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.