Edward Hopper’s Views of Isolation
Edward Hopper’s New York at the Whitney is a near-encyclopedic review of the artist’s myriad styles and sundry interests as they pertain to his long-term home and recurrent subject, Manhattan. The exhibition also makes the theme of isolation pellucid through structural studies of the urban environment and portraits of Hopper’s longtime muse, fellow artist and wife, Josephine Hopper (1883–1968).
The Whitney leads the exhibition with Hopper’s early student paintings and studies from the 1910s, conducted as he commuted to Manhattan by ferry to attend the New York School of Art and Design. The city and its austere, industrious ornamentation is already a frequent motif for the young Hopper, who toys with dramatic light effects and draws from everyday life. Even in these early paintings, adumbral bridges and tunnels threaten to fold into their surroundings.
Autumnal paintings like “November, Washington Square” (c. 1932/1959) are curiously barren. They serve as a time capsule for now-lapsed architectural marvels like the Judson Memorial Church sanctuary building, but more importantly they offer a view into Hopper’s stark, alienated province. Greatly influenced by French Impressionists like Degas, who so profoundly moved his instructor, Robert Henri (1865–1929), Hopper was interested in a kind of realism. But his realism and its coeval compositions cannot be deracinated from the cold structures that populate them.
Rather than turning to the immediate experience of putatively untouched wilderness as the American Transcendentalists whom he avidly read, Hopper’s New York paintings evince an interest in constructed nature. Paintings like “House at Dusk” (1935) show Hopper twisting the cityscape into a forbidding playground. “The City” (1927), one of the many “rooftop paintings” that Hopper produced, sports an elevated perspective where brick-faced row houses of variegated styles are stretched into a horizontal plain. Dotted anonymous park-goers amble along the sidewalk. Neither are they close-by nor are they engaging with one another—each a private, impenetrable life.
The “nocturne” etchings on display—some of the most subtle but penetrating works in the exhibition—demonstrate Hopper’s compositional dexterity as he experimented with monochromatic light and shadow. The urban facades merge with wilted tree leaves and desiccated croaking twigs. Early Hopper pieces from the 1920s, such as “Night in the Park” (1921), capture the sensibility of alienation that, today, is arguably heightened by technology and urban development. The darkness of adumbrated park benches, cloaked by the shadows of looming branchlets, envelop a lone figure reading the newspaper. Nature, human-made structures, and the figures who populate them are interwoven into a chilled common breath.
Glancing over any group of morning or afternoon train passengers, the urbanites of today’s New York are privy to a scattering of private worlds. Glowing cell phones direct our attention, shaping and conducting our bodies which, no matter their physical proximity to one another, are resolutely autonomous. Such concentrated autonomy may only be slightly detectable in Hopper’s noir-bedaubed “Nighthawks” (1942). Hopper even arguably gestures away from it his sympathetic studies of Josephine like “Morning Sun” (1952). But even here, in the half-sipped coffee mugs, is a brisk quietude. When taken alongside his oeuvre of New York paintings, Hopper’s work has less to do with the psychological realities of his subject and more to do with a keenly modern stripe of aloofness.
Edward Hopper’s New York continues at the Whitney Museum of American Art (99 Gansevoort Street, Manhattan) through March 5. The exhibition was curated by Kim Conaty and Melinda Lang.