Editor's note: The following essay was rekeyed and reprinted on October 21, 2009 in Resource Library with permission of the author. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay please contact the author at this web address:
The Essential Vision of Edward Hopper
by Brett Busang
I have spent a great deal of time poring over the works, as well as pondering the life, of Edward Hopper. I was initially hooked -- as many have been -- by Hopper's immediacy. Here the thing is and this is what I think about it. When I was young, presumably sophisticated people had tired of the obvious (read: representational) and they were in the process -- begun fifty years earlier -- of rejecting even its liveliest and most compelling forms. Yet Hopper was unaccountably popular. In those days, there were fewer art books and they all dealt with the lives and oeuvre of Icons. Browsing through the art section of a library or bookstore, you didn't find many American icons - particularly if they'd breathed their last over the past twenty or thirty years. Publishers were rightly stingy; it was prohibitively expensive to do an art book that, like an art film, wouldn't sell. If you were a publisher, you skimmed over the local talent, the interesting striver, the minor eccentric, and went to the top. That Hopper would occupy a place there seemed anomalous. And yet he did -- and still does.
When I realized that painting was, if not a sound financial proposition, but a potentially fascinating line of work, I began to study Hopper as any acolyte would. I seemed to have no trouble subordinating my ego or releasing whatever fuzzy notions I might have had about how to paint. I knew I didn't care for the nonobjective painting that was ubiquitous at the time; nor for other "experimental" byways that seemed to produce volumes of explanation, but work that was distinguished, for me, by its abstruse -- not to say, arbitrary -- character. Any single-minded investigation is bound to yield unforeseen chunks of interrelated matter as mine most certainly did. In my devoted search for the technique and personality of Hopper only, I became aware of the somewhat murky history that swirled around him: strikes (and their sometimes-brutal suppression), police scandals, the failure of public officials to do almost everything that might have helped their charges. Yet through him, I was introduced to the raucous glamour of the so-called Ashcan School, which, in the person of Robert Henri himself, exhorted art-students to go out and look at the world as Rembrandt, Daumier, and Gavarni did. To a young man of Hopper's susceptibilities, this must have been pure manna. He'd already been studying boats scudding around the Hudson River and thought he might build a few. He'd grown up in a small, but commercially ambitious, little town where his father had been a store-keeper. There he saw a panoply of late-19th century life, whose somewhat provincial character he rejected, but came, as a sort of mythic quantity, to exemplify. The lure of art brought him to the doorstep of civilization: New York City. Yet the big white houses and stolid commercial establishments of Nyack, New York had made an impression. He would return to them, as a mature artist, over and over.
I was captivated with the earthy solidity of Hopper's forms, got partly from illustration, partly from the Henri method, and partly from his own plodding nature. It seemed impossible to create form so readily, as Hopper did in his watercolors and drawings. It was form that shouted out its presence, though the shout was muffled by a natural reticence. Hopper's school-mate, George Bellows, was his, Hopper's, diametrical opposite. His lusty appetite for unbridled movement earned him an enviable berth, not only among critics of the time, but among his fellow artists, who stepped bemusedly aside to make room for him. His paintings seethed with energy and, like Sloan's and Henri's, attempted to show the brawling, and sometimes ruthless, character of a place that was destined to become the greatest city in the world. Hopper's claim to attention was more modest and, for a while, he was overlooked. His fellow students thought his work hard-edged -- and they were right. The lush and buttery palette favored among the Henri crowd was not Hopper's forte. He was a competent imitator, but dazzled no one. It would take years for Hopper to marry form and content in his own way. Meanwhile, he went into illustration and painted during summer trips to Gloucester, Massachusetts. Still living at home, he made enough money to go abroad a few times, spending the lion's share of his vacation days in Paris. There he painted its quais, its mansard roofs, and its ornate bridges in the Henri manner, lathered with the gold and lavender complementaries of the Impressionists. He had not yet found himself in these paintings - though I'm glad he did them. They are like photographs of the gawky adolescent who would become a confident and vigorous adult.
Over the years, more books have come out. It seems easier to make them these days. There is also a sort of Hopper Industry, which more or less guarantees their success.
It saddens me somewhat to reflect that Hopper is such a mainstream artist now. His success was actually hard-won, first as an etcher and, finally, as an oil painter. His watercolors kicked the door open, where it stayed until he died some fifty years later.
Henri and Bellows did help. By the time Hopper got over Impressionism and began to incorporate motifs he used in his illustration routinely, the art-buying public (what there was of it) had become more accustomed to seeing pictures of things that were not conventionally appealing. (Henri, Sloan and Co. had seen to that!) They still liked their lakes and sunsets; their canyons and arroyos; their pristine bits of nature which man dared not enter except as cautious observer. But I think they'd "loosened up" and were willing to entertain the possibility of subject-matter the more Europeanized collectors of the 19th-century were not. Coached by William Glackens, Albert Barnes bypassed the shocking Ashcan rebels completely and settled into a rarefied pose that has continued, through his curators, to this day.
Hopper's first watercolor exhibit sold out, for reasons that might have struck observers at the time as curious. Here was an artist who was reflecting hard, if somewhat well-scrubbed, realities and buyers seemed, at long last, ready to go along. It is tempting to say that he appeared at exactly the right moment in history, when America was beginning to feel sentimental about its recent past. The clapboarded mansions that would become a Hopper specialty were beginning to look better and better as America increasingly urbanized. If you worked in an office, you lived in a two or three-room apartment. If you wanted a view, you looked down the airshaft - or went up to the roof and contemplated splendors that were, at least temporarily, out of reach. Now and then you thought about Ohio or Tennessee and longed for whatever these places represented: space, air, dignity -- provided you had money enough and were white. Hopper painted this yearning in the form of places real city-folk had left behind.
Such people did not, of course, buy paintings, but the sense of dislocation they experienced in their drab little hidey-holes was widespread. Man was now alienated from his surroundings -- kept away by man-made barriers that would become increasingly impenetrable. Unbeknownst to him, Hopper was offering, though his watercolors, a vanishing world. "His" places exist even unto this day, but they're either so decrepit that they await the leveling that is said to spur economic development -- or they've been gussied up as bed-and-breakfast communities that beckon the city-dweller with old-fashioned charm. We've had an "old-fashioned" in this country for quite a while and have capitalized on it for as long as people have yearned for The Good Old Days.
As an image-maker-to-be, I was mesmerized by the illusory majesty of Hopper's watercolors. They were carefully planned, with an accurate drawing that guided Hopper the Painter as he applied his washes. When I began to paint watercolors I realized, through Hopper, that you didn't do a watercolor by halves. You got the full range of color by isolating one patch from another by glazing. When you were done, some patches were more built-up than others. White, of course, was "painted around," since using gouache was frowned upon -- though Hopper did it when he needed to. Toward the latter part of his life, Hopper's watercolors were realized more slowly, and with a battery of techniques most artists reserve for oil: scraping out and scumbling with Chinese white. I noticed, in the recent exhibit at the National Gallery, that he did a lot of blotting in the later work -- a sometimes unfortunate choice.
I became scrupulously attached to the Hopper technique - which I found congenial to my own personality - during my own so-called developmental years. Yet I was occasionally frustrated at my attempts to "hopperize" the paintings I did. I had learned to draw fluently and could create Hopper's structural format in pencil just the way he did. As I glazed on the color, I found that it actually did work in the way I thought it might as I attempted to deconstruct Hopper's approach secondhand. When I was finished, I often had a creditable painting -- of a Hopper subject: a clapboard house, a railroad trestle, a street scene livened with broad, blue-black shadows. I would sometimes wonder how long I would stay a Hopper "student" -- if a self-willed one. But his vision and mine had somehow overlapped. I seemed to see virtually everything through his eyes. Though I lived in an artistic backwater, I'd go to the library and see representational paintings of other subjects and feel the heresy in them. Betray Hopper? How could you?
I suppose apprenticeship is about loyalty, among other things. During the years I was captivated by the Hopper mystique, I became a hypnotic subject, a cult follower. There was Hopper and then those other painters who didn't measure up.
Hopper had had a similar problem with Henri. He even admitted it. It took him, he said, years and years to get over his charismatic teacher's influence. I felt better when I heard this. Hell, I feel better even now.
Hopper matured quietly, not going from one thing to the next, but marching ponderously forward. His wife, Jo, must've hated his lack of precocity -- which we might care to describe as "focus." During his greatest period, all of his oil paintings were made-up -- or, rather, assembled. He'd seen nature directly and conquered it in his modest way. Now it was time to synthesize his experiences with concentrated images that would work on a more symbolic level -- however literal-minded they might appear to be.
I felt, in browsing through the National Gallery over the past several months that, after a thirty year period of Hopper-olatry, I could finally confront his work, not necessarily as an equal, but as someone who knew it intimately and didn't have anything to prove. I felt I could possess the paintings one last time and let them go. Somebody said that it was right and proper that no thing/nothing can last. Coming back to Hopper's work in my own middle age, I felt the keen possibility of a defining moment: if there would not be another meeting between us, I'd best look to it.
It was not a hard thing to do.
Here, in a series of comfortably spacious rooms, were so many of the images I had studied as a young man. The most well-publicized of these have become familiar to almost everybody who has taken an art history course. I have personally delighted in them for over thirty years -- returning to them gladly after a forgetful period or willing myself not to see them for a while so that they might be fresh again.
And there they were: the movie theatre with Jo, bathed harshly in the light of a wall-sconce, as usherette; a frieze of window and storefront raked by early morning sunlight; two flappers discussing Valentino at a diner. Turning a corner, I saw a woman in a bathing suit contemplating the letter she decided to open after checking into her room; other women reading or plunking a single key on an upright piano; arranging a window display at a small restaurant; waiting for a beau with a cheap colonnade behind her; removing a needed document from a file cabinet; wondering what the day (or night) will bring.
The first several times I came to the show, I scrutinized the technique of these paintings, sometimes testing it against my own; at other times I merely needed to explore something I hadn't seen before -- or thought I had and hadn't. I was satisfied to acknowledge that I had learned as much about how to paint from Hopper as anybody possibly could. But I also came to dispense with such conscious reckoning and looked at the images for what they might tell me about Hopper's inner life -- and mine. And it was here that I felt most inadequate -- a follower and not an equal. Here, in the coldly illuminated core of his work, I saw a man who had completed himself in a way few of us ever will. It was not just that no other man could have painted these pictures -- which was true enough. It was the sheer inevitability of these paintings, as if the world could not somehow exist without them. To imagine a world without Hopper is to face the possibility of there being no radio or TV. No baseball. No Chevrolets. Our culture is as dependent on his reflecting it as we are dependent on its various and sundry manifestations as they continue to impinge upon our lives.
Hopper is, in a word, essential. Without him, the world would be a different place. Sure, we've got movies that provide us with similar things. Shots of diners and desperate situations. Anonymous people stuck in rooms too small for them. Such well-worn panoramas of windows and sleeping-cars that we can't possibly take them all in. Yet Hopper's devotion to creating such images on paper and canvas is a uniquely affirmative one. Even in a culture that discards and undervalues, somebody can see THIS! A world that has nearly brought itself to its knees overproducing things and people still has value enough in the eyes of one man to see it fiercely, undauntedly, heroically. That such a world in all of its darkly alienating textures can be the cause of such urgent creation. . .perhaps there is some redeeming quality here. Perhaps it wasn't a waste after all. Perhaps we might - with prayer and moderation - pull through.
There are so many good reasons to see our own destruction as tragic. One would most certainly be the loss of Hopper's vision.
About the Author
Brett Busang is a respected American realist who has exhibited
at such institutions as the Museum of the City of New York; the Everson
Museum, in Syracuse, NY; the Greenville Museum of Art, in Greenville, NC.
His paintings are in numerous corporate collections (Capital One, Krispy
Kreme, Media General, Wheat First Union, among others), though most of his
work is in individual hands. An heir to such uncompromising voices as Edward
Hopper and Charles Burchfield, Mr. Busang interprets "his own backyard"
with a combination of personal lyricism and rigorous objectivity. His writing
has appeared in American Artist, The Artist's Magazine, American
Arts Quarterly, the New York Press and New York Newsday.
He writes a blog through his website at www.brettbusang.com and has begun
to contribute reviews to Examiner.com, an entertainment website with a nation-wide
following. He is also a satirist and playwright. He was born in 1954.
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