A white middle-aged couple stepped up. He had a ruddy nose, green eyes, and a graying goatee. His wan wife had a sharp nose and pale blue eyes. Both wore American flag pins on their lapels.
To my question, the man answered. "No, I don't think so. I've lived here all my life. I'm third generation. My children grew up here. We've lived in the same house, and my children have this anchor. That's so rare in this society. New York or Philadelphia or Chicago might have single neighborhoods that are as large as San Francisco. In San Francisco, it's pretty hard to stay isolated. You're on the end of a peninsula. You're bound to bump into someone."
His wife was also from San Francisco and added, "I don't feel isolated. If you just came here and didn't know anybody, then maybe you would. A lot of people move here. Maybe they would feel more isolated than we who were born and raised here."
A twenty-something Asian man nearby told the diminutive Asian woman on his arm that Bridle Path looked like a photograph. So I asked if he meant that in a good way.
"Yeah," he nodded. "It's very nice." His pinstriped shirt was buttoned-up, and his short black hair parted on the side. "What other paintings did he do?" he asked. I described Nighthawks. "With Elvis and all the celebrities in it?" he confirmed. "I don't know a lot of paintings, but I know that one."
When I asked if he thought people here were isolated like Hopper's characters, he balked, "I don't. For a big city, San Francisco has people who are very friendly. People are more close in smaller towns. (I've been to Kentucky and places like that.) But it's inevitable in a large city. I've been in New York, and everybody's so busy and in themselves."
San Francisco, California: Bridle Path
When I called the week before my visit to confirm our appointment, the owner had meantime made plans to be out of town. I was met at the door by her housekeeper, a short, squat woman with white bouffant hair. A colorful ascot adorned her neck above an understated white sweater and gray suit coat. She called the painting's owner "a sweet, sweet woman" and had been her housekeeper for nearly twenty years.
She showed me into a beige living room, which had a grand piano, big brass telescope, and primitive stone heads lining the rear window overlooking the bay and Alcatraz, the island prison from which no successful escape was ever made.
Portrait of Orleans hung above the fireplace mantle. The painting shows downtown Orleans, near Hopper's summer home on Cape Cod. An electric pole and traffic lamppost rise from a broad intersection at center. Sidewalk storefronts trail off into the distance, where trees and a barn demarcate the town's end. The dominant colors are white, green, and salmon, which unite in the upper right corner's Esso gas station sign. Early in the painting process, Jo noted, "[T]he corner of Route 6 & the Main St. of Orleans is down on canvas.... It's not so exciting--yet!" After several weeks of driving around Cape Cod hoping to find the right kind of sky he wanted to top this scene, Hopper "faked one of his own."
To my questions, the housekeeper demurred before finally conceding, "I like it because you can tell what it is." She pointed to an abstract painting on a nearby wall. "That I no like so much."
Unlike Portrait of Orleans, the other painting in town hung in its usual home: San Francisco's Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA). Bridle Path depicts people riding horses in New York's Central Park. In the foreground, a tall man in a brown tweed coat rides a white horse. Beside the man, a redhead in a black riding outfit sits astride a tan horse high in her spurs, seeming to float. Slightly behind, a blond woman in a gray coat rides a chestnut horse. The man's horse rears as it approaches a tunnel, perhaps scared by the darkness.
The man looks like Hopper, and his wife Jo had red hair like the rider next to him. As they both start to enter the tunnel, he stops his horse, putting him nearer to the blond. This implied love triangle is reinforced when one realizes that the title could be a pun on "Bridal Path." A preparatory sketch was titled: Men, Women & Horses. All "bridle" when asked to go where they don't want. Bridle Path was painted in 1939, and it could also be viewed as a comment on the war in Europe. Everybody is rushing headlong into a dark tunnel, and the man wants to stop the charge.
Jo noted about this painting that Hopper got "a little book on horse anatomy... Unmistakably Central Park this time of year on a grey day. Almost the smell. The horses too reek horse flesh. What thanks is he to get for doing the job so masterly?"
This painting I could interview people in front of. A couple of older women approached. The taller one wore a multicolored scarf above a blue blazer draped by a thick gold necklace. Her shorter friend donned a purple shirt and carried a purse with a black-and-white square Gucci Gs. I asked if they were from San Francisco.
"No," the tall one barked. "We're from Marin." She stopped and rolled her eyes. "Sorry. We're from the 'bay area.' Can't use that word 'Marin' any more. It has to be bay area. I'm Dolly, and this is Candy." Her face soured when I asked if they felt isolated. "Of course we don't. Why should we? Just because we're often described that way by people who have never been here? We all feel part of the bay area."
Candy asked tentatively, "What do you mean?"
"Like Hopper's characters," I explained.
"We don't lead the kind of lives he depicts," Candy reflected. "I think he sought out isolation. You know, all those lonely hotel rooms. What he depicted was a product of the times, too. Those types of places that people frequented don't even exist any more."
"The east coast people think we must be so isolated here," Dolly blurted. "Just because you're alone doesn't mean you don't want to be alone."
San Francisco, California: Bridle PathMy trip to San Francisco started like the three dozen cold calls I had already made. But San Francisco's de Young Museum, where Hopper's Portrait of Orleans normally hangs, informed me that the painting had been returned to its owner while the museum's new home was being built. Graciously, the owner offered to show me the painting at her house. I had excluded Hoppers in private collections because my subject was the American people and what they thought while looking at Hoppers. But Americans also buy Hoppers and put them in their homes.
The main artsy strip that my friend in Chicago who grew up in Dallas told me to check out was a two-mile stretch of Greenville Avenue. To get there, I had to drive on Lover's Lane, which sounded like it could be a Hopper painting title. On the strip I found the Hopperesque Arcadia and Granada theaters now occupied by bars.
I stopped to CD shop at a music store and asked the young guy behind the counter about my project. He had a mop of black hair and thick, square, black glass-frames. He was clad in a blue sweatshirt with a crazy wavy pattern on his chest.
"Dallas is a very isolated city. We're about to elect as mayor a woman who's racist. But, apparently, nobody cares. I was born and raised in Dallas. I think that Hopper's version of America's isolation was romanticized. People aren't that romantic about the notion of rugged individualism. I thought Hopper was going for that kind of vibe, because the people are there in light and there's darkness all around them. It's kind of like a cocoon. Like he's trying to portray it positively.
"You know, the writer Stuart Dybek, who's one of my favorites, wrote a short story called 'Nighthawks'? In that story, there are people who are all alone, but they've come together. That's what I think of when I think of Hoppers. These people may come together, so they're not really isolated, even though each one seems to be in their own little world.
"I'm Danny, by the way. My girlfriend is a painter and works at the museum. You should meet us tonight at the New Amsterdam Café. There's a writer's group meeting there."
The café was in Fair Park, an Art Deco complex where the state fair was held. The Age of Steam Railroad Museum was housed here. Old Hopper era trains rested on the grounds. They were not as well kept as the Pullmans in the Indianapolis Hotel, that's for darn sure. In the parking lot, a bunch of guys were revving their motorcycles, and a line-up of State Police was passing muster under the scrutiny of a sergeant. The police, apparently, store their horses out here.
This was an urban pioneer's neighborhood where warehouses had been transformed into art galleries, and this cafe was one of the hip local watering holes. The café was dark and woody. As I arrived, the writers' group was just breaking up. I saw Danny, and he introduced me to his girlfriend Trish. Trish's hair curled around her ear, and her hands moved quickly as she spoke.
"Intuitively," she began, "I see a lot of Diebenkorn in his work, especially in his perspective, the flat planes. Diebenkorn did an homage to Automat. Hopper's night scenes are compelling. The colors of the night scenes are great: serene, but there is a tension in the figures. They are solid but vulnerable. Reminds me of David Lynch movies. Did he do Christina's World?" she asked.
He did not. But in the museum's files, I had seen an article having Morning Sun right below Christina's World. It was written in Japanese, but presumably it was showing the same connection.
"Hopper's paintings are like Twilight Zone," Danny chipped in. "Nighthawks, the people are drawn to the bright café like moths to a light. It's like hyperrealism. It's a subjective reality. I think of Eastern philosophy when I see his paintings. They make me think of Jung; they're archetypal. And we have pathologized the loners. We think they're sad. But they may not be. Art is partly audience response. So I guess they are about the isolation. Hopper was lucky; what it must feel like to finally achieve what you're working toward.
"I think that all artists are isolated. We're one-percenters, the artists. We're unlike 99% of the people. But artists need you relating to their work; they're not isolated culturally. That's part of the point [of art]. Hopper just tuned in to it, because everybody is isolationist. We have a private and public self. Personal isolation is not political isolation. People don't feel whole. There is no whole, just a becoming. You think you are some idealized you that you are always becoming. Its like a silhouette: it's not you, but people can recognize you from it. People have a nostalgia for isolation. Hopper and J.D. Salinger played on that. Tennessee Williams did the same thing.
One of the other writers, Alberto, was interested in my question and bent my ear. He was tall and lanky, with a mop of dark kinky hair and café-au-lait skin. He had a slender face, a long thin nose, and bright green eyes.
"I'm starting a poetry workshop," he intoned in a cool baritone, lounging like a laid-back jazz musician, "because I feel a little isolated. I used to live in New York. In Dallas I have trouble motivating myself and feeling the buzz. When I was living in New York, I couldn't even get halfway through a shower without thinking, 'hey, I know something is going on somewhere; I'm missing something.' I'd rush out of the shower and call a friend. And sure enough they'd be like, 'Well, yeah, there's a reading going on I'm heading out to.'"
"I work in a gallery. The stuff that they're showing …?" He shook his head. "The woman who runs it has an 18-year-old son who said, 'Mom, the audience just isn't going to get this stuff.'"
After that, I went to pay the bartender, who had insisted all night that I could pay on my way out. I had assumed this was part of Southern Hospitality.
"I'm not used to that," I told him. "In Chicago, people would just run out."
"You're in Texas now," he grinned. "We all have guns."
If you were from Dallas, and particularly from Dallas of many years past, you might call the far end of Elm Street "Deep Ellum." That was indeed what Dallasites still called it, and it was home to many local artists and art groups.
I ducked into the post office there to buy stamps for my post cards. Inside, the only other patron was a lithe, six-foot blonde with big blue eyes and a ratty old T-shirt that read, "as is." I asked her my question, and she locked onto my eyes, talking and moving quickly, "Oh yes. Everybody is. This is what my book talks about. Over the past 45 years, we've moved from an agrarian society to where women are in the workforce and financially independent and we don't have to marry any more. So there are so many more choices, which had made everybody more isolated and made dating more difficult, which is why there is a need for my book and my Web site, which is the world's largest dating advice column. I reach a worldwide audience of 1.6 million people. I used to be a capitalist psychologist, which means I was in advertising and marketing. Now I'm in dating."
She proceeded to invite me to her apartment the following night for a presentation. "It's forty dollars. There's a case of wine to go through. We're all going to eat our words. There are 54 qualities you can look for in a partner." [How she managed to whittle it down or up to 54 or arrived at that number, who knows.] "You'll write down ten words that describe your ideal partner, and then you're going to have to talk about why you chose those words and what they mean to you."
I saw her eyes shift down to my T-shirt from the Cincinnati Art Museum. "We want someone who is artistic. Well, what does 'artistic' mean? I've traveled the world over to just see the art in the museums all over the world. And the kind of event I want this to be, it's going to be a cultural event. Not a, you know, 'hey baby I want to pick you up and fuck you.'"
With that, she handed me an invite and drove away.
I drifted over to the Deep Ellum galleries, where I interviewed Jeanette, working the desk at one. "Um," she hesitated, "I think the isolation is not the subjects' in the paintings, but how the artist feels." She had a round face with pale, freckled cheeks, dark brown eyes, and brown hair cut shoulder-length and cellophaned purple. She sat in black pants and a tan lightweight shirt with its lapels pulled wide from her collarbones.
"That's probably part of why he's so popular. Because he's able to convey that. The painter we have showing now has the flatness in his paintings similar to Hopper's flatness. His paintings are being equated with Japanese. The Hopper at the McNay in San Antonio, I remember. I'm not familiar with the one that is in the Dallas Museum."
"It's fairly famous one of a lighthouse."
"OK," She nodded, "The visuals come to mind."
"So," I clarified, "you think Hopper's paintings are more a reflection of the artist and his feelings than the people in these cities?"
"Definitely," she confirmed. "Or to a lot of other places. Like the suburbs. Like a basic floor plan for a house. Each person thinks of it as their own, but people are walking into the exact same house. And how you can feel alone and be part of a group at the same time?"
Thanksgiving Square was a 3.5-acre site, purchased in 1968, managed by the Thanks-Giving Foundation, a Texas non-profit corporation. The area featured bells, meditation garden, fountain, and a spiral chapel. It was devoted to "honouring the spirit of gratitude to God." Although whose god and what schedule he keeps is open to interpretation. The chapel was open 8:30 to 5:00 Monday through Friday. God apparently keeps business hours. And, though the design attempted to incorporate architectural designs from different religions, there's actually a very specific entrance and a very specific path you're supposed to follow. The mosaic of all world religions included the words "where the people and sheep of his pasture enter His gates with Thanksgiving and his courtship praise. Give thanks to Him and bless His name." Don't suppose by "His" they meant Buddha or any female deity. Not when the next sign read "Love the Lord your God with all your heart." I thought Lord was a Christian thing. Other signs quote Psalms and other Bible passages, but absolutely nothing from other religions. And what justified the Thanksgiving wall of U.S. Presidents?
In an irony that seems like biblical retribution, the Biblical Arts Center featuring all Christ-related images was destroyed by fire.
Dallas's Visitor Center was inside the Old Red Courthouse, a huge Richardsonian Romanesque building in the West End. The guy behind the counter there upon learning my hometown croaked, "I like Chicago. On Michigan Avenue, I always see people talking and touching and laughing. We don't see that in Dallas. We're afraid to make eye contact in case someone asks for you for a cigarette. There's no one in Chicago asked me for a nickel. I don't know if they're just not on Michigan Avenue or what. But here everybody was looking for a handout."
The city was named in honor of George Mifflin Dallas, a Pennsylvania democrat who was elected Vice President in 1845 on a platform favoring Texas's annexation. John Neely Bryan arrived from Tennessee and established a trading post on the bluff on the Trinity River. Land title was granted to settlers who worked at least 15 acres and built "a good and comfortable" cabin. Many who came raised cattle, and the state soon became synonymous with cattle ranchers. Pioneer Plaza featured the world's largest bronze monument in tribute: forty longhorn steers being driven through a river by three cowboys on horseback.
Now a major center for oil and gas, Downtown Dallas at first glance struck me as sleepy and soot-filled. If Texas were a country, it would rank seventh in the world in air pollutants. A tourist Web site directed me to one neighborhood "to get away from the fast pace of the downtown." I couldn't find anyone downtown to get away from. During my morning walk, the streets were deserted. When it was 11:40, there were lines longer than I'd ever seen at every chain restaurant in town. Dallas had four times more restaurants per person than New York City and more shopping centers per capita than any other major U.S. city. By 2:00, downtown was deserted again. Walking or driving, everybody here moved slowly and expected me to do the same.
I found several Hopperesque buildings downtown. The Katy Building, named for the MKT (Missouri, Kansas, and Texas Railway) was decorated with painted terra cotta. The old Greyhound bus station at Griffin and Young still had its art deco blue neon dog and lettering. The 1916 Greek-revival Union Terminal was still used as an Amtrak station. The original Nieman Marcus store was in Dallas, with an N and an M on their door handles. As fate would have it, I was there the day he died. A display window already bore a poster "Stanley Marcus, 1905-2002." Business at the store looked dead that day, too.
Outside of the Hopperesque ones, most buildings were modern and faceless. Many featured shiny glass facades, as if they were giant mirrors reflecting the city back to itself. Reunion Towers was formed of four slender reinforced concrete cylinders, topped by three levels of activity, all encircled by a geodesic dome that lit up its round ball of lights at top, looking like its own solar system. [Dallas Skyline]
I.M. Pei designed Fountain Place, Energy Place; and Dallas Symphony Center. A food court attached to Renaissance Tower reproduced Pei's Louvre Glass Pyramid. His City Hall was an inverted pyramid. Starting from a modest ground-floor entrance, each successive story was a concrete square larger than the one below it. The red Pegasus, lit up and spinning atop the Magnolia Building, looked down on it all, like the ghost of JFK or the one in the Hopper's painting Gas.
Modern architects might find a lot to talk about in downtown Dallas, but I sure don't find anything. One building looked like a rising green glass arrow. I asked two guys passing by, "What building is that?"
"That's Fountain Place," one pushed ahead of his friend toward me. "Why do you want to know?"
"I'm visiting from out of town and an architecture fan."
"Are you an architectural terrorist?" the other giggled. "Because we'd love to have you blow that thing up."
[Dallas Museum of Art]
Hopper and other American artists were exhibited in the "Art of the Americas" section of the museum, which I naively imagined would hold pre-Columbian relics. I forgot Texas's view of what constitutes "American."
In a Hopperesque marriage of architecture and art, the Wendy and Emery Reves Collection was displayed in a re-creation of their villa on the French Riviera. It was only when I went to Kansas City and saw Winston Churchill's paintings on Hallmark greeting cards that I realized Churchill painted. He was friends with Wendy Eaves, and four of his paintings adorned the walls of a room entirely devoted to Churchill and his paintings. As some kids looked at the paintings in the living room of the Reves Villa, a child asked his mother, "Well, where's the TV?" Paintings were television before there was radio.
The woman who showed me the files dismissed my question with a flick of her wrist, "I'm anti-social. I don't think that isolation is a bad thing. I like the anonymity of a large city."
She had brown hair down past her shoulders, black-rimmed goggles with dark tortoise shell sides, and dark brown eyes. She wore a soft green button-down sweater and black pants. Her watch bore a skull and crossbones.
"I'm glad that people are finally getting around to viewing the light in Hopper's work psychologically. Although when they go too far with it, I'm not happy with that. I used to live in Chicago. There's a Chinese place at Lincoln, Irving, and Damen: Orange something. I remember that façade and that place as being similar to Chop Suey."
[Dallas Museum of Art]In 1956, the Dallas Museum of Art (DMA) came under attack by locals who thought that abstract art was "communist." Maybe that's why its current building looked like a fortress. It was entirely concrete and U-shaped. A four-story glass wall rose above the food court by the entrance, from whose ceiling hung Dale Chihuly stained glass flowers. At the museum's core, a series of long stairs and ramps led to side galleries, which provided a disorienting flow of traffic--more like an Escher than a Hopper. This vertigo was heightened by Claes Oldenburg's oversized circus tent spike with the rope wrapped around it beneath the barrel-vaulted ceiling.
After that group left, in walked a slight-boned man with a thin face and a gray mustache. A black leather jacket was slapped on his back, and he had a thick gray duckbill haircut. Behind him trailed a stocky Hispanic with a buzz cut who had on jeans and a gray zippered athletic suit with a pull rope through the neck.
The one with the duckbill murmured, "I teach art, so I do know about Hopper." He spoke in short phrases that gave the impression he was shy. "I work with airbrush. And work from photographs. Like photo-realism. Hopper's always someone who I've liked for that reason. He was heavily influenced by photographs. I think he was very much talking to everyday people. He was not talking to only artists. You don't have to be trained in art. It's not that I think bad about him or lesser of a painter than other trained artists. But this is a very clear statement to which everybody could relate."
When I asked about Hopper's isolation relating to Dallas, he shook his head, "Boy." After a pause, he pointed to his friend. "You're from Houston. Have you ever thought about it?"
"I don't think so," the other man stepped forward. "I think the Dallas community is a bit isolated. We're from a really small town a bit out of town, really rural. Where we're from, I wouldn't say that we were isolated. Though you see a lot of houses just out in the field. That painting's not un-Texas-like, minus the lighthouse." He in turn pointed back at the teacher. "He might have a different thought about Dallas."
"Yeah," The art teacher posited, "I think Dallas is isolated. There's not really any other places like Dallas. Dallas has a way of really balancing the opera and Red Rock Renaissance Festival real well. And I feel that makes them less isolated. I've seen more like that," he pointed to The Hutter Barn beside the Hopper, the Andrew Wyeth painting showing a lone barn below a moon at dusk.
His partner agreed, "There's a lot of places around this part of the country that build houses and there's no trees around. It makes me feel like it's more isolated because you've got just this single dwelling out in the middle of nowhere. And it's not very comfortable. There's nothing to block the wind."
"I think," the art teacher pursed his lips, "of isolation a bit differently than physical. I guess I think of it as psychological. This [Lighthouse Hill] is physical, but it also could be psychological. The lighthouse keeper, he's separated from other people. And I think in the city, you have that choice. Sheer numbers. You can be surrounded by people. But you can be all alone. And that's your choice. And even though you can be alone, perhaps when you're walking downtown or going through a neighborhood, you have a friend you feel connected to who lives next door or miles away in another part of the town."
More people came in. Stephanie was short, with a Roman nose, dark skin, and short, thick hair. She wore a suede suit and a camel-hair coat. Her tall husband had big ear lobes that folded sharply outwards, sincere blue eyes, and brief hair flipped up in front, making him look like Fred Gwynn from The Munsters. He was in a tawny tweedish jacket and a bright multicolored tie on a white shirt, very business-like. Stephanie's dignified, gray-haired mother sported a tasteful gray sweater and held her brown coat folded over her forearms. Her thin father had on a blue button-down oxford shirt open at the collar draped in a dark blue blazer. They were joined by a woman who had cellophaned red hair, waxy skin, and a wide-eyed forcefulness that made her seem to be leaning into me.
When I mentioned that Hopper's paintings were associated with isolation, they all agreed with a chorus of "yeah," "absolutely," and "it's amazing." Then when I asked about Dallas's isolation, Stephanie didn't hesitate, "Yes, people are isolated here."
"I don't really think so," her husband dissented. "To me, Dallas doesn't have that cold, urban feel that pervades so many of those paintings. I'm from Minneapolis. My father moved here 30 years ago, and I moved in with him. It's very easy to move to Dallas and be connected to the rest of Dallas because there's so many people coming from somewhere else. Most of the people you'll meet are not native Dallasites. Dallas had such a boom in the '70s and '80s where companies were relocating here. I'm in banking. Dallas is a banking town," he noted drolly. "It has become so. There's a Federal Reserve here. Right across the street. It's a mint; they print there as well." [That's a use for etching that Hopper would have been humored to consider.]
"There are enough people from out of town," he pontificated, "that it tends to be the kind of town where you introduce yourself. It's not really a typical southern town except in that respect: the warmth and outgoingness is definitely there. Texas isn't really the south; it's very much its own state. It was its own country at one point. It came into the fold just before the Confederacy. Then it joined the Confederacy because of proximity--as well as other issues. But it's really always been its own state. Texans will invariably tell you that Texas is the only state in the union that has the right to secede. It's not true, but they feel that just the same. They want to be able to do so."
"I work for a senior agency," Stephanie finally burst in, "and the older tend to be isolated, definitely. I don't see Dallas as special in that way. The elderly rely on public transportation, and Dallas is not a great town for that."
When I asked the cellophaned drama queen ("DQ," I thought of her as), who was a native Dallasite, she yipped, "OK," pronouncing it "Kyay. You don't care that I don't know anything about Hopper? Do I think people in Dallas are isolated?" She paused. "Yes." She paused again. "Isolated from what? Jeez, you know, it's something I've never thought about. In a Hopper way? He's very Midwestern. So that kind of fits isolation there. A lighthouse is always terribly isolated."
"But," Stephanie's mom countered, "it doesn't speak to me because it doesn't look like anything that's a part of my life."
DQ clarified, "I was thinking of individuals. You can be in a big city with a lot going on around you (even though Dallas isn't New York) and feel very isolated. Big cities breed a lot of lonely people because you get lost."
"OK," Steph's mom nodded, "I would agree with that. I don't think Dallas is that way, but yeah. I would think that Hopper was going for that."
"But Dallas isolated that way?" DQ mused, "I think socially, no; politically, well..."
"It used to be," Stephanie's dad intoned. "I've lived here for 40 years. And I am a Texan. I don't think it is any more."
"I think it is," his wife jumped in. "Politically. Geographically. When I was a child, people didn't travel that much." She chuckled. "I was twenty-one before I left Texas. Texans like to set themselves apart from the rest of the country."
"There is that," Stephanie smirked.
"Yes," her dad agreed, "there's definitely that."
In the gallery with me stood a freckle-faced teen with blue eyes and a cowlick in his hair, his slight frame draped by a lightweight jacket. He shrugged, "I don't come here often actually. I'm here because my uncle is having an opening in the next gallery."
"I'm really happy for my uncle," he stated. "I just don't like big functions like this. I'll wait a couple of days until it dies down, then let him know I liked it. It means a lot to my grandparents. My grandfather was curator. When I was younger, I would come here every now and then with him. That was usually after we would do our painting. He was an artist, too. My whole family is a little bit surrounded in art.
"My uncle's painting has a lot of symbolism in it, not all of which I understand. It shows my uncle as a child painting, when he was younger. Before my father was born. See that easel in the painting? I have a portrait of my grandfather painting my grandmother in a chair, and that's the easel that he used. And that easel he passed on, so that [easel] has symbolism. And then also…" He looked around and then continued sotto voce, "My grandfather's ashes are in the painting. Not a lot of people know about that. We didn't know what to do with them. When this came along, we said, 'that's perfect.'"
When I asked my question, he seemed confused. "Isolated from each other? In Dallas? I don't think they are. I know that some people want to be. But they just put their happy face on and kind of cover up."
His dad called out, and the teen yelled back as if worried he had done something wrong. I felt a little like that myself as his father arrived and glared at me. I apologized for detaining his son and slunk off.
Dallas, Texas: Lighthouse Hill
When I think of Dallas, I think of oil. When I think of oil, I think of gas--Hopper's painting Gas, which contains an image of a sign for Mobil Gas, whose headquarters are in Dallas. For years Mobil's building was the tallest in Dallas. In fact, it was the tallest building south of Washington, D.C., and the huge Pegasus statue on its roof presided over downtown Dallas and the entire American South like the one presiding over Hopper's painting.
The building had since been transformed into a hotel and surpassed in height by many more modern skyscrapers, but the city had adopted the Pegasus as its symbol. Pegasus medallions topped the lamp posts downtown streets, and the public sculpture theme in this town was corner statues of variations on Pegasus. The one in front of the preserved cabin of area pioneer John Neely Bryan had on a tie and reading glasses. In front a building at Bryan and Harwood was a version of the statue Pegasus and Man by Carl Milles, a copy of which I had seen in the courtyard of the Des Moines Art Center. At the corner of Main and Akard was the Pegasus Credit Union.
Also, when I think of Dallas, I think of November 22, 1963, when President John F. Kennedy was shot and killed here. The sixth floor from which the fatal shot was fired (depending on who you believe) was now a museum devoted to JFK and that fateful day. I got spooked thinking that I was about to walk the same steps that someone (allegedly) took that day. The exhibit did a great job of clarifying what was known about that day and the people tied to it--and what remained unknown about it. An exhibit of important moments of loss in the U.S. already had already added the Attack on America September 11, 2001, though my visit was only three months after that.
One thing I do not think of when I think of Dallas is lighthouses. However, that's what I was here to see. Edward Hopper's painting Lighthouse Hill in the Dallas Museum of Art (DMA). Lighthouse Hill shows a series of darkly shadowed hills topped by a pale yellow lighthouse set against a blue sky. One of the few well-known photographs of Hopper shows him painting this canvas. Jo wrote they "lived curiously for [the] sake of [this] canvas. Lighthouse Hill came out of housekeeping with water from village pump--& the toilet in a shed shared with lobster bait." More so in person than in reproduction, the painting gets across a sense of isolation. Partly it is the separation between the two buildings. Partly it's the anonymizing sunlight broadsiding the white façades.
The painting was so popular that immediately after the DAM purchased it, another admirer wrote to inquire about obtaining it. The DAM wrote back, "neither the owner or the museum would care to relinquish this particular painting." However, someone seemed to dislike it. Lighthouse Hill was one of three paintings scratched by a vandal in the museum. Luckily, the needed repairs were relatively minor. Hopper suffered at Dallas's hands an attack just as did John F. Kennedy.
Dallas, Texas: Lighthouse Hill
Though it attracts fewer tourists and is not on the trolley line, one attraction in San Antonio is the Marion Koogler McNay Museum of Art. Here hangs Hopper's Corn Hill. In 1620, pilgrims ransacked the Native Americans' stash of corn for enough to plant their crop the next season. The place where they did that became known as Corn Hill and was near Hopper's summer studio on Cape Cod. Corn Hill was painted in 1930 at the beginning of the Depression. Perhaps Hopper was noting that Americans were again (like the pilgrims) forced to steal to eat. Or maybe he turned to easily accessible landscapes because there was no money to go to the theaters or travel.
In the painting, several houses atop the hill are broadsided in salmony sunshine. Two small edifices off to the right mirror the hilltop houses in looking like the kind a kindergartner draws: just a box with a peaked roof. These structures are surrounded almost entirely by rounded and undulating forms in the dunes and foliage. Jo called the painting "Bare spot all sandy, palish sky with 1 long thick cloud. Foreground pale green tall grass salt meadow." Corn Hill originally went to the Hoppers' friend Bee Blanchard, and they visited to find that it had been replaced by a painting of Bee's favorite horse, "Sir Archie."
It also was not on display in the McNay when I visited, but they allowed me to see it in a gallery that was closed for installation. I could stand back and see it from about 25 feet away. At that distance, the perspective and lighting come together to feel natural, especially the sky. Here's a man who understands clouds. And, like with cloud-watching, people seem to see whatever they want in Hopper's paintings.
The woman assigned to show me the painting and files, Heather, was short with short hair parted on the side. Atop her elfin nose, her glasses frames were speckled dark blue and brown, and the sides had jagged edges like flames coming out of her brown eyes. Black pants and a white shirt divided her into equal halves. Like many I met, she had come home. "I had been at a gallery in New York. I came back to San Antonio because I'm from here. I never thought I would return, but I did." Heather's sick son convalesced on a makeshift bed in the next room. While I was pursuing a personal dream to learn about the American people, they were taking care of the business of living.
"If I owned a painting like that [Corn Hill]," she fawned, "I'd probably never want to sell it. It is a very popular piece. When we don't have it up, people always ask. The hills of Cape Cod don't like anything like the landscape around here. So it must touch something that people can identify with. I don't know whether it's a sort of sense of isolation. I don't think that our painting has quite the sense of loneliness as other Hopper paintings, like Western Motel. You don't know what she's doing in that motel, but you know it's not happy. I don't know if this fits in with your thesis, but we get so many requests from Germans for this. I don't know if it fits in with that German angst or what."
Next Heather regaled me with stories of the Hopper buyers: Sylvan Lang and his wife Mary. "They were really passionate about what they did. The Langs had a Calder mobile. They wrote to Calder to try to find out what date it was made. He sent back a little scrawled note that said, 'Yes, I made it, but I don't know when.' That Calder mobile, they had it actually out on their pool. At a party one time someone was showing it to people and dropped it in the pool. The director of the McNay was there and took off his shoes and jumped into the pool and saved the Calder. That kind of passion is what inspired Sylvan to donate his collection to the museum."
As we parted ways, Heather suggested I check out another collection that was a museum highlight: the Tobin Theater collection.1 Donated by Robert L.B. Tobin ("Fritzy"), it is one of the most comprehensive collections in America related to theater history and design. "I often wonder," Heather mused, "people who are in love with theater, if it isn't a way for them to perform. He [Fritzy Tobin] did perform maybe three or four times. But he was a backstage person. I kind of wonder if it wasn't masking a desire to be an actor."
I wondered the same thing about Hopper. Maybe art is a kind of private performance for those too introverted to actually go in front of audiences.
1Heather had related the life of museum founder Mary McNay, which was worthy of a stage play, replete with failed artistic ambitions, forced marriages, and weepy train station goodbyes to a GI husband who went off and got killed in war.