173 Des Moines, IA: A Woman Alone

Nobody entered for quite some time, so I looked at the rest of the collection. Throughout the museum hung a series of works that (like Automat) showed women alone: Robert Henri's Ballet Girl in White; Lucien Freud's grotesque Woman with an Arm Tattoo; Anna Gaskell photographs, and Alex Katz's Ada's Garden, which showed a woman alone dressed all in black alone amidst silhouetted partiers.

The only painting DMAC is perhaps as proud to have as the Hopper is John Singer Sargent's Portrait of Edouard and Marie-Loise Pailleron. It shows a boy and his sister, who has an intensity so beyond her years that she seems in a crisis similar to Hopper's heroine.

When I returned to Automat, the painting was still as alone as the woman it portrayed. So I asked the guard, whose nametag said Ray. He was a short older man, with white bristle-brush hair thinning atop his head. His spine had sunken into his pot belly from age or possibly some malady: he had a hitch to his walk.

"Isolation?" He pulled his head back and looked down his nose through his glasses at me. "That's kind of a trademark of Hopper's. You I'm sure realize that this painting was on the cover of Time magazine a while back. Time had a story about stress in the work place. That gal setting there drinking coffee, she looks like she's stressed. I once had a job with a lot of stress, and I drank a lot of coffee. People generally notice that [painting]. I've been a guard here about 18 years part time and attendance is down on Thursday nights, but every now and then, someone will show up and say to me, 'I had a really bad day at work, and this is just the best way to unwind.'"

Apparently, no one needed to unwind tonight. I had been in the museum an hour already, and no one stopped in front of the painting. So I corralled a man from a the another room. He had a rangy body stuffed into jeans and a checkered, open-collared shirt. He said he was visiting from Delaware.

"It makes you wonder what's going on," he said, "the loneliness, the isolation. Everything brings you to that point that he wants you to notice. That's what I see in the Sargent, too. The girl jumps out so much more than the brother. For me," he concluded, "doing a Sargent trip is a dream some day, like this Hopper trip you are doing."

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