (by some accounts a coffee shop called the Dixie Kitchen). Similarly, Automat was inspired by a place on Broadway near Washington Square, and the famous storefronts in Early Sunday Morning were nearby Seventh Avenue shops (a title Hopper considered using).
Chop Suey was based on a second-floor Chinese restaurant on Columbus Circle where he and Jo used to eat before attending theater shows. Walks along Riverside Drive inspired his paintings House at Dusk and August in the City (I saw the most likely candidate for the house in that painting at Seventy-seventh and Riverside), while Sunlight on Brownstones was taken from near there in the lower West Eighties. The titles of other paintings of his give away their New York subjects: New York Office, The Circle Theater; Sheridan Theater; Room in Brooklyn; From Williamsburg Bridge; Blackwell's Island (now Roosevelt's Island); and Macomb's Dam Bridge (now the 155th St. Bridge in Harlem).
Like New England's conservatism, New York's massive impersonality and anonymity may have filtered through to his paintings. One critic noted that New York City has "often served as a symbol of the nation as a whole."
My first big tour took in the town and region most important to Hopper's life and art: New York and New England. In addition to living in New York City from age 18 until his death, Hopper later in life summered in South Truro on Cape Cod in a studio he and Jo had built. As a student, he had painted at the New England sites that were de rigueur for artists at that time, such as Gloucester, Massachusetts, and Ogunquit, Maine.
From Maine lighthouses to New York's tenements, he surveyed the landscape and took his subjects from what surrounded him. Some of his most famous paintings are his New England lighthouses, like in Captain Upton's House, Lighthouse at Two Lights, and Lighthouse Hill. He also painted other coastal vistas like in Bootleggers, Ground Swell, The Long Leg, and 5 A.M. In industrial towns, he mined scenes like Freight Cars, Gloucester; Dawn in Pennsylvania; Sunday; and Office in a Small City. He captured on canvas quaint New England scenes like Portrait of Orleans and Sun on Prospect Street. On Cape Cod (an isolated piece of land jutting into the ocean), he was drawn to isolated houses like in Cape Cod Morning, Cape Cod Sunset, Mrs. Scott's House, Rooms by the Sea, Ryder's House, and Cape Cod Afternoon. He also portrayed lonely landscapes like Camel's Hump; Corn Hill, Truro; Cobb's Barn and Distant Houses; Hills, South Truro; New York, New Haven, and Hartford; and Portrait of Orleans. In old-money enclaves, he found the grandiose old houses he portrayed in paintings like Pretty Penny, Second Story Sunlight, Rooms for Tourists, and House by the Railroad.
Hopper wrote of the paintings of his friend Charles Burchfield (though he could have said the same about his own):
[Charles Burchfield's Street Scene]
"Our native architecture with its hideous beauty, its fantastic roofs, pseudo-Gothic, French Mansard, Colonial, mongrel or what not, with eye-searing color or delicate harmonies of faded paint, shouldering one another along interminable streets that taper off into swamps or dump heaps--these appear again and again, as they should in any honest delineation of the American scene."
Not only did New England provide subjects for his canvasses, but it seems to have tinged his view of things. He was a reticent and conventional man from an area full of such people. Perhaps the region's conservatism contributed to his paintings' sense of isolation. He often portrayed the local houses and their residents as isolated or sheltered. One such painting he titled Two Puritans. It seems he used such subjects to represent the aloofness and stifling morality of the region--and by extension the country's.