The Whitney does Hopper again, but differently

The Art Newspaper, June 1995, p. 11.

The Whitney Does Hopper Again, but Differently

To set their fourth Hopper retrospective apart from its predecessors, the museum opts for an installation aimed at evoking the artist’s voyeurism.

By Jason Edward Kaufman

NEW YORK. The American realist Edward Hopper (1882-1967) is a true Whitney Museum perennial. He appeared in the first Whitney Annual and in others thereafter, and enjoyed Whitney retrospectives in 1950, 1964, and 1980-81. Now, as if at the appointed 15-year interval, the museum has mounted “Edward Hopper and the American Imagination” (June 22-Oct. 15). Rather than a comprehensive survey of his work in all media, this is a show of paintings only — with crowd-pleasing favorites such as House by the Railroad (1925), Gas (1940), Nighthawks (1942), First Row, Orchestra (1951), and Early Sunday Morning (1930). Only 8 of the 60 canvasses belong to the Whitney, despite the museum’s vast Hopper holdings — the world’s largest thanks to the widow’s 1970 bequest of some 2,500 drawings, watercolors, prints, and paintings. The balance come from American collections, with the single exception of Hotel Room from the Thyssen-Bornemisza Collection in Madrid.

Previous Hopper exhibitions have dealt with the painter’s place in art history or, more typically, with the somber cast of his imagery and what it says about the American experience. The present show is intended “to be evocative of Hopper’s sensibility, rather than illustrative of his themes or artistic development.” The paintings hang in groupings loosely keyed to passages from authors whom Hopper admired, on walls low enough to provide ostensibly “Hopperesque” glimpses from one gallery into the next, all surrounding a central area featuring a continuous montage of slides, video clips, and voiceovers mixing Hopper’s imagery with that of his contemporaries and successors.

The installation was conceived by Ralph Appelbaum Associates, the New York firm that has designed exhibits for the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC, and the Hall of Mammals at the American Museum of Natural History in NY. The slant-topped partitions and over-the-wall vistas raise the question of whether museum settings should reflect the content or compositions of the artworks they contain. Asked if the stagey architecture might not distract from the paintings themselves, Adam Weinberg, the museum’s curator of collections and the show’s organizer, responds, “After so many similar Hopper exhibitions at the Whitney, one of the challenges we faced was making this one different from its predecessors. We felt if we could yield some further insights by the quality of the space…we would be adding, but not competing, with the paintings. We’re just expanding on existing techniques used at other museums,” he says.

The show rides a rising tide of Hopper scholarship that seeks to demonstrate his connections with not only high, but low culture. “Hopper’s vision has so implicated itself into literature, theater, photography, and film that it’s almost impossible to separate them from each other,” notes Mr. Weinberg. Thus, the multimedia presentation affiliates Hopper with dozens of photographers and artists, from Robert Frank and Cindy Sherman to Ed Keinholz, George Segal, and Ed Ruscha, as well as with Hollywood films such as Laura, Rear Window, and Twelve Angry Men. A concurrent film and video program explores the relationship of Hopper’s stark settings and drear ambience with 1930s film noir and cinema brut gangster classics like Scar Face, Little Caesar, and Public Enemy, as well as movies of more recent vintage, like Pennies from Heaven and The Godfather, Part I.

There is no denying that painters, sculptors, filmmakers, photographers and writers have, as the Whitney maintains, “consciously and unconsciously evoked Hopper’s work,” but efforts to isolate the influence of Hopper from what is merely of-the-period are generally inconclusive. Living artists may like to characterise their oeuvres as enshrouded by Hopper’s immensely popular shadow. But their imagery is often less strictly Hopperesque than symptomatic of a shared sense of societal malaise. The same is true of movies and dramas staged in interiors and streetscapes of the vintage favored also by Hopper.

An article last summer in The New York Times, splashily titled “Hopper, Hopper, Everywhere,” failed to acknowledge this ambiguity. Its author (whose publisher is about to issue a Hopper biography by another writer) states that the Mansarded Victorian house in Hitchcock’s Psycho is not merely a Victorian house, but a veritable Hopper-on-celluloid. How can she tell? Even less persuasive were the article’s illustrations of film and theater sets that relate more to Walker Evans and Grant Wood than to Hopper. But as the Whitney show proves, there is no stopping a research trend once its machinery kicks into gear.

The catalogue follows this conceit with an essay on Hopper’s impact on contemporary international artists, and with an assortment of poetry and fiction by living American writers who “share Hopper’s sensibility.” The roster includes Paul Auster, Ann Beattie, Tess Gallagher, John Hollander, William Kennedy, Galway Kinnell, Ann Lauterbach, Norman Mailer, Leonard Michaels, Walter Mosley, Grace Paley, and James Salter.

“Edward Hopper and the American Imagination” coincides with publication of the three-volume Hopper catalogue raisonné of paintings, watercolors, and illustrations (W.W. Norton), compiled by Hopper specialist Gail Levin mostly during her stint as curator of the Hopper Collection at the Whitney in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Ms. Levin has made a cottage industry of Hopper, with six books already in print and two more due out this year, including a biography (Alfred A. Knopf) that draws heavily on unpublished diaries of the painter’s wife.

Jason Edward Kaufman

This article appeared in The Art Newspaper, June 1995, p. 11.

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Jason Edward Kaufman is an art historian and critic with expertise in museums and the international art world.

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