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The Great American Pessimist

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Rooftops (1926).  

Stillness. Given the dizziness of ADHD New York—even back then, the city was speedy—Hopper’s stillness can stop you, set you back, make you pause. That is not always pleasant. Moving is a way not to look hard, or not to face what’s in front of you. Probably no painting in American art appears as powerfully still as the iconic Early Sunday Morning, where the city seems to hold its breath and wait … for what? Hopper creates the sensation of stillness partly through carefully built compositions that contain nothing fancy. He was a carpenter, not an artisan. He constructed pictures to last, not win plaudits for their artfulness. An abstract painter once told me, with admiration, that Hopper’s pictures were “built like a brick shit house.” The forms are not just arranged, in other words: They’re no-nonsense.

Heat. Hopper’s pictures—however pessimistic—are never cold. That edge of modernist ice is missing. To sophisticated eyes, that sometimes makes them seem naïve, illustrative, or even sentimental. In Seven a.m., for example, the dark woods, juxtaposed against the precise white shop and its hanging clock, seem moody, vague, and death-haunted. But the woods are also strangely inviting, like the forest in a fairy tale. The word most often applied to Hopper is melancholy, which isn’t quite right. He may yearn; he may yield to the seductive charm of melancholy’s inward quiet. But he never rests there (as a painter like Raphael Soyer does). He’s tough-minded. Imagine, for example, what Hopper would think of a pop tune like Simon & Garfunkel’s melancholy “The Sound of Silence.” Girly.

Museumgoers, looking at art made decades ago, stand in a privileged position. They analyze, applaud, condemn, condescend. They can forget that the past is also an implicit critic of the present. Many people regard Thornton Wilder’s Our Town as an old chestnut, for example, best suited to middlebrow taste. Yet when David Cromer revived the play at the Barrow Street Theatre last year, his modest production made most contemporary American culture look timid by comparison. Hopper’s like that. He recalls what we forget. He does what we can’t—or won’t—do.

Modern Life: Edward Hopper and His Time
Whitney Museum of American Art.
Opening Oct. 28.


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