Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 21, 2014
Carter E. Foster Hopper Drawing Exh. cat. New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 2013. 256 pp.; 386 color ills. Cloth $60.00 (9780300181494)
Exhibition schedule: Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, May 23–October 6, 2013; Dallas Museum of Art, Dallas, November 17, 2013–February 16, 2014; Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, March 13–June 20, 2014
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Edward Hopper. Study for Conference at Night (1949). Fabricated chalk on paper. Sheet: 8 5/8 x 11 5/8 in. (21.9 x 29.5 cm). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Josephine N. Hopper Bequest 70.844. © Heirs of Josephine N. Hopper, licensed by Whitney Museum of American Art, NY.

At the most superficial level, Edward Hopper’s paintings represent modern American life as a series of moments oscillating along a continuum between solitude and desolation via loneliness, isolation, and alienation and back again. As the drawings, paintings, prints, and ephemera included in Hopper Drawing: A Painter’s Process at the Dallas Museum of Art (DMA) attest, those oscillations can generate a curious sense of longing that endures well after one departs the gallery spaces. The exhibition, a version of which opened at the Whitney Museum of Art in May 2013, features a small portion of the 2,500 drawings included in the artist’s estate, which Hopper’s wife, Josephine, bequeathed to the Whitney in 1967. The exhibition represents the public debut of these drawings, and the accompanying catalogue introduces them for the first time to scholarly analysis. Combining images from the Whitney collection with works from other museums and galleries as well as private holdings, the display proves an intellectually and aesthetically stimulating glimpse of the artist’s hand and mind at work. Rather than burden the viewer with artificial constructs of “evolution,” “artistic development,” or “aesthetic trajectory,” exhibition curator and catalogue author-editor Carter E. Foster allows the works to drive the narrative, leaving enough interpretive clearance so that each viewer may extract her or his own story from Hopper’s sketches, studies, and oil paintings. In its Dallas Museum of Art iteration, DMA Associate Curator of American Art Sue Canterbury and Associate Designer Jessica Harden gathered the works in discrete thematic clusters, presenting the drawings as compositionally self-contained and cerebrally self-sufficient, while allowing plenty of space for formal comparison, contrast, and association between and across the rooms and spaces in the galleries. Hopper’s visits to Paris, changing relationships between nature and technology, the problematics of the self, and themes such as “the road” and “the bedroom” provide the topical frameworks through which the exhibition achieves exceptional curatorial clarity.

Hopper Drawing comprises works of dimensions large and small, some undertaken as exercises in draftsmanship, some as object and character studies, others as explorations and variations on themes that influenced oil paintings, and, finally, drawings that served as compositional models for some of Hopper’s most highly regarded works. Several of Hopper’s oil paintings also appear in the show, along with large-scale digital prints of such works as the iconic Nighthawks (1942); these digital prints make for a jarring exception to the otherwise seamless groupings and provide a stark reminder of the marked aesthetic inferiority of such copies. The range and diversity of the images on display reveal the painstaking processes through which Hopper subjected—as he characterized it—“the color, design and form . . . consciously or otherwise, to considerable simplification.”1 Subjects vary from natural, urban, and industrial landscapes, to the palpably tense interior of a hotel lobby, to the luxurious tectonics of flesh and bone in a pair of reclining nudes. Standouts among the works include a charming and affectionate ink study from around 1900 after Édouard Manet’s Le Fifre (1866) and the stunning Soir Bleu (1914), an oil exhibited only once in Hopper’s lifetime. Like the character studies that Hopper completed while on one of his three trips to Paris, the eyeless figures in Soir Bleu connote a certain sense of soullessness. The garish colors, the swaying Chinese lanterns, and jarring blue balusters lead one to wonder how Hopper’s oeuvre might have developed had he not abandoned this particular path. The exhibition balances these unknown works with sections dedicated to New York Movie (1939) and Gas (1940).

Whether displayed in the presence of the oil paintings for which they served as preparatory sketches or as discrete expressive gestures, Hopper’s drawings read both as legible images and as sensual objects. The textural opacity of charcoal, the muted shimmering smoothness of graphite, the velvet smudges of red chalk, smudged fingerprints, and torn and taped edges resonate with emphatically tactile qualities that register the paradox of the artist’s presence and absence. In some instances the extensively labeled studies allowed the viewer to playfully imagine the final product, a process that results in some validations and even more surprises. The rooms that included studies along with their oil paintings (or digital reproductions thereof) proved the most effective of the curatorial flourishes in the show. In some cases, such as Nighthawks, the technical and compositional achievements of the oil painting relegate the drawings to mere studies. In others, such as Study for Route 6, Eastham (1941), Hopper’s talents as a draftsman outshine his prowess as a painter: the flattened, almost abstracted forms of the oil version lack the conceptual clarity and formal cohesion of the drawing, in which a curving roadway adds a dynamism that stimulates the curiosity. Similarly, the graphite-on-paper Road and Rocks (ca. 1962) reads as much more fully formed than the oil painting Road and Trees, produced around the same time. A study for Road and Trees includes a car just appearing to the viewer’s right; in the completed oil version of the scene, Hopper shifts the view from inside the car, with the blur of the ground line and the trees occupying the entire field of vision. In the twenty-first century it is difficult to remember that the whizzing landscape viewed from the window of a car traveling at high speed was at one time a thrilling experience. The evocative groupings of study and final product, punctuated with the demonstrations of Hopper’s almost obsessive concern with framing, offer keen insight into the artist’s process while at the same time providing a stimulating glimpse at Hopper’s mastery of materials and composition.

Though not explicitly incorporated into the exhibition didactics, the curators’ clever juxtapositions lend themselves especially well to free association across the spatial and temporal boundaries of art history and across visual cultural mediums. For example, the oil painting entitled Summertime (1943) evokes Pierre Bonnard’s Nu à contre jour (ca. 1908), with each woman’s body pressed against the force of the sunlight. One can detect in the Summertime drawings Hopper’s translation of light into a substantive form that takes on the presence of a character in the visual narrative. This light—whether natural or artificial—plays a recurring, central role in the office and bedroom scenes. Hopper’s Dawn in Pennsylvania (1942), appearing in numerous studies as well as the final oil version, bears affective comparison to Giorgio di Chirico’s Melancholy and Mystery of a Street (1914). Seeing the stages through which Hopper conceptualized the mise-en-scène in Dawn in Pennsylvania imbues the image’s cinematic structure with an almost mystical inflection: film still as pittura metafisica. In other instances, the associations are less tenuous—but no less satisfying—with Hopper frequently acknowledging his affection for Edgar Degas, for example. One perhaps unintended consequence of the curators’ choices is calling attention to the fact that Hopper’s portrait-like treatments of works of architecture—already the subject of scholarly and popular studies by Geoffrey Bent, Peter Clericuzio, Witold Rybczynski, and others—warrant their own, separate exhibition.

Voyeurism and exhibitionism play a central role in two of the galleries, one devoted to the office and the other to the bedroom. In the former, Hopper approximates the experience of looking into office building windows from the car of an elevated train as it rumbles past the buildings’ exteriors. In the latter, the viewer shares the most private of spaces with single, nude females or couples in states of dress and undress. The aggressive agency of the gaze in the office scenes implicates and even indicts the viewer who, along with the artist, peers uninvited and undetected into the work lives of the women and men who populate the images’ unfolding narratives. The deliberations with which Hopper calculated the office painting compositions—testing slight modifications in the positions of his characters’ hands, deciding whether to include a painting on the wall behind a desk, settling on a full head of hair rather than the originally planned baldness—drive the intensity of the oil painting. Hopper remains unsurpassed at capturing and articulating the urban perplexity of feeling more connected to anonymous women and men in passing high-rise office buildings than to the people with whom one might share a daily train commute. The bedroom works, which occupy the last gallery in the exhibition, insinuate the viewer into spaces in which silence assumes the same substantive qualities as the bright and sometimes harsh daylight. These images, variously charged with introspection, unspoken accusations and self-recrimination, unexpressed dissatisfaction and burgeoning regret, hint at the emotional derangement that results from an inversely proportional relationship between physical intimacy and emotional connection.

The accompanying catalogue includes small reproductions of the works in the exhibition, with stimulating essays by Foster and others that strike just the right balance between scholarly rigor and popular accessibility. Unfortunately, some of the most potent works from the show, such as the meticulously labeled study for Morning Sun (1952), appear in reproductions too small to allow for full enjoyment. In addition to reproductions of the drawings and paintings that populate the exhibition, the catalogue includes newspaper clippings, advertisements, and an appendix that comprises photographs of a typewritten transcription of Lloyd Goodrich’s conversation with Hopper on April 20, 1946. The photographed pages prove an appealing contextual complement to the Hopper drawings.

Hopper Drawing: A Painter’s Process satisfies on manifold levels. For the historian and curator, the drawings prove a revelation; that the works on display represent only a fraction of Jo Hopper’s bequest to the Whitney holds the promise of a spate of new scholarship and of future exhibitions of never-before-seen Hopper works. For the Hopper fan, the show feels like being taken into the artist’s confidence in his studio. And for the artist and student, the exhibition qualifies as a posthumous master class.

Stephen Caffey
Instructional Assistant Professor of Art and Architectural History and Theory, Departments of Architecture and Visualization, Texas A&M University

1 Edward Hopper to Charles H. Sawyer; October 19, 1939; Addison Gallery Archives. Quoted in Daniel S. Palmer, “A View from the Bridge,” in the exhibition catalogue, 93. This passage also appears in the exhibition didactics for the room that featured Hopper’s bridge paintings.

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.