Up walked a thin, red-haired, older woman, arms crossed over her chest in a protective X. She eyed me through large square glasses. "Hopper's paintings could be Anywhere USA," she answered my question. "They certainly look like the buildings here. Maybe they remind us of home or our favorite drug store."
"You've probably run out at night to a drug store like this," I suggested.
The woman waved away my comment. "It's all CVS now," she bellowed. "You drive."
The museum guard--a portly fellow in his thirties, his face mashed into a sour, world-weary expression--insinuated himself into the conversation.
"This Hopper does make you feel like our city," he said. "It's very depressing. All his paintings are very depressing. That's what I like about them."
About Room in Brooklyn, he said, "The room's so neat, you know it has to be a rented room. She may be contemplating throwing herself out."
I said, "Her look out is a look in. She's looking across the street at buildings just like hers."
"She's unhappy," muttered the red-haired woman.
"No she's not," the guard grumbled.
"She's not unhappy?!" she asked incredulously.
The guard barked, "No. I was talking to him. She's not sitting in a building that's anything like those she's looking at. She is looking down on the others, so hers is taller. And her room has a bay window as opposed to the flat ones across the way. She's sitting in a building from the early twentieth century, looking at brownstones from the nineteenth. She's looking at the past."
"Well," the woman joked, jerking a thumb at the guard, "you found the right person for your research. He's smarter than both of us."
"No," said the guard, pointing to the painting. "He's smarter than all of us."
The Boston Museum of Fine Arts was "very very." With an entrance fee of twelve dollars, it was by far the most expensive that I had to visit. The museum's fee, size, and opulence were reminders of the culture-keepers, the "Boston Brahmins," who funded this institution.
And the Hopper paintings here were "very very" indicative of Hopper's main themes. Drug Store shows a brightly lit storefront on a deserted street at night, like the restaurant in Nighthawks. "EX-LAX" is prominently displayed across the drug store's eave, helping it stand out as it would if you needed EX-LAX. Hopper changed that to EX-LAS from fear that the painting would not sell. Instead, the sympathetic buyer insisted Hopper change it back to EX-LAX.
Room in Brooklyn shows a woman alone in her apartment in a chair looking out a window onto endless red brick tenements. Hopper claimed that this was the only work in which he included flowers, in a vase on the table beside the woman. "The so-called beauty [of flowers] is all there," he said. "You can't add anything to them of your own."
When the museum bought the painting, Edward's handwritten note of thanks said, "There is not a great deal to be said … It was largely improvised." Recognizing Boston's reputation as an academic town, Hopper added, "It is agreeable to me if any student should wish to copy the picture." Jo explained that Hopper "thought the [Brooklyn Bridge] would clutter up the picture. He loathes clutter so left out the bridge (and more or less Brooklyn…)."
Whereas randy Richard insisted that people in Boston were mean and standoffish, I came to him from an interview with a local who had introduced himself when I took the boat back from where the Freedom Trail ended near Bunker Hill. The public transportation system back from the Charlestown navy yard at the end of the trail was a boat. As I fiddled with my camera at the back of the ship, I was approached by a jowly, white-haired man who resembled local politician Ted Kennedy. He wore a dark blue business suit with a patterned blue tie over a crisp white shirt.
"Are you visiting our fair city?" he asked forcefully, pointing to the camera around my neck.
"Not only visiting; writing about. How do you feel about it?"
"I wouldn't touch it with a ten-foot pole," he grumbled and pursed his lips disapprovingly. Then his face softened into a smile. "Nah. That's just what we tell visitors because everyone who comes to Boston wants to live here. It's a great place." His blue eyes looked out over the water as he answered my question.
"I don't think we're as isolated as we're made out to be. A lot of places' reputations here are based on outdated ideas. In South Boston, there were problems when busing was introduced back in the 1970s, and that gave it a certain reputation. But it's twenty years later. Things move too quickly to stay isolated. Those people are not there anymore. There are a lot of new kinds of people coming to Boston: Vietnamese, Thai, Orientals. They can live cheaper than we can. They open up the possibility of living in neighborhoods we no longer think viable. I'm lucky. I have a lot. I've lived many places, Somerville, then Beacon Hill, where I met my wife. We bought in South Boston, then moved to Winchester when it was time to raise a family. I'm not a neighborhood guy. I like to go do my job, come home, spend time with my family, and work around the house so I don't have to pay someone else to do it."
Boston, MA: Very Very
Boston was a key town in the anti-slavery movement, and the Black Heritage Trail (an alternative to the more famous Freedom Trail) wends past the former middle-class homes of successful pre-emancipation free blacks, including Uncle Tom author Harriet Tubman's house and the first school for blacks, the African Meeting House. There, I asked the guard about Hopperesque isolation. His name was Richard, but it might as well have been randy: red hair stuck out in all directions from his head, and auburn stubble rambled across his chubby cheeks below eyes glinting like knife blades. My friend Julie who had moved to Boston from Chicago the year before warned me that everybody here seemed "very very: whatever they are, they are intensely." The young guard was (luckily for me) very, very opinionated about Hopper and isolation.
"That's an interesting thesis," he began, reminding me that Boston was also a college town. "We are isolated in the U.S., 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. They're grumpy. Bostonians cut you off in traffic, and it's true road rage, in that it's inward. If you cut someone off in New York, at least they'll scream at you. People here don't even look at you. I'm someone who looks people in the eye and says hello when I pass and is suspicious of someone who doesn't, but I've given up trying because people on the train give me dirty looks.
"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. I see Hopper painting the Depression. He's painting the development of the city, modernism. In the 1920s and '30s, a lot of New England was small-town: frumpy guys in fedora hats alone filling up their cars with gas, and beautiful blondes who are all lonely and depressed. I see Hopper's characters as obviously disturbed. I wonder if people originally saw his paintings as pretty.
"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."
In closing, he noted, "We could be in a Hopper painting right now. It's perfect light for him." I looked up to see a cloudless November sunset descending on the narrow streets outside. His lamp-lit desk stood out in the otherwise dim entryway of this historic building. "If he was painting you and me talking, he'd be out there, and the night would be surrounding the building and there'd be a little bit of light around us. He'd be looking in and it'd just be you, a person talking, looking at something else."
Boston, MA: Very Very
That night, I dreamt I was in a coffee shop, going over my notes from the trip so far. It was an incredibly bright day, and I moved from the too-bright front window to the shaded section in back. As I read my notes, two people came up and sat at the table I had been sitting at. I could not see their faces clearly. It was that thing that happens in my dreams a lot, where it feels like there is something in my eye, and I can’t get it out, yet there is something I need to see. I wanted to be able to write a description of these people before I interviewed them for the book. I tried to remember what city I was in, but again when I looked around for a sign or a barista to ask, I could not see clearly. Just isolated bits of wood counter, linoleum floor, fluorescent lamps, and window sunlight with no detail across the road. I started to panic that they would leave before I could interview them. I decided to approach them. But when I stood up, my walk over to them was unsteady because of my limited eyesight. When I got to their table and asked them their thoughts of Hopperesque isolation, the man replied smoothly, "Excuse us, but we're having a private conversation here." I apologized and crawled along the linoleum to my booth. The black metal post on which the table was anchored looked like a life saver on which I could seize. I woke up clinging to the post and squeezing my pillow in the same fashion. I wrote down this dream and now am staring out my hotel window into the featureless New England night.
Andre Gide, who Hopper read and enjoyed, noted in his journals, "If upon opening that door I were suddenly to find myself facing--well the sea…. Why yes I should say; that's odd! Because I know that it ought not to be there; but that is a rationalization. I can never get over a certain amazement that things are as they are, and if they were suddenly different, it seems that they would hardly amaze me any more."
[Street sign in New Haven] [Daumier's The Print Collector]
The highway extension barreling through town was called "The Connector," but it might as well be called "The Isolator." It was designed to whisk you directly to campus or its adjacent downtown. You never have to see the deteriorating neighborhoods that comprise much of New Haven. Signs point to New York, New Haven, and Hartford--the very name of the railroad line that ran past Hopper's Cape Cod house and that he used as the subject for a painting.
When I drove through town briefly the night before, New Haven's greens looked like African veldts on which existed only the hunted and the hunters. The walkway signs counted down how many seconds until the cars ran you over, and the locals assured me that they will run you over. To make visitors feel safer, the city now had "Hospitality Officers" decked out in lime green shirts and fedoras with mint-colored ribbons that made them look like demented St. Patrick's Day revelers. I noticed with irony that the Economic Growth Center was closed for construction during my visit.
I started sightseeing at my version of a safe zone: an independent coffee shop. A bench out front where I had hoped to sit was already occupied by a grizzled character whose baby face had turned sour, aging him past his 30 years. He wore green jeans with rolled up cuffs, white sox, black shoes, a T-shirt, and a frayed sweater beneath an open coat. He hunched like a boxer ready to throw a punch, and each knuckle bore a tiny cross tattoo and figures that spelled out "SORT" and "13½."
I asked him about New Haven and isolation.
He paused, then growled, "If you step outside the downtown area, it's a ghetto. Why do you want to know this anyway?"
"I'm studying New Haven and some other towns," I explained.
"Why New Haven?" he hounded me.
"There are paintings by Edward Hopper in the museum here."
Suddenly, he perked up. "Oh, he's one of my favorites. His paintings here are really great. You're gonna like them. I go to that museum about a dozen times a year. You know about the British Art Museum here too, right? I go there all the time, too. You'll enjoy those museums. Those Hoppers are really beautiful."
"Do you think people here are as isolated as they're portrayed in Hopper's paintings?"
He squinted and dragged on his cigarette. "Yeah. It's a real town-and-gown place. The real division here is between the haves and have-nots. I'll tell you what kind of a town it is. The Yale University food workers thought they'd be out of a job at Yale if students were given vouchers good at local restaurants, so they picketed the restaurants and put the workers there out of jobs." He looked to one side. "That's when I lost my job." He grew quiet and sucked hard on his cigarette.
I thought it best to move on.
Except for that, he was a younger version of me or Joe or Joe's friends. In a society that worships youth and camaraderie and mocks aging and isolation, I admired such single aging men fighting for dignity. I was well on my way to becoming one myself.
I made a note to be sure to send Joe a thank-you note.
[Street sign in New Haven]The cloud cover that seemed atmospheric on campus seemed downright threatening away from it. Once you got off campus, you were either downtown or somewhere you shouldn't be.
[Daumier's The Print Collector]I was embarrassed by how this man's knowledge and love of art surprised me. The museum, after all, is free. And warm. I felt a kinship with him. I was lucky enough to be able to afford "rooms for tourists;" otherwise, I was as homeless in this town as maybe he was.
Afterwards, Joe offered, "I hope you'll have dinner with me and a group of my friends tonight. I told them about your project. After five or so, it's not going to be possible to do anything around here anyways: too dangerous."
"How do you know all these people?"
"They're just friends. I've lived in New Haven a long time; most of my life. I arrived in 1966. It's a good place. I had dinner last week with a friend who loves Hopper. Turns out someone else I know owns a couple Hoppers. Drawings, I think. My other friend is an artist in a big way. He's a medical illustrator and was commissioned to paint a dinosaur mural on the front of the natural museum. He says he doesn't know a lot about Hopper. But he knows a lot about art."
We rendezvoused with the dinner guests at Joe's apartment, which felt like it had been preserved from the 1950s, stuffy and dim. Joe whisked me into his study to show me the Hopper poster he had on the wall: Lighthouse at Two Lights. Joe's guests entered and took what seemed like their usual places. A tall man with five o'clock shadow sat in a chair, while a baby-faced East Indian sank into one end of the sofa. On the other end of the couch, a short, wiry, rough-trade character missing a few teeth and all his hair leaned his chin on the shoulder of a ruddy guy with short-cropped hair and one earring.
We all headed over to the basement Thai restaurant where Joe had made reservations. I asked if they all lived in New Haven, and the lanky artist with five-o'clock shadow said, "No, but we all come to New Haven to socialize." Joe introduced him to me as Michael, who Joe mentioned earlier was painting the mural at the Peabody Museum of Natural History. "Joe is the glue," Michael nodded. "Joe is the reason we're all in New Haven tonight."
One of the pirate-looking couple quipped, "Oh, yeah; otherwise, we just go outhouse tipping." His partner tried to offset his sarcasm by assuring me, "Each of our small towns has socializing places and meeting places, even if only a pizza parlor. And we're very close to New York: only an hour forty-five minutes by train."
"Yeah, but that makes the area attractive to commuters," the East Indian launched into a story about recent changes in his small town. "I was walking my dog down the road where I live. Well, now there is a new subdivision at the end of the road. This huge four-by-four went by, and the driver beeped and waved his arms. He was upset that I was walking my dog along the road, which I have done for years--before his subdivision was there. And I was taking a lot less space than the four-by-four."
No one had much else to add about isolation or Hopper, except Michael, the artist. "There's something that seems 'unearned' by Hopper. I don't see him struggle. 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."
I had told the group earlier about Joe's sister giving me his address and how I had developed a large network of friends in my many studies, travels, and jobs. Seeing me talk to George, who they all knew well, the East Indian said, "Wow, he really does know everyone."
As I drove to the hotel, I was warmed by memories of the dinner conversations and laughter. Joe displayed the same generosity that his sister had when she gave me his number. In my motel room, I experienced again the feeling of being in a Hopper painting. Joe and I had started the day at a tiny café table in Atticus, mimicking the two characters in Hopper's painting Sunlight in a City Café. Now, I was ending my day by being reminded all at once of the other three New Haven Hoppers. I was in Rooms for Tourists, in a motel like a Western Motel, and (New Haven being a port town), I was in Rooms by the Sea.
[Yale Theater]As we were talking, someone on the edge of our group began talking to another patron, a friend of theirs. I recognized him as George, a graduate student in theater during my days at Northwestern. He had moved here for Yale's theater program, which is well-known for its famous alumni (Paul Newman, Meryl Streep, Jodie Foster, etc.) and because New Haven has become a cliché for where Broadway shows have their trial runs. One Hollywood mantra is, "Satire is what closes in New Haven."
Yale's campus, with its castle-like buildings, was at its most atmospheric that November day. The slightly chill air that smelled of soap and hung heavy with gray cotton-ball clouds lent a gloom that felt at home at such Gothic colleges.
Joe took me into the main library, normally open only to Yalies. Dimly lit, with cold stone walls, it felt like a distillation of the campus as a whole: medieval, secretive, privileged, erudite, and slightly menacing.
Next, Joe took me to his residential college, an institution Joe explained was unique to Yale. Students lived in residential colleges with a master who meted out privileges and punishments, and each college sponsored events like lectures and concerts. Joe's college was Jonathan Edwards, named for an early Eli (that's what Yale students call themselves). Edwards wrote an essay in the 1800s titled "The Glory of God" that was about spiders, so residents in this college are called "Spiders." Spiders adorn all the college's objects, including the dining plates and utensils.
Over the back wall, Joe pointed out the art museum. "I told you that I lived back-to-back with it." On the other side, he pointed out Skull and Bones, a secret society made famous by George Bush the elder. Members have to leave a room whenever the society's name is uttered. One journalist with a sense of humor asked a question with the name in it during a presidential press conference. Sure enough, George left. With no windows on its soot-darkened graystone façade, and its windowless front door padlocked shut, it looked worthy of the campus nickname for such a society: a "tomb." It was as eerie as Hopper's huge, outdated, unpeopled mansions.
[Yale Dorm]Unfortunately, I was unable to interview Joe or anyone else in front of Yale's Hoppers because the museum was closed for renovation. But he did give me a tour of campus, which looked like a British city from centuries gone by: red brick walls, white mullions, dark shutters, slate roofs and tall elms (New Haven's nickname is "the elm city"). Yale was named for its founder, wealthy merchant Elihu Yale--descendent of one of the 500 Puritans who founded the New Haven Colony in 1638 in hopes of establishing a church-run state. Alumni include five U.S. presidents: Taft and every U.S. president between 1986 and 2008: Ford, Bush, Clinton, and Bush II. All governed the first country to require in its constitution a separation of church and state.
Just then, the man I was there to meet arrived. On my very first stop on this journey, a woman in Muskegon, Michigan, said her brother Joe in New Haven was a Yale professor and a big Hopper fan and would love to talk to me when I came to visit. He was about sixty, a tall man with big ears and watery blue, loyal-dog eyes. A lifelong bachelor, he spoke with an earnestness that made me suspect he was eager for company.
Over his hot cocoa, Joe confided that New Haven was dying. "It looked like this place [Atticus] would go bankrupt when it first opened. That's when they got the idea of selling some food. Now they sell more books too. There was a lot of opposition to putting this and the British Museum right here. The city threw a fit and tried to put up obstacles because already Yale takes such prime property tax-free. Actually, Yale is protected from taxation by the constitution."
"Connecticut's?" I asked.
"No, the U.S. Yale was founded long before we had a country. And the constitution says very explicitly that all contracts and agreements entered into in the colonies would be honored in perpetuity. And Yale never paid taxes."
I was anxious to hear Joe's answer to my question about isolation in Hopper's paintings, but he thought it unfair to conjecture about the psychology behind a work of art. "I just think that Hopper does everything so well. My sister came out from Michigan; the day after Thanksgiving, we saw the Hopper show in New York City together. I liked the painting of the lighthouse so much that Esther bought it for me. Also there was Rooms by the Sea. And she just really fell in love with that. And I said, 'Well the painting is in my backyard.' At that time I lived… I'll show you where I lived. Literally back-to-back with the art museum. So I thought, 'Well, gee, that'd make a good present: get her a reproduction of that.' And they had a nice reproduction of it in the gift shop right out on the main floor. The American paintings are on the third floor, and I kept going back and forth between the print and the original trying to make up my mind, ya know. The guy who was tending shop there finally said, 'Can I make a suggestion? Your sister's not going to be able to go upstairs and look at the original.' So I said, 'That's right.'" A broad smile split his face, and his eyebrows raised in glee at this stratagem.
We went to pay at the cash register/bread counter where traffic bottlenecked as friends stopped to visit by the front door. Joe greeted a portly older gentleman with a garland of gray hair surrounding his round bald head, and they set to commiserating. When they separated, Joe lamented that the co-op building in which they both live was going bankrupt. "Nothing downtown can hold its value."
New Haven, Connecticut: Gown and Town
The first thing I did when I got to New Haven was take a phone number out of my pocket and make a call. I knew no one in town, but the man who answered agreed to meet me for coffee and suggested a rendezvous site: the legendary bookstore-cum-coffee shop Atticus across from the campus of Yale University. Yale was home to four Hopper paintings I was here to see--more than any city besides the nation's capital of DC and the art capitol of New York.
Rooms by the Sea depicts the view out a door open seemingly directly onto the ocean. Jo noted: "could be called 'The Jumping off Place.'" Rooms for Tourists shows a Gothic house looming out of the dark night, cinematically lit by lamps on the lawn and street; only a fool would inquire about rooms here. In Western Motel, a woman in a full-length dress formally twists toward the viewer on a bed before a picture window outside which a long-hooded car noses into the scene. The final Hopper here, Sunlight in a City Cafeteria, portrays a café, with a cadaverous woman at one table and an equally pale man smoking a cigarette at another. Both stare into space, unable to connect. Hopper wrote to the painting's buyer, "I think it's one of my very best pictures."
Atticus roared with clattering plates, avid conversations, and babbling waitresses rushing around wearing T-shirts that read "censorship causes bad vision." Books and tiny café tables ringed the walls beneath bright fluorescent light. I took a seat at the epicenter of activity, a tiny square diner counter surrounding the grill. I could have plucked War and Peace off a shelf and read it entirely in the time it took to get served.
So I interviewed the sallow-skinned, blond girl in her early twenties sitting next to me and staring into space. She was a Yale student, and when I asked her major, she replied flatly, "Security Studies." I had heard that Yale was a breeding ground for CIA agents, and I suspected that she would fit right in when she said that European nations are "happy our troops are there. Really." She pleaded the Fifth on my question about isolation in terms of United States policies abroad but did comment about isolation in New Haven.
"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 largest, uh, richest, university in the entire world? They could do a lot more for the city's economy. Some people say, 'Yale is reaching out.' But once you drive about ten minutes from Yale, you don't see that."
Her boyfriend nodded his dark eyes from below a bulging brow and a floppy white tennis hat. When I asked if he, too, was a student, he balked, "No. No no no. I'm from about 20 minutes away. I think people in New Haven are isolated. Socioeconomically: the haves and have-nots are separated. You see at Yale incredible disparity: the best of the best and worst of the worst, right next to each other, crossing paths down the street. You see people near campus who obviously (well it's terrible to stereotype but you kind of assume) don't go to Yale. And the people literally just passing them are probably going to go on to do something like be a scientist or something. And it's amazing how they both live right in the same area, but one is just so far away from the other. Yale's a very strange place.
"You're always isolated in some way," he continued. "Emotionally, people are isolated from one another because you can never really truly completely connect with another person. 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."
New Haven, Connecticut: Gown and Town
Back on the edge of town I stopped at Armonk's pride, Schultz's farm: a broad, low-eaved garage filled with tables of produce, jams, knickknacks, and (I was told by many) the best donuts for miles.
"So, is there really a farmer Schultz?" I asked the squat, gray-haired woman behind the counter.
"I'm Mrs. Schultz," she cackled and swayed back and forth slightly on her hips. "I've lived here all my 48 years."
"Are people in your community isolated?"
"Not any more," she spoke rapidly. "Things are faster now. There's a lot of new, stock market money here. I guess you gotta be out in the market to get that. I don't know who's making it, but they're making it. The houses they're building here, the cheap ones, go for seven hundred thousand. Now, they're trying to save local places, like Leatherman's Cave. He was a loner; lived in that cave; did very little talking. Everything he wore was leather; he walked a round trip of 300 and some odd miles up to New Haven and back, and he'd always show up each place the same time. Little kids used to throw rocks at him and tease him because he was an odd person. There's other history here, too. George Washington used Armonk as a Revolutionary War militia headquarters in 1779. I guess this area has always been headquarters to something. Now it's corporations."
Armonk is not officially a town. It is a "hamlet." Downtown consists of two intersections dotted by a post office, fire department, and a smattering of stores. I stopped at a breakfast joint with a little deli counter up front offering low-fat muffins and bottled lattés. Like in Purchase, I was told that few people lived in Armonk besides the firemen. Luckily, one of the firemen turned out to be the cook behind the Hopper-era short order grill in back. He cheerily bobbed his head and shrugged as he agreed to be interviewed.
"You don't mind, I gotta make a omelet [sic] while we talk," he shouted above the drone of the grill's smoke hood and the radio blaring U2's "Street With No Name."
"How many people live in Armonk?" I asked.
"Not many at all." His boy-next-door face smiled uneasily above his white apron as he answered my questions. "You can't walk down the street and not know somebody. I've lived here my whole life. I grew up knowing the whole damn town. My father was in the fire department and so am I, and that just adds to it. I love it here. It's expensive, but it's homey. Armonk's started changing because a lot of new people are coming in who like big expensive houses."
"What's the relation of the corporation headquarters to the town?"
"As far as I know, it's very good. They do a lot of stuff in the community. They donate money for parks and stuff. They give stuff to the firehouse."
"Are people in your community isolated?"
"Nah. Everybody here's friendly. Well, they all want to be left alone, which is isolated. They want the peace and quiet of the country. I think a lot of 'em are; a lot of 'em want to be. You just gotta get away from the hustle and bustle. Now, you'll forgive me, I gotta finish this omelet and wrap it."
Armonk, New York: When is a Painting not a Painting?
(When it's in a corporation's collection, it turns out.)
Armonk is another virtually unpopulated town. It doesn't have an art museum. The Hopper painting here hangs in one of the town's many corporate headquarters. Hopper toiled for years illustrating business offices for magazine articles, and (as President Calvin Coolidge famously said) "the business of America is business." I thought it would be interesting to view a Hopper painting in a business setting. The corporation agreed to show it to me, but later asked that I not mention them.
Maybe one effect of American culture being so linked to business culture is that the cult of professional secrecy and suspicion makes individual citizens reticent and isolated--like Hopper characters. It felt ominous to have to pick up a pass at the front gates. Especially when the guard called me by name when I rolled down my car window.
I naïvely assumed that the painting would be in the lobby. It's not. But the staff was gracious about making it available for me. Mary (not her real name), who arranged my viewing, met me in the lobby. She was striking, with graying auburn hair and bright green eyes that rivaled the emerald brooch pinned to a large plaid shawl swirled around her shoulders. She escorted me to a conference room. Inside, a muscle-bound security guard chucked his chin at his younger assistant, saying "I'm not touching it alone," and they rested the painting on a table.
The corporation asked me not to describe the painting. However, I can tell you that Mary observed that (like many of Hopper's paintings) it looked like a still from a film noir. She also identified the sources of light.
"You're a pretty astute observer," I noted.
"I majored in Art at SUNY-Purchase. I couldn't deal with the insecurity of Art, so I ended up getting a degree in something else. I took a totally unrelated job here. But when they found out about my background, they asked me to be in charge of their art collection too." She chuckled, "I ended up working in Art after all."
Back at the lobby, Mary and I parted ways. She headed back to her office, and I headed to my office for that day: Armonk.
Armonk, New York: When is a Painting not a Painting?
I returned to my car and zipped across the parking lot corner-to-corner again. When I reached the light at the main road, I headed straight across to the grounds of PepsiCo's headquarters, which also houses a fine sculpture garden on what was once a polo field. As with the campus, I had the garden to myself on this non-workweek day. However, unlike the mundane SUNY-Purchase, the sculpture garden was fantastical. A huge garden trowel by Claes Oldenburg seemed half-buried in a giant's sand box. On the middle of a lake, a metal hoop miraculously balanced on the water's surface. And, as if by magic, I spied in one office that some employee had hung on the wall a print of Hopper's painting The Long Leg. Maybe Purchase's part-time residents related to Hopper's isolated characters. I wished Purchase had a gathering place other than the museum where I could interview some townsfolk, like a coffee shop, or even a barber shop.
I pulled back up to the traffic light at the crossroads that defines Purchase. When the light changed, I turned back onto the main road and headed out of town, passing the shuttered firehouse.
Outside the museum, a loud rhythmic clacking came from the plaza, and I expected to find construction machines there. Instead, I walked through a gauntlet of skateboarders zooming their wheels across the inscribed concrete squares that carpeted the campus. At the plaza's far end, the union, called "The Hub," overlooked a valley. On the opposite hill stood townhouses from the next village over. On a Saturday night at a commuter college, I shared the union only with the cast of a theater show on a break from rehearsal. The Hub seemed worthy of being a Hopper setting but hardly worthy of its name.
Eventually, a girl with jet-black hair and plum-colored mascara sat beside me, crossing her legs to display high-heeled black boots that choked each calf. I asked if she could tell me if the people in town were isolated.
"No," she said. "I can't. There really is no Purchase. There's the campus, I guess."
As she spoke, her head tilted back and forth between clock-face positions ten and two, and she fanned her outspread fingers to emphasize certain points.
"I really like being a student here. There's no football here or stuff like that. There's not even a mascot. The campus is very open to everything. Everybody's doing their own thing. Everybody is nice to each other. You don't always get that outside the campus.
"I like Westchester. But it's very fast-paced: people either keep up or they don't. Anyone who comes here and finds things too quick or too hard doesn't last too long. There's a big gap in finances between the upper classes and the lower classes. The Clintons live near here," she added, to back up her point.
She wrinkled her brow, and concluded with, "People do get isolated when it gets cold. It gets really cold here."
Barber Shop didn't sell for twenty years, perhaps because it was so large and was finished during the Depression when few could afford big paintings. Or maybe it was, as John Updike called it, "a relatively unsuccessful painting." It was still around in the 1950s when it was bought by this museum's founder, Roy Neuberger, who started the investment firm Neuberger Berman.
Neuberger was actually an acquaintance of the Hoppers. In his biography (which came out when he was 94 and he puckishly called So Far So Good), he told of how he accompanied Ed and Jo to the opening party for an exhibit where one of Hopper's painting was shown. Neuberger recalled Jo complaining that he fawned over Edward when she was just as good an artist. Neuberger considered it "one of his strokes of luck to have been able to obtain [Barber Shop]," and he called Hopper the "greatest master of mood since … Vermeer." "I collect art," Neuberger wrote, "because I love works of art…. [F]or all the real pleasures I have enjoyed in knowing artists, it is the work of art that means the most to me." Hopper would agree. Maybe Hopper's preference for art over humans explains why his scenes are as sparsely populated as Purchase.
Purchase, New York: Barber Shop
I hoped Purchase would be similar to the road to it off the highway, which rolled up and down other towns' hillsides past large-lawned mansions. But, in Purchase, I came to a crossroads beneath an X of electric wire from which hung a single old-fashioned streetlight. A turn one direction would take me to PepsiCo's headquarters. The other way led to the commuter college SUNY-Purchase. These are the town's only residents. "Nobody lives in Purchase," a SUNY-Purchase student warned me, "except maybe the volunteer firemen."
The Hopper I had come to see was at SUNY-Purchase. I followed the signs to the art museum and found myself driving diagonally across a deserted parking lot the size of several football fields. Presumably on weekdays when classes met, they needed this much parking. But on the Saturday of my visit, I parked beside only a handful of other cars huddled at the far corner near the museum's entrance.
Up a flight of stairs loomed an endless sea of brown industrial brick and concrete.
Punched into the walls were occasional doors or windows, to indicate "buildings." One of these admitted me to the museum of art. People in chef coats or black waiter uniforms scurried around white tablecloths ringed with fine china that stuffed the lobby; someone had rented the museum for a party that night, the only place in town to gather. Broad, brown iron stairs in a skylighted stairwell led me one flight up to a large square room whose white walls were crammed with paintings. The Hopper on the far wall dwarfed them all--literally. At nearly five feet by six, Barber Shop is one of his largest canvases.
The painting portrays a barber shop in a city basement, an architectural "hell" deepened by Hopper's addition of a landing between the street and floor. A beefy female manicurist sits at the painting's center, idly reading a newspaper. Behind her, eerie otherworldly sunlight slices the wall clock in half. In a shadow at right, almost overlooked, the barber shaves a man lying prone in the barber chair.
A couple came up the stairs and into the gallery. The man amply filled his green flannel shirt, which was covered bib-like by his white beard. The woman had hair like a stiff gray scrub brush. She was draped in several wraps and shawls. I asked if they were from Purchase. The woman looked at me like I was crazy.
"No one lives in Purchase. We're from Rye Brook."
I asked what they thought of the painting.
He proposed, "It must be a dark day because of the dark outside."
"What?" she shrieked and glared at him. "Look at the light hitting the interior." He clammed up and dug his hands in his pockets. She snickered, "Ask any husband and wife and you'll get this." Certainly I would have with Hopper and his wife Jo, who often picked fights with each other.
She continued, "The sun is pouring in. How is that much light getting in if it's that dark at street level? It's like from a movie. The railings, which should be a detail, are in fact crudely painted. And the white wall, which could be just a background, is very detailed." With a glance at me, then her husband, she let us know that they would be moving on.
Purchase, New York: Barber Shop
Dear Mike: Well, I've been to two cities, but one was the biggie: New York. Some great interviews and experiences. What a treat to be in a room full of Hoppers after preparing for the trip by studying his works only as reproductions in books or online. I got into his studio! I am not religious, but I occasionally feel in certain places of power that I am surrounded by "beings" ("energies?"). I felt it often in Ireland, my ancestors' land. Well, I felt it in Hopper's studio alright. If Hopper wasn't there, at least his stuff still was: the oven and frig looked like they hadn't been touched since Jo's death. And she seemed to be there, too, inhabiting the body of this academic bulldog who kicked me out before I could see everything I wanted.
I tried to find the place used as a model for Nighthawks and saw only one building on Greenwich with the proper configuration (most likely the original is torn down). The owner was annoyed with me for asking but said he knew the place and his wasn't it. Isn't it just like a New Yorker to know the answer to an esoteric question, but be so provincial as to be upset by an unfamiliar face in his restaurant?
Oh I almost forgot. I got let backstage in MOMA. They took me with them to see some Odilon Redons they were packing to send to a show. It was great to admire art with other art lovers. Not just lovers but experts! I am becoming an expert in Hopper, but also adding a lot to what I already have studied about art history and a ton of other subjects. By the end of this I should be handed an honorary PhD for my dissertation on Hopper and isolation. The problem is which department would grant it to me. Art History? Sociology? History? Cultural Studies? Creative Writing? Oh, well. After hearing of all my interests, this foreign doctor at work called me a "generalist," and I've been flattered ever since to think of myself as the "last great generalist."
I just came from a meeting with a woman and her sister who I met at Hopper's birthplace, and her husband graduated from Northwestern, like I did. The project is opening doors. Let's hope I'm not suffering beginner's luck!
After my tour around Nyack, I made my way to Maria's, where she and Leslie and I were joined by Maria's husband, Grey--a lanky fellow with a balding forehead. He wore a yellow oxford shirt and punctuated his resonant speech with a sharp laugh and a forearm shooting upwards. Pregnant Maria sprawled on the couch beside him, while Leslie and I parked ourselves in separate chairs opposite.
"What you are doing has very few precedents," Grey said, "What'd you call it: 'anthropological art criticism?' It's that--slash--travelogue--slash--Working by Studs Terkel."
"Exactly," I responded. "I actually graduated from Northwestern with a degree in an obscure major all about oral storytelling: The Oral Interpretation of Literature."
"Ha," Grey roared. "I have a Theater degree from Northwestern."
We gossiped about teachers we knew in common and learned that I had seen a show in 1989 in Gloucester, Massachusetts, that Grey had directed.
Grey continued, "It's almost like this kind of joke Hopper is playing. 'My paintings will hang in all these different towns. And someone is going to come along and have to figure me out by traveling all around.' Hopper didn't stay put. And that was part of his message. 'I'm gonna do urban; I'm gonna do rural; I'm gonna do coast.' People in his day were trying to figure out 'How do I live in the city?'"
Leslie noted, "His rural is never as lonely as being alone in the city."
"But that's the thing about the city and the country," Maria pointed out. "It's dislocation. And that's the American dream, in an odd way."
Grey said, "Hopper's rural stuff is like the country store in Seven A.M."
Maria turned to Leslie, "That's the place where I told you I looked at the painting and said, 'I know that place'."
Leslie objected, "But it's not … true. That cannot be (what do you call it?) 'certified.' Nobody knows exactly where something was painted."
"Hopper," Maria observed, "had a woman that was very devoted to him and that he also loved. He did exactly what he loved in his painting. He had his car, did his travels. He had a house, Washington Square, the most stimulating environment to be in at that time in the whole country, and in Cape Cod, the most empty, beautiful space you could ever want. Wasn't he a really happy guy? Yet the paintings don't depict that kind of euphoria, or even marginal happiness."
Grey said, "Forget about happiness. Contentment is the deeper, richer thing, and you see that in him. Sunshine is pretty happy."
Maria said, "Yeah, but it's kind of missing that soul. The people in his paintings: Where's the spirit? If it's there, it's murky and it's way down in."
Leslie said, "I think he just wanted to record things, moments."
Maria said, "I think he was very Zen, in the sense of that moment, that light, that building, that day."
Leslie said, "You don't have to solve the human dilemma in a painting. You can report or reveal this lonely side of being a human being and isolated, and it doesn't necessarily have to be negative or sad. It just is."
While I waited for my evening date at Maria's, I investigated Hopper's hometown.
A huge, horrific condominium had just gone in on the waterfront down the hill, and development was rampant farther from the river, on the road into town from the Interstate. Otherwise, Nyack was still in many ways a quaint river community centered on the business district up from the docks. The Broadway and Main storefronts provide a gathering spot, and on the mild Fall Saturday that I visited, they were overrun with bikers, either motorized or self-powered. Garret Hopper was a dry goods dealer, and that storefront still stands on Broadway.
I ducked into one of the three used book stores on Broadway. The owner bore an intimidating stare that felt like he had been cultivating his whole life. He told me that he chose his college because "my high school counselor pulled me out of class and wanted to know why I wanted to go a place so liberal and activist. That only made me want to go there all the more." Actually, he spoke with the aloof tone of a high school counselor as he told me about local Hopper lore.
"The storefront that Hopper used in Seven A.M. is at Broadway at the corner of School. I used to have that shop. A local minister received when Marion Hopper died a series of paintings on wood shingles that were said to be by Edward. They were just awful. They were unsigned, but that's what they were. I told Gail Levin this and mentioned that they were in a shop up on Franklin Street, and she was out of here like a shot. She didn't believe me about my former shop being the one in Seven A.M. But she did go after those paintings."
I went to see for myself the storefront that might have been in Seven A.M., and I have to admit it looked very like the one in the painting. But there's a danger in trying to find a one-to-one relation between something in art and something in real life.
A card on Hopper House's front desk informed me that it was the one hundredth anniversary of actress Helen Hayes's birth year. She lived just a few houses north on the other side of the street in a house she and her husband playwright Charles MacArthur called "Pretty Penny."
At the urging of his dealer Rehn, Hopper painted a canvas of Pretty Penny just before World War II. It was the only work he ever did on commission. Pretty Penny (now in the collection of Hayes's alma mater Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts) was also painted on the spot, whereas Hopper almost always painted from memory in the studio. When I saw the house that day, the front yard's pine tree prominent in Hopper's painting was noticeably bigger. It had also been joined by a line of other pines and a high brick wall with security gates and cameras to thwart prying eyes.
Pat at the desk had told me, "Story about Pretty Penny was that Helen and Charlie were looking for houses here, and they called it Pretty Penny because it cost so much: $38,000. She threw great parties and gave everyone who came a rose. Rosie O'Donnell just bought it for one or two million. She owned all the way to the river, and she sold off to the river. The town wanted to have a historic district and she really didn't want it. She would not allow people to come down to the river."
Down the street from Pretty Penny sat a house where Carson McCullers, author of award-winning Broadway plays like Member of the Wedding, had lived. The house is a worthy subject for Hopper, with gables, bay windows, and a mansard roof. As I regarded it, a station wagon parked in front, and a woman got out carrying a load of laundry. I asked if she lived in town, and she said she lived in the house.
"People in Nyack aren't isolated," she insisted. "Just the opposite. We moved here because it's got such a thriving nexus. It is Main Street," she concluded, and took the laundry inside.