Wednesday, December 27, 2006

While wandering through the American Art Museum this weekend, I happened on a couple of Hopper paintings.

In graduate school, I thought about Hopper's work often. Not because of his themes, mind you. The Hopper who lives in the popular imagination--the reporter for American alienation, sterile spaces, loneliness--is a bit of a yawn.

I will admit, though, to being interested in the ways in which modern or contemporary artists are only capable of viewing the present moment as worthy of parody, unable to rise to the level of heroism of the work or lives of the past. There was a fine article about that in Art in America a few years back--specifically about Hopper's relation to Vermeer, Protestantism, gender, etc.:

"Hopper's utilization of Vermeer's active, narrative-advancing light has about it the same lacerating reversal of purpose as Joyce's substitution of Leopold Bloom for Ulysses. As Bloom's heroism, such as it is, is a caricature of that of Ulysses, so Hopper's light is a monstrous inversion of the light in Vermeer. Where sunlight in Vermeer everywhere symbolizes propagative life, sunlight in Hopper is cold and sterile, unable even to "breed maggots in a dead dog" (Hamlet). The light in Woman with a Pearl Necklace is like an embrace; in Morning in a City it is like radiation."

Find the rest here:

Of course, the use of light as a metaphor for Christ is a familiar enough subject. Think of the way candles function in Georges de la Tour paintings--the penitent Magdalens--or, say, in Luminist paintings, where the sun is never just the sun; it's the presence of God in the New World. One wonders how much of this was on Hopper's mind when he did a painting like Woman in the Sun--or any of his other paintings with solitary female figures bleached by cold sunlight.

But I digress.

What really turns me on about Hopper is his anti-heroic paint handling, his many refusals of painterly mastery as typically defined.

Look at any folio of his drawings and it's clear that Hopper is a capable draftsperson--facility with the implement, unerring compositional sense, it's all there.

But in his paintings, he resists all sorts of opportunities to build a luscious surface, or show off expressionistic brio with his brush, or, well, anything that makes painting delicious and enjoyable to work with. He scrubs in slabs of chalky color; his work is all about defining planes and facets, controlling edges. Look at those two contrasting rectangles of sap green in the window in Cape Cod Morning, one light, one dark, angled toward one another; take your eye from that to the thin stripe of red oxide at the bottom, and the difference in tone in the two small shapes bracketing it.

Sure, there's plenty of precedent for this with modern European painters. But Hopper's no cubist, and there's enough sense of what color ought to do, how it ought to behave and be constructed despite all that chalkiness. He's not like the preciosionists--like Scheeler, who might as well have been using gouache, or working in an architect's office. Hopper is about planes and edges, about reduction, but he still feels what oil paint is.

Anyway, it was something of a relief to see those Hoppers after being a little sour on painting for the last few months. I forget how quietly, perfectly wonderful the seemingly plain images above can be. You can lose an afternoon with these.

Top: Ryder's House, oil on canvas, 36 1/8" X 50", 1933
Bottom: Cape Cod Morning, oil on canvas, 34 1/8" X 40 1/4", 1950


Blogger Unknown said...

In speaking of "defining planes", I notice that the black shutter on the right of the window juts out into the very center of the painting. As an untrained art observer, I wonder the meaning/reason of this...

12:27 PM  
Blogger jhcudlin said...

Well, I don't want to read too much into those shutters...but there are all sorts of ways we might interpret them.

Is that stark division of the canvas into angles and planes vs. shapeless, scruffy foliage meant to show the fragile division between man's civilization and nature? Maybe.

Or should I just be interested in the theatricality of this--the way Hopper has created a little stage set for us within the space, an unreal window inside another unreal window?

Sort of like a medieval manuscript or tapestry, where a figure peering through a window is never actually looking out at the physical world, but is instead experienceing some inward vision. Of course, that could be a meaningless, superficial affinity I'm suggesting.

Read Hopper's thoughts on his own works, and he's often more interested in the play of light or atmosphere than the attitude of his figures--which are often either invented, or based on his wife, often seemingly ageless from canvas to canvas, year to year.

Speaking of windows, totally off the subject, here's a link to one of my favorite Matisse paintings--very spare, all about planes and edges and the rectilinear format. But still, representation:

8:11 PM  

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