61 Purchase, NY: There's no There There

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.

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