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Light and Obliquity: Edward Hopper at the Whitney Museum

Edward Hopper, (Manhattan Bridge), 1925-26. Whitney Museum of Art

Clement Greenberg once observed that Edward Hopper was a “bad painter. But if he were a better painter, he would, most likely, not be so superior an artist.” “Edward Hopper’s New York,” a major retrospective currently on view at the Whitney Museum, confirms this judgment. There is occasionally a clumsiness to Hopper, especially when he steps out of his comfort zone. But he knew where he excelled, and perhaps was unrivalled – that is, in capturing the unmistakable atmosphere of the city, and finding it not in the typical places, skyscrapers, crowds, traffic, and such. Hopper looked to the strange and transient moments of stillness and solitude: it was at such unpromising moments that he was able to convey, as Greenberg described, an “insight into the present nature of American life.”

Born in 1882, in upstate New York’s Hudson River Valley, Hopper settled around 1913 into an apartment facing Washington Square Park, with his wife, the painter Josephine Hopper. He would remain in that neighborhood until his death in 1967. Hopper is chiefly remembered as the quintessential American realist. Yet it is no surprise that his emphasis on formal qualities found notice and admiration among the abstract expressionists who would go on to make New York City home to the world’s most advanced painting, finally displacing Paris, which had long retained that title.

The Whitney’s exhibition of some 200 paintings, sketches, and artifacts includes a handful of the widely-known masterpieces, but there is a generous selection of rarely seen works; paintings that are relatively unknown but reveal a side of Hopper that is less about the aesthetics of film-noir, and more about the growing impersonalization of the city, the social malaise, and the fleeting instants when the coordinates by which we routinely move seem on the verge of slipping away.

Hopper’s New York is a palimpsest, where old and new are often adjacent, as in From Williamsburg Bridge (1928), a painting that is characteristic of Hopper’s emphasis on the horizontality of the city, rather than the verticality with which New York has been typically associated. “I just never cared for the vertical,” Hopper once said. Uninterested in skyscrapers, or the city’s famed skyline, Hopper’s city lives at a grounded, human level, which makes these scenes, frquently absent of people, distinctively haunting, melancholic, and ultimately defamiliarizing.

There are certain subjects that Hopper would return to repeatedly. In paintings such as Girl at a Sewing Machine (1921), Morning Sun (1952) Eleven A.M. (1926), and Room in Brooklyn (1932) a lone woman sits facing a window into which the sunlight is streaming. A note of sad resignation accompanies these images. Sometimes it is as if Hopper is intent on stripping away anything that would impede the transparency of his subjects. Even the glass has been removed from his windows. Indeed, under the interrogational glare of Hopper’s raking light there is no longer any room for illusions.

Office in a Small City (1953) is a case in point. The painting uses simple forms to convey the diminution of the individual in modern life. It is no accident that the title makes mention of the office (bathed in light), but none of the man who sits within its purely utilitarian, bone-white concrete slabs. In fact, he is not an individual at all, but with his white rolled-up sleeves, he is as undistinctive and functional as the room he inhabits. The militantly unadorned building towers over some old brownstones; and the juxtaposition is made more brutal, even violent, by the corner of the office building that stretches the entire height of the painting, literally dividing the older buildings in the background. In this case, the sheer verticality of the building is a kind of counterpoint to the insignificance of the man installed within that space.

November, Washington Square (1932/1959), is Hopper’s only double-dated painting. Depicting the view from his apartment, the painting was only finally completed following the successful outcome to his and his wife’s successful preservation campaign that ultimately saved their building and home. The exhibition even includes a vaguely hostile exchange of letters between Hopper and Robert Moses, then Commissioner of Parks, with the latter being unsurprisingly condescending in the face of Hopper’s opposition to New York University’s relentless annexation of buildings facing the park.

City Roofs (1932) is important for its intense focus on the formal relationship between shapes and geometric patterns. Color has taken a decided backseat, but if anything, that only serves to accent Hopper’s endless fascination with raking light (which is the real reason for his eschewal of the vertical in favor of the horizontal). The rooftop is a privileged setting in which to study the effects of oblique, unobstructed sunlight. Realism in this case brings us to the very door of abstraction, where purely utilitarian objects – chimneys, pipes, and skylights – have crucially become sources of intrinsic meaning and value, entirely independent of their functionality.

The exhibition includes a sampling of the ten watercolors Hopper painted of the city, all between the years 1925 and 1928. Five of these were views taken from the rooftop of his Washington Square residence. The rows of airshafts and other objects in Roofs (1926) have become a kind of personal skyline of its own, a concrete canyon of cylinders and blocks. In the silence and stillness of this stage, it is the angled light itself that is the true star of the show.

What is it that has so fascinated the masters of raking light, from Caravaggio, to Vermeer, to Hopper, among others? It seems to me that the significance of raking light is that we often fail to grasp a thing when we reach for it straight on; rather at times we must catch it from the side. This will be familiar to some as the principle of obliquity: that complex goals are best achieved indirectly (this is also probably why the happiest people are generally not those who are preoccupied with securing their happiness). Likewise, we do not adequately see a thing by shining the light directly on, or perpendicular to, the object; but parallel, or at an oblique angle the truth of the thing comes out, its structures, textures, its real, hitherto hidden countenance.

Many of Hopper’s most famous works – Nighthawks (1942), for example (not in the exhibition) – have become so ubiquitous that we are in danger of no longer being able to see them. The corrective for this over-exposure is to engage with the artist’s less familiar work; that is, to come to the artist through another portal – obliquely, if you will – and thereby trace a new path into the world that his oeuvre represents. Hopper observed, “I think I’m not very human, I didn’t want to paint people posturing and grimacing. What I wanted to do was to paint sunlight on the side of a house.” It is as telling a description as any of Hopper’s painterly fascination with New York City.