112 West Palm, FL: Hey Norton

The town's Hopper hung in the Norton museum, named for its founder Ralph Norton (like a merging of the characters Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton on the 1950s sitcom "The Honeymooners"). His business bore the cartoon-worthy name "Acme Steel."

Norton preferred working class West Palm Beach to affluent Palm Beach next door. He bought a house here and purchased the old cemetery, where he commissioned a museum and donated it all in 1941 to be a city park. Norton described his taste as, "reasonably catholic. We were not partial to paintings of any one painter, or paintings of any special type, or any particular period."

The museum was a small, vomit-yellow stuccoed building with Paul Manship's huge bronze sculptures Diana and Acteon on the back patio to inform you it was a museum and alert you where to turn off Dixie Highway to get to it. The lobby had plate glass doors and industrial carpeting like a movie theater. Also like a movie theater, the air-conditioning was cranked to an embalming chill. The curator with whom I had an appointment had my name: Kevin. He met me in the lobby, a jocular, fresh-faced, fellow with thick black hair so short it stuck straight out on the sides of his tall head. He had modestly tucked his badge into the pocket of his silky blue shirt under his loose-fitting gray sport coat. He walked me to the painting, where he stood with his hands clasped at his waist like a wedding usher, and graciously answered my questions, sprinkling our conversation with positive re-enforcement like "right," "mm-hmm," and "yep." His manner put me at ease and made me feel like a peer in the art world.

August in a City's main character is a statue in the window of a collector's showroom turret. The statue stands with one leg in front, and her elbows out front and her hands clasped beside her far cheek, like someone lamenting. Under Hopper's animating light, it looks almost alive.

"It seems like Hopper commenting on Hopper," Kevin commented, a grin of big white teeth splitting his broad tanned cheeks, "knowing that he felt that the kind of psychological interpretations of his work were so overblown. There are so many Hoppers of women staring pensively out of windows. This one is unique because of the statue, this inanimate but very marvelous figure staring out the window, which I just see as incredibly ironic.

"It would be difficult for me to put it in relation to West Palm Beach. Florida always feels like August," he snorted, "hot and empty. Think about August in the city: nobody's around. They're on vacation or hiding from the heat. All that's left are the objects looking out the window waiting for the people to come home. Perhaps there's also an enjoyment in having the place to yourself, maybe a sigh of relief that the usual crush of people has slowed to an off-season trickle, especially if you are in New York City and especially if you are Edward Hopper."

"There are a good number of preparatory drawings for this particular painting," he continued. "He's such a consummate artist that, as much as he seems to peer into the window of our own psyche as a nation, he's going to get the picture right first and foremost. You know, you can't look at Hopper enough. There's always so much more there than at first sight. There's just no earthly way that anyone would put a sculpture on a table looking out the window. What would you see if you were inside the room? The back of a piece of sculpture."

"Given the booty in the room," I asked, "was Hopper maybe making a pun on august? With the accent on the second syllable? Or, because it was painted in 1945, he might have been commenting on the absence of humans because so many Americans were overseas fighting World War II."

"Hmmm," Kevin said looking at the floor. "Never occurred to me."

August in a City hung opposite Portrait of a Boy by Hopper's favorite teacher Robert Henri. Hanging to the other side was a painting by Francis Speight, showing a Pennsylvania coal town.

"Do you know Hopper's Pennsylvania Coal Town?" I asked Kevin.

"It was placed here very much for that reason. I think there's a definite sympathy between Speight and Hopper. Not many people know Speight's work."

When I complimented his curating, Kevin humbly responded, "Mr. Norton, our great benefactor, did us a lot of favors. He was very generous."

While the house in Hopper's painting could easily be occupied by the one of the Titans of Capitalism, August in a City hung in a town and museum founded by one.

1 comment:

The Hopper Guy said...

Great new interview about loneliness at http://www.believermag.com/issues/200901/?read=interview_dumm