Edward Hopper: An Artist in Pursuit of Desire

by Matt Backer



Hopper's choice of subject matter complements these endless moments. None of the events appear to be particularly significant. Hopper intentionally pursued unconventional subjects. He said in an interview,

The people around here telling me about beautiful sunsets. It's what you add that makes it beautiful. No, the unsophisticated think there's something inherent in it. A pond with lilies or something. There isn't, of course.[16]

Hopper painted images of scenes in between the momentous occurrences in one's life. If it was a theater scene, he chose to depict the audience finding their seats, as in Two on the Aisle (1927), or waiting during the break, as in Intermission (1963). Hopper's urban scenes, in other words, are those that make up the majority of a person's life. He avoided conventionally satisfying scenes in his pursuit of more typical human experience. Indeed, according to Lacanian theory, the interminably deferred desire of Hopper's paintings is fundamental to human existence.

Lacan developed a theoretical alternative to the circular perpetuation of desire captured in these paintings: the sinthome, a concept that requires a glossing, however brief, of pertinent terms, in which the above-mentioned mirror stage will be illustrative. Signifiers are, by definition, attached to a signified; the infant's mirrored image is the signifier, the quantity that refers to something else, and the infant himself is the signified, the thing that is represented (through a signifier). All signifiers, i.e. images, words, sounds, everything that we absorb with our senses, are attached to a signified, that is, they all refer to something. There is, according to Lacan, one exception to this rule, and this is the sinthome. Corresponding to no individual meaning, the sinthome represents "enjoyment in meaning," itself.[17] Up to this point, I have mentioned only desire as the motivating force behind human behavior, but Lacan describes a second: the drive. Slavoj Zizek, a Lacanian theorist, noted, "the object small a names the void of that unattainable surplus that sets our desire in motion."[18] Objet a is fickle and assumes countless forms as one's desire shifts from object to object, denying the "void" that it masks. The drive, on the other hand, sets in motion the pursuit of constant, fundamental objects, such as the drive to create meaning. The sinthome, then, refers to no particular object; it embodies the enjoyment of the drive to create meaning.

A comparison of two of Hopper's last paintings elucidates this distinction. A Woman in the Sun (1961, not reproduced) is a bedroom scene. A woman stands facing a window, bathed in the sunlight pouring through the aperture. The nude woman is typically an object of desire in art, but the powerful stance and purposeful look of the woman force us to see her as a subject, and, as a result, we identify with her. Our desire shifts from the body of the woman to the object of her desire, the window, the source of the light. This desire is frustrated, however. The picture only includes a hint of curtain to suggest the window. As in Automat and Summertime, the window becomes a theoretical portal, and the fulfillment of our desire lies on the other side. Sun in an Empty Room (fig. 5, 1963) is also a scene of a sun-drenched interior, but the image is stripped of narrative elements. A window on the right side of the painting affords a view of the exterior, filled by dark bushes. Light enters the empty room through this window. The light falls onto the floor and two planes of wall, creating movement that has been described as "minimal, but final."[19] By shifting the focus of the painting to fundamentals of the artist's trade, the shape and the light itself, Hopper transforms the objet petit a into the sinthome. The painting guides us to such an abstract interpretation of the scene by eliminating the shadow of the window's middle frame. The inclusion of the shadow would complicate the scene; its exclusion shifts the meaning of the painting to the simple shape of the "lightfall."[20] In this, one of Hopper's final paintings, he quits leading us to generate fantasies of the far side of the window and encourages us to enjoy the painted image itself. Lacan's theory revolves around language, so the sinthome, for him, is language without a particular meaning, words that allow us to recognize the awesome power of signifiers to signify. Hopper's method of creating meaning is light, and this simple lightfall guides us to enjoy that small space of potential between signifier and signified, the tiny realm of the sinthome.


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