172 Des Moines, IA: One Good Thing

One good thing about the city is the Des Moines Art Center (DMAC). Each of its three wings was designed by an internationally renowned architect: Eliel Saarinen, who designed DC's Dulles Airport; I.M. Pei, who put the glass pyramid in front of Paris's Louvre; and Richard Meier, who designed L.A.'s Getty Museum.

One would not describe this building's three styles as "seamless." Meier's 1984 wing uses his typical porcelain-coated metal panels in a repeating grid. Pei's 1968 contribution is massive concrete pillars etched with rough vertical lines. When viewed from the Rose Garden out back, the windows form an I, M, and P. Pei's section looks a lot more aged than Saarinen's original 1948 section, which has long horizontal lines of natural Lannon stone below a low eave. The aluminum-and-glass front door looked like the entrance to a 1950s elementary school, and made me expect a dose of cod liver oil.

Just as the DMAC might be the best thing about the town, Hopper's painting Automat is arguably the finest piece in the collection. Its emotional impact is so large, that I expected the canvas also to be big, but it was only about two-and-a-half feet by three. The painting's modest size parallels the demure nature of its sole character: a woman wearing a green overcoat and floppy tan hat who sits at a round table in the center and stares intently into her teacup as if reading the leaves for a fortune. Her right hand, ungloved (unloved?), holds the cup. Her oval face and flat nose look vaguely Oriental. Through the huge window behind her looms the black void of night pierced by the automat's twin trail of ceiling lights reflected in the window, as haunting as UFOs. The lamps do nothing to dispel the darkness, just as the public restaurant does nothing to dispel her loneliness.

She sits across from an empty chair, implying some sort of absence--or a spot for you in the painting. A flower on the sill behind her appears to look over her shoulder, right by where two arms of a chair reach out to hug her but fall short. She is isolated schematically from every other object in the painting--including the door, which she is trying to forget that she has to go back out. A bright golden radiator sits beside the door, promising heat against the cold city.1

Automat opened at Rehn's Gallery on Valentine's Day 1927, along with Eleven A.M. and other Hopper paintings more overtly erotic--here only suggested by the sexual punning of the bowl's bright bananas and round red ripe fruit. Given Automat's obvious beauty and popularity, it is surprising that it didn't sell until 30 years after its completion. Perhaps Hopper was unsure of its quality. Or perhaps he knew exactly its worth and wanted to enjoy it himself as long as possible.

Hopper, a bachelor until age 40, enjoyed hanging out at such automats. Herman Gulack recalled running into Hopper at the automat, sitting by a window with just a plate with two rolls. Gulack offered to by the pauperish Hopper a cup of coffee, but Hopper peevishly said he was only pretending to be a customer so he could study the scene.

1Alain de Botton wrote many great things about Hopper's paintings and Automat in particular. But the one that struck home best with me was "Hopper puts us on her side, the side of the outsiders against the insiders."

1 comment:

a said...

I think Automat was a fantastic piece of artwork that added significant poignancy to reflect the contextual times that hopper had strived through. Is the lady looking for hope, despair or maybe even helplessness.