275 Chicago, IL: Nighthawks

Chicago, IL: Nighthawks

Maybe it was that the thought of writing about the iconic Nighthawks was intimidating. Maybe it was just knowing that I could always visit this city and its Hopper painting, while I had to plan to see other cities and paintings. For whatever reason, I found myself putting off writing the Chicago chapter until the end, even though Chicago is the town I know best and the Hopper here (Nighthawks) is the one most people know best. (Those paying close attention will have counted to 46 cities. I had to cancel Philadelphia from my East Coast visit, and by the time I visited every other city, I said, "Somebody is going to have to publish my book and pay me to go to that last city." As this blog attests, that never happened.)

Perhaps you've seen it with dogs, or Santa and his elves, or one of many other parodies.

Or maybe you've seen it in its most famous appropriation with Elvis Presley, James Dean, Humphrey Bogart, and Marilyn Monroe (titled Boulevard of Broken Dreams). But by now, the image in Hopper's painting Nighthawks of four city-dwellers around a café counter at night is burned into our nation's consciousness as surely as the fluorescent lights under which the characters in that painting sit.

A man with a hawklike face and hat, wearing a suit and tie, sits almost touching elbows with a redhead who looks like she escaped from a film noir cell. She stares at something in her hand. The man in turn stares straight ahead. The tension between them is thick. Behind the counter hunches a pale short-order cook or busboy in a white jacket and cap. Another customer sits with his back to the audience. The four people are arranged with a few spare objects signifying a diner (salt shakers, mugs, counter, coffee dispenser) in such a way that the sight lines all lead from one person to another. It’s like you can't take your eyes off of them, but you jump from one to the other to see what they will do, expecting or hoping (even rooting) that one of them will do something. Nothing converges. Nothing touches. Not the characters, nor the perspective lines. A cigarette burns but is never spent. Time is running out on the characters and the night.

At the bottom, a large swath of cool blue sidewalk not only makes the bright interior all the more mesmerizing, it also implies that you the viewer are walking along the street. You are in the picture, which may be part of why we feel we are these people in the painting. The café's window is see-through; it reflects nothing (much like the faces of the denizens). However, the glasses and salt shakers do cast reflections. In one preparatory sketch for Nighthawks, Hopper included the writing on the café window, so the see-through windows were a deliberate choice, another way to break down the barriers between the viewer and the viewed. There are no people in these streets, no trash, no cars, and most importantly no people. All the people in the painting are huddling inside. If we are indeed on the sidewalk, it seems to beckon to us to enter as well and commune with these lonely souls.

The diner in Nighthawks was inspired by one in New York City on Greenwich Avenue where two other streets meet. Hopper's friend and Whitney Museum director Lloyd Goodrich said its shape was "like the prow of a ship." It might also have been influenced by Chicago native Ernest Hemingway's short story "The Killers." In that story, two killers wait in a small-town café for the appearance of a local ex-boxer they have been sent to kill. Hopper wrote to Scribner's when they published the story in 1927: "It is refreshing to come upon such an honest work in an American magazine after wading through the vast sea of sugar-coated mush that makes up most of our fiction. Of the concessions to popular prejudices, the sidestepping of truth and the ingenious mechanism method of trick ending, there is no taint in this story."

Perhaps this painting is so associated with Hopper because he served as his own model for all the male characters. Also, as a bachelor until he was 40, Hopper got to know fast food places like this intimately. In a 1960 interview, Hopper said, "Nighthawks seems to be the way I think of the night street…. I simplified the scene a great deal and made the restaurant bigger. Unconsciously, probably I was painting the loneliness of a large city."

[Hopper's Excursion into Philosophy]

The first couple I interviewed, Hank and Gretchen, turned out to be from Hopper's own Cape Cod. He was short and stocky in a white turtleneck, a leather coat folded over his forearm. She wore a mauve sweater and dark blue blazer. They were about 50 years old. Like most people I approached, they said they didn’t know enough about art to help me. Also, like most people I interviewed in Chicago, they were from out of town.

"Did you know he lived in South Truro?"

"No," Hank avowed. "There are so many changing landscapes there. South Truro and Wellfleet and Provincetown is still old Cape Cod, very well-preserved. A lot of artist types and professional psychologist types from New York and Connecticut have summer homes there. I joke that there's plenty of work there for psychiatrists because of the artists.

"We have a print of a street scene of Hopper's in our living room, but this is my first time seeing him in person. Our youngest daughter is an art major. She liked him and got me kind of interested in him. Our daughter gave us a book that has all of his pictures in it. He really is saying something. Why do you like him?"

"His characters seem isolated," I said.

"They do, don't they?" Hank realized. "I think the U.S. is more isolated. Europeans have age-old national identities. Our identity is based on being a melting pot. We came in past [Chicago's] Chinatown and Little Italy: you see those in every town, whether it's here or Boston or New York. It's a terrific museum here."

Gretchen finally chimed in. "I get to see a lot of foreign museums with my job, and this is as good as I've seen. And this painting is also. He draws me in, makes me feel like I'm part of the scene. I want to be there and see, 'What's wrong with these people?'" She shrugged sadly and concluded, "I wish we could be more help," leaving me unsure whether she meant to me or the people in the painting.

[Hopper's East Wind Over Weehawken hangs in Philadelphia]

Another couple approached. He was burly, with a gray beard, and his glasses hung by a metal chain around his neck. She was pale-faced with big glasses and apple-red cheeks.

"Have you seen this painting before?" I approached them.

His voice was husky as if from brandy and unfiltered cigarettes. "Not this one. But we're from Philadelphia, and we have some Hoppers there. Also we've seen those at the Whitney. This is bigger than I expected. The lighting and the composition emotionally evoke the pathos, I think; the loneliness. I love the way he captures the color in the bricks. And the way he uses greens and oranges together is awfully difficult."

"You know your art," I said.

"I studied art, but too many years ago."

"So as a painter what do you make of this?" I asked.

"The lines draw your eye in from left to right as most Americans read, but the lines of the window converging right to left anchor your attention in that café. One reason Hopper might disconcert viewers is that his lines tend to go from right to left against the way we read."

"Why are you visiting Chicago?"

"To see this museum actually," he barked. "We spend time in France every year, and we try to get to the little museums there."

"I love small museums," I said. "I first saw Hopper in Toledo."

His eyes popped in recognition. "We stopped in Toledo on the way out to see the museum, and we were amazed. That great Rembrandt! And the El Greco!"

They shared a look, and he apologized, "We have to keep moving if we're going to see all that we want to today."

[Hopper's Summer Evening]

The next couple that walked in front of the painting turned out to be on their honeymoon from Des Moines. That might explain his gaunt cheeks covered with two days' beard. His short wife with big brown eyes remained quiet and tucked against his side. He wore a checked cowboy shirt, and she was draped in a warm-up suit.

"Have you seen this before?" I asked.

"Oh yeah," he spoke quickly but distantly. "In reproduction. I had a college roommate who had this up. I think it was just the iconography of it. You come around a corner, and you see it: it's like when I saw the Mona Lisa. It certainly has a hold on everybody in the U.S. There are so many questions in his paintings. My roommate's poster cut off the left side of the painting. I think it's easy to see just the people and see that the characters are lonely or isolated or whatever. But to see the painting in full and the dead space over here, the whole painting as a whole becomes lonely. It's not just that scene, the restaurant, it's the whole city. Plus the café: how do you get in?" After a pause, he added, "Maybe they can never leave. Like Sartre's play No Exit."

[Hopper's Four Lane Road]

When they left, up walked a large woman with curly auburn hair piled atop her head. She wore a silver jacket with checkerboard racing flags down either side. I asked her about the painting. "It reminds me of the old days. I've been in diners like that." She paused and raised her eyebrows. "Years ago. It's just like you want to walk in there and ask, 'What's going on?'"

"Are you from Chicago?"

"We're from Seattle. We drove out and we're gonna do Route 66. My husband's got an old '39 Chev [sic] he had restored. We're gonna spend two weeks trying to find the old route." She smiled in anticipation, then pointed at the painting. "We might see some place like this."

[Hopper's Apartments Houses hangs in Philadelphia]

A hefty blond woman entered with her generic-looking husband.

"It's the only place open for blocks," she answered, "that's why it looks so bright I think."

"I was commenting,” he commented, "on the unusual green on the outside. It's almost eerie. And when you look at the ceiling in the diner, you can tell it's a fluorescent light. It's a feeling everyone can relate to."

"I would imagine," she wrinkled her brow, "that it's 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning, maybe the middle of the week, even. Everybody in the apartment above the store is asleep, but for whatever reason, these people are awake and out."

"And up to no good," he tossed in.

"That's not a happy couple," the woman asserted.

"They may not be a couple," he countered. "They may be together just that night."

She said, "She's looking at her nails, thinking, 'I can't believe I'm going to have to do these again tomorrow.'"

"Or, 'I can't believe I'm here with this guy'," he offered.

"Her expression," she continued, "is complete boredom. Like 'I'd rather be anywhere but where I am right now.'"

"Are you guys from Chicago?"

"From Chicago, yeah."

"Do you think Chicagoans and Americans are isolated?"

They hemmed and hawed. "You want us to generalize," the woman shook her head, "and it's hard to generalize for Chicago because it's so big."

"It also depends," said the man, "on where in the city you are. Some parts they roll up the streets at 9 o'clock at night; other places are open 24 hours. You can be as lonely as you want to be."

"Have you seen this one before?"

"Well," she answered brashly, "anyone has seen it. This woman I work with: it's her absolute favorite painting, and she has a print of it right above her desk. But people come into the museum and see it and they think, 'Oh my God: it's the real thing.' They didn't know it really existed. They've seen so many variations of it. I don't know anyone that just says 'eh' and shrugs, which is interesting because the subject is pretty mundane: four people in a café.

"We moved away from Chicago for a while when I was a kid. Every summer, we would come back to visit, and one of the things we would always do is come back to the art museum. Nighthawks is always one painting that I want to see. Even now, we were just wandering through, and we weren't looking for it, but we saw it and both went, 'Ah! Gotta go look.' The pull of that loneliness on the inside every time I see it."

[Hopper's Summer Interior]

Another couple approached. A plump young woman with big brown eyes hung on the arm of her lanky husband. A widow's peak made in-roads into his spiked hair.

"We just recently moved [here] from Atlanta," the man responded in a nasal voice that made him seem sneering. "This is our first visit to the Art Institute. It looks very different in reproduction. It's bigger in real life. You know what it reminds me of? I studied in Vienna for 6 months, and we'd always go to coffee shops. And it reminds me of one we would go to. There was never anyone in there. What can I say? Artistically, it's perfect. It looks like a photograph. He tells a story."

"It looks," his wife continued in soft, measured tones, "like they've come together for some reason. He makes it so plain and empty. That's where you get your loneliness. It gets kind of depressing after you look at it after a while. It doesn't look like a city. There's nothing going on. We moved from a job change, and a city is mostly for working. Especially those who live downtown, they live there because it's close to business. But a city is exhausting."

I interviewed people in front of the painting in Chicago, as usual. But in Chicago, I also had the opportunity finally to interview myself. I was an average-looking man, about 5'10" 180, with an intense stare and light brown hair parted on the side. I wore a pair of slacks and a sweater on the day that I interviewed myself. "Do you think that people are isolated as Hopper's characters?"

"I do," I answered. "In fact, I wrote a book about it. I certainly feel isolated myself, and I think that Chicago is an isolating town. The people here are often mean to each other. And the town is without a doubt segregated and nepotistic."

"So you see this painting reflecting Chicago?"

"Well, there were still a lot of places like this when I first moved here, but now Mayor Daley does his best to run them out of business. In fact, there is a place up on Irving, an old diner (The Diner Grill), that they tried to shut down and put in condos. I have gone to that diner several times, and I can tell you that it does feel like walking into a Hopper painting. The grill is right there in front of the counter and you can watch the food cook as you sit there, and there are no tables, just the counter."

"I got an architectural guidebook to Chicago and started exploring all the neighborhoods. It's amazing how many there are. And people in one don’t know about the others. There are a lot of neighborhoods that people will tell you you can’t go. But I go on Sunday mornings. The only people out at that time are church-goers. You see a lot of Nighthawks-like scenes at that hour, too. The guidebook has helped me notice the architectural treasures I would have missed otherwise. I think this is a lot like what Hopper did: search for the unique and evocative.

"Chicago's particular form of isolation would be segregation. A recent report declared it the second-most-segregated big city in America. (A black friend of mine who lived in a traditionally black neighborhood on the south side, noted that when Mayor Washington, the first black mayor elected in Chicago, was in power was quote 'the only time snow in my neighborhood got plowed.') Also with the well-known patronage system of big machine politics, there are two tiers of people politically, those with clout or at least access to city jobs and those outside."

"You said you felt isolated. In what ways?"

"Well, in many ways. I mean, I tried to make a living as an artist here. And the irony is that it is the third-largest city in America, so it draws a lot of people from the Midwest who want to be artists, but it still does not have a great artists' community--not powerful and visible like New York's. So you come to the big city for the art scene which is better than your town's, but it still is not a great art scene. I think artists and thinkers are sort of sneered at in this culture. If you have culture, it is not immediately visible or something that you can buy. I think it's just easier for people to make snap judgments based on people's belongings. Even people who say this painting and other Hoppers show people isolated are just jumping to a snap judgment. I mean, the people in here might be happy; they might not feel sad about being isolated or even feel isolated. But you know that's what you have been told about Hopper. So I guess I feel isolated in that way; I feel judged.

"Actually, I overcome isolation in this city by coming here. The museum and the people in it, even the dead artists who have stuff that I can relate to, that's where I find my community."

[Hopper's Dawn in Pennsylvania]

Nighthawks hung in Chicago, in a museum better known for its extensive Impressionist collection. Collectors made wealthy by rebuilding Chicago after the Great Fire of 1871 went looking to buy the city some class. East Coast collectors thought the Impressionists brash flash-in-the-pans. Chicagoans quietly and eagerly amassed the best collection of Impressionists in the country.

Hopper's Gothic scene in Nighthawks could easily have been titled American Gothic, the title of Grant Wood's instantly recognizable picture of the old man in overalls holding a pitchfork and standing next to his daughter (many believed it was the man's wife). That painting can also be found in Chicago's Art Institute, a truly great collection of often-seen classics: Sunday on Isle Grand Jatte Van Gogh's Bedroom, 1889, Caillebotte's Rainy Day in Paris.

(The Terra Museum of American Art, headquartered in Chicago, also owned two Hopper paintings, but I was informed when I started that both were on permanent loan to their sister institution in Paris. By the time I finished the project, the Terra had gone under, and Dawn in Pennsylvania hung beside Nighthawks.)

Nighthawks is so well-known and prototypical of Hopper's paintings that it is the hardest work to talk about. Similarly, Chicago is the hardest town for me to talk about because I know it so well. As I visited all the Hoppers in the U.S., Chicago, my hometown for more than 20 years, was the touchstone against which I measured the other cities.

Chicago playwright Lynn Rosen, who wrote a play called Nighthawks, said, "A lot of Chicagoans connect with Hopper, even though he was a New Yorker, It's because the Art Institute has Nighthawks. New York is on a different planet. Chicago is more American." Chicago institution Studs Terkel said, "I love that Edward Hopper's Nighthawks. When I was a kid, I lived in this place: The Wells Grand Hotel; it's still there. There's an all-night restaurant down below. My God, it was Nighthawks in every way."

Like with New York, there is no way to summarize the people, events, and superlatives that made this such a significant and American city. Founded by French priests where the Chicago River flowed into Lake Michigan at a swamp filled with reeky onions that the natives called "cheecagou," the town became a hub due to its placement at the nexus of the waterways and roads of the North American continent. Its identity really solidified after the Great Fire in 1871, when there was money and infrastructure in place but no buildings. The "second city" that was built on top of the rubble was a showcase for the leading architectural wonders of its day: indoor plumbing, gas lighting, elevators, and other modern marvels made this town immediately more modern than any other. Chicago architect Louis Sullivan invented the term "skyscraper" to describe the building he was designing for the new city.

When I moved to Chicago in 1977, I was told that it was home at the time to the world's first, third and tenth tallest buildings. Chicago has always been trying to be the biggest and the best. In fact, it was the politicians who lobbied so hard to have the nation's Columbian Festival in Chicago in 1894 that gave it the nickname "The Windy City" (not the lake winds as many now believe). They got their wish, and the fair was so well attended it made the city famous. The Midway down the center of the White City created for the exposition to show off the most modern achievements in every science or art was so famous that the Chicago Bears became nicknamed "Monsters of the Midway."

Having always striven for the biggest and best, it is no surprise that Nighthawks is here: the pinnacle of Hopper's work. It is a surprise that it almost did not end up here. The original buyer swapped it for one that the Art Institute had. It almost seems like a mythical creature, like the man who broke the bank at Monaco: the man who let Nighthawks out of his possession. Yet here it is: in perhaps the most typically American city because it is the largest American city not on a coast. It is the swaggering giant of the heartland, due to its position at the bottom of the great lakes and halfway from the West to New England.

I spent a lot of time with Chicago's night hawks. Both the people and the famous painting by Edward Hopper. I lived here for 25 years starting in 1986, when no one wanted to live here. I first got an apartment in an old Hopperesque three-story Greystone with massive rough stones bulging out of the façade and a wooden door with cracked paint. When I first moved in, on my walks home from shows or waiting tables, a hooker would call out at every other corner (a professional courtesy of territory, I learned). Now, when I walk down the same street, a Starbucks calls out from every other corner (the opposite of territorial courtesy for business). Since my move into the city, the neighborhoods that used to be exclusively left to young college grads, artists, and hippie urban-renewal types (the term "gentrification" had not yet been invented) disappeared. Since then, people and their real estate dollars have flocked here. But I don’t think that more people has resulted in better community. Just the opposite. The types that moved here demanded parking lots and got them. They wanted the chain stores they knew in their former cities: Chicago suburbs or other metropolises. We are becoming more isolated like the people in Hopper's painting. As long ago as 1996, a friend of mine moved away form here and said she was doing it partly due to the "New Yorkification" of Chicago. When I was in Europe one time, I saw a magazine that highlighted the hottest neighborhoods in the world: Hong Kong, London ... and my neighborhood in Chicago. I had moved there because it was affordable and had longtime German householders lending stability. Now, it was overrun with yuppie couples and families, holding barbecues in the back yards and beer frat parties on the public ways.

When Mayor Washington was mayor is when the arts flourished. Washington's reign was the glory days for independent theaters. When Daley's men took over they shut down one theater where I had done a show because it was in an art gallery. When the director argued, "Theater is art," the city's henchman grunted, "Lady, it ain't art if it don't hang on a wall." Under Daley, things started changing in Chicago. Maxwell Street, long-time home of Chicago's blues culture, was demolished for a condo development. Housing projects tumbled without replacements. Lifeless high-rise cinder-block condos replaced quaint old single-family homes. I lived in this city when my family thought that it was gang-ridden. Now my family wants to come down to Navy Pier because that's the best mall in town. We've gone entirely the other direction. And I laugh because all my artist friends are moving to the suburbs which ten years ago they hated.

I could go on with examples, but trust me. I have lived here long enough to know the city. And the city is not the downtown that the tourists see. Most of the living is done in the neighborhoods and not downtown. Neighborhoods here used to be towns that were swallowed by the ever-growing city. That is why they retain separate names today: Lake View, Hyde Park, Austin, Bridgeport, etc. And allegiance is to the neighborhood first and the city second. Read Nelson Algren about how viciously people fought over the imaginary borders certain streets constituted between neighborhoods of rival ethnic groups. Algren actually knew Chicago better than almost any other writer and his opinion was, "[Chicago is] the only major city in the country where you can easily buy your way out of a murder rap." And about the Greek philosopher who went walking with a lamp in daylight to see if any man were honest enough to tell him his mistake, Algren said, "If Diogenes came to Chicago, they’d steal his lamp."


Willi said...

Hi I'm a Brooklynite, NYC. It is a long story how I came across Hopper but I am interested in Hopper's point of view on African Americans. No paintings depicting their lives...black music was certainly influential. A reat blog post


The Hopper Guy said...

Hi, Willi. Sorry I did not see this comment earlier. It's a good questions. I noted later in this blog that Hopper only painted one painting with an African American character: South Carolina Morning. It is curious because there was already a large Af Am population in NYC when he lived and painted there. I would caution against reading too much into it (as would Hopper). Many of his supposed mysteries were technical painting issues. He may have found Af Am skin tones did not work in his compositions. Thanks for reading!