I went and saw the Whitney Museum's big summer show, "Hopper Drawing." It was, in fact, a very well-put-together exhibit. It accomplished what, i think, is one possible purpose of an art exhibit: to teach through the placement of objects, with minimal explanatory text. In this case, perhaps, the task was relatively easy: Josephine Hopper had bequested to the museum the couple's artistic estate, including a very large corpus of drawings. So the museum organized a look at Hopper's drawing practice, as a key to understanding his painting. In the center, a group of floating drawings (unattached to any particular painting or series), around it a set of galleries, each featuring a painting or series and the drawings from the museum's collection which were part of its creation. It seems easy enough, but it was still well-handled and unobtrusive; i felt that i walked out with a very different - and perhaps more accurate - conception of Hopper and Hopper's work.
Of course what i learned might not have been what the exhibit was intended to teach - the generally blessedly spare wall text had excessively numerous references to "great" work, and certainly flowed from an understanding of Hopper as genius which was clearly shared by the majority of the other museum-goers (or at least the loud ones). This seemed odd to me because the exhibit's design seemed to me to pick apart both Hopper the artist and, more to the point, "Hopper" the myth.
So the following is a record of my personal and peculiar encounter with the Hopper Drawing exhibit, and conclusions that i drew from it. Some of these things are obvious and boring, others less so.
Hopper was a nineteenth-century artist.
This of course is a flippant way to say it, but it communicates. It communicates, actually, two things: the most important is the degree to which his academic training continued to define his artistic practice: life drawing, both in and out of class, and generally a sketching practice that assumes that objects, especially human beings, can be isolated and drawn without their background; and the conception of drawing as instrumental and necessary to painting, are habits Hopper picked up in art school (at the turn of the century) and never appeared to drop or challenge.
The other thing that i mean is that, before he became famous, he made work that clearly belongs to the tradition of Belle Epoque caricature and illustration. It is, in fact, funny to see how "French" some of these early works are given Hopper's status as a quintessentially "American" artist.
Couple Drinking, 1906. Watercolor, pencil, and chalk on paper, 34.3 x 50.5 cm. Note that - unlike in your classic Hopper - these types are solidly situated socially and not at all situated spatially (Hopper did many sketches of nudes sans backgrounds, on which see below. But this is a finished drawing, framed by a rectangle and part of a series, not a working sketch). Note also that they have a reciprocal relationship to the artist. (This and subsequent images are lifted from the Whitney's web site.)
It is perhaps instructive to attempt to analyze the various way in which Hopper's "American" and "twentieth-century" works - in other words, the "Hopper" corpus - set themselves apart from these early works.
The image above, for instance, largely exists within the tradition of (here fairly light) caricature. Its characters exist in relation types. In other words this and other drawings of Paris street life, positions its subjects in a socio-economic web, even when that positioning is ambiguous (boundary-crossing being constituted by and constitutive of boundaries), and posits contrasts between these character-types and other character-types sharing, say, the Tuileries on a Sunday morning. In contrast Hopper's American subjects all look the same: white, overwhelmingly middle-aged, typically of unspecified class - unspecified not because it is ambiguous but because it is deemed unimportant - and, after a certain date, mostly modeled by the artist himself or his wife Jo.
One other contrast might be drawn, which is the obvious importance of photography and film in Hopper's mid-century work (disclaimer: i am totally ignorant of Hopper's relationship to photography beyond visual evidence, mostly from this exhibit; it seems, however, that he did not make use of photographs as such in his painting). The shift in subject matter and style is paralleled by a partial shift in drawing practice: he abandoned pen-and-ink (which focuses on line and lends itself to caricature) in favor of chalk, with its degrees of density, of light and dark, and its consequent ability to resemble the photographic "eye" as much as the human one. This shift in medium seems to have a chicken-and-egg relationship to Hopper's framing devices, which are always designed to give the impression of a photograph, with the relatively narrow angle of view and flat projection
Study for Nighthawks, 1941-2. Fabricated chalk and charcoal on paper, 28.3 x 38.1 cm. There is line of course, but the emphasis is on the play of lights and darks. There is a much greater claim to objectivity in this drawing than in the previous one - this claims to be in effect a visual capture of a specific time and place, the other claims to be the index of an encounter between three human beings.
The photographic effect - the claim that this is a cropped bit of visual reality at a particular place and time - is it seems to me one of the important reasons for the famous sense of isolation or alienation in Hopper's oeuvre. Hopper typically situates the viewer in a transitory position: going down a set of stairs, driving on a highway, entering a hotel lobby. This feels strange for painting in that painting implies an extended period of time and in this is unlike a photograph which actually is the index of a moment. So Hopper causes the viewer to feel paralyzed, approaching something ze cannot approach and which cannot respond to zer approach.
Hopper was a much better hand with charcoal than with oil paint
The first thing this exhibit taught me is that Hopper was a great draftsman. His drawings suggest a real facility with the medium (mostly chalk) as well as a long engaged study in the forms and textures they can create, both in themselves and in relation to their representational referent. In the Nighthawks study, for example, the few strokes of white chalk to suggest reflections in the foremost window and the very light charcoal for the street seen through the back window, economically suggest the transparency, the sense of a palpable volume of light which defines the space here. It's also quite pretty as pattern.
So, after walking through a room full of interesting and varied drawings, it comes as quite a shock to get to his oil paintings, which are clumsily and laboriously painted, neither interesting explorations of the medium of oil on canvas, nor successful representations of the visual world. I will make a limited exception for Nighthawks (zoom in through the Google Art Project), which is coloristically and spatially interesting, but even there...
Nighthawks, 1942. Oil on canvas, 84.1 x 152.4 cm. Much of the drawing's textural richness is lost: people, bricks, and sidewalk appear carved from the same stuff, and the front pane of glass has completely disappeared. The characters in the smaller drawing, although just lightly sketched out, were more expressive thanks to the interplay between line and shading. And overall, the sense of real depth and spatiality is much greater - alleviated only by the painting's larger scale.
One could suggest rather easily that the famous alienation of Hopper's paintings derives in large part from this lack of ease with the medium. His painted people are stiff and awkward, the surface of clothes and skin awkwardly mismatched, in a way that his drawn figures typically are not.
In particular Hopper often has trouble integrating the figures into the overall painting, a problem exacerbated by his academic working method. In his studies, figures are typically elaborated out of context, after or alongside composition sketches (this is why the figures in the nighthawk sketch have very different poses from the ones in the finished painting). When he brings it all back together in the final product, often his figures don't seem to fit in terms of lighting, texture, and color composition.
Study for Morning in a City, 1944. Prefabricated chalk on paper, 56.2 x 38.1 cm.
Morning in a City, 1944. Oil on canvas, 112.5 x 152 cm. This juxtaposition, i think, speaks for itself: there is absolutely no connection between background and figure, even the thematic light failing to convince. Wouldn't the light be behind her/to her right, standing where she is?
If i am convincing, and we can situate the "Hopper" effect in the intersection of the intentional (e.g. framing devices and a dialogue with photography) and unintentional (i.e. Hopper's difficulty with the medium of oil painting), then perhaps any of the following can follow:
1. This can be an excuse to dismiss Hopper, and his heroic-white-male mythos.
2. Hopper can come to stand for the evocative power of failure. His failures to project his idea - his reframing of his visual world - onto the canvas yields a somewhat evocative vision of communicative failure, and this medium-is-message interpretation adds depth to the our experience of the paintings. After all, for all their technical superiority, Hopper's drawings are hardly world-changing stuff; doesn't the somewhat stiff paint-handling, that inability of the scene to hang fully together, add that "Hopper" je ne sais quoi?
3. Both of the above. To dwell more on Morning in a City, we see on the one hand a very typical and uninspiring development: Hopper appropriates the body of his wife and transforms it into the body of a generic (and, of course, white) Woman, on which he then projects his (white, male) artistic Vision. On the other hand, surrounding the woman is a visible seam, a mark of the materiality of the medium and of the artist, of the white man's inability to fully impose his Vision on the world, either represented or representation. Woman here escapes the space created for her. In this reading Hopper both stands for a type of disembodied Artist that radical art production of the past decades has largely been interested in tearing down; and for the seeds of this destruction.