Monday, May 12, 2008

the important thing is going on

Edward Hopper: New York Movie

What I wanted to do was paint sunlight on the side of a house.
— Edward Hopper

I knew too little of Edward Hopper to know that there was more to him than Nighthawks; more than New York Restaurant, which I love for its perfect ability to conjure that transitory happening dependent on time and place known as “lunch” against a larger stage. More than New York in the 1920s. More than that: Hopper was a traveler. And that I didn’t know.

Caught the the Art Institute’s Edward Hopper / Winslow Homer show in its last few days over the weekend, trapped in the shuffling overflow crowd of zombie art fans plugged into those cursed taped audio tours (what I hate about how art galleries have been transformed by those god awful things? it’s like being surrounded by a crowd on their cellphones. they move in large lumps from frame to frame, as though each was a television set or a department store window decorated for Christmas, and assume that all comers will behave by the same automaton rules. there’s a constant electrical buzzing of ambient voiceovers and the occasional shouter who forgets she has her headphones on and gestures wildly to her companion about fugitive pigments and forgotten color washes. they forget to bend and move; they forget to say “excuse me” and forget to effect the physical courtesy required when thrown into public spaces populated by strangers.)

The Hopper show opens with the note about sunlight on the side of the house, progresses through his architectures and sparsely peopled spaces -- canvases “unspoilt by the impertinent presence of people” as his friend Guy Pene du Bois pointed out.

My viewing of the show, startling the folks in headphones as I dipped into and out of their streaming mass, was disrupted by a coiled stone snake that I had seen earlier that day in the Field Museum on a brief visit with my classmates from a course on the Mayan Collapse.

The Aztec snake, carved for the earth goddess, is exhibited on a raised platform under which has been placed a mirror -- so that the viewer can see that the underside was also immaculately finished with the scales and details of the coiled snake. Why? I asked our teacher. For the earth goddess, I was told. Because she can see the underside.

That information shook up my ideas of representational art -- used to, as I am, the stage with its proscenium arch and its audience beyond. To imagine that the folks who made this snake, compelled to create as we are still today, were perhaps compelled to create for a different audience entirely. Or perhaps more exclusively.

People as viewers are secondary to the primary audience: the Gods.

We make art to be seen -- the object is our intercessor.

Passing through the Hopper show, through the desolate loneliness of his urban spaces, I was acutely aware of how he was telling me this story. How his images reach through the loneliness that he portrays so well and attempt connection.[1] The canvas is his stage, I am his audience, he paints for me false fronts and stage sets and I agree to search out the truth of what he has to tell me.

Or at the very least to try.

In the last room of the Hopper show we see Hopper’s later works, when he’s taken to the road after the disappointing period that followed the success of his Nighthawks. He and his wife travel West, and his Western Motel of 1957 is so perfectly transiently American -- this brief, tidy place of habitation against a western landscape; yurt-like in its purpose, the traveler knows it for only a night before they move on. The terrain occupies as much space as the room itself.

Edward Hopper: Western Motel

To me the important thing is going on. You know how beautiful things are when you're traveling. — Hopper

The last canvas selected for the show is one of the last that Hopper painted before he passed away: a bare room, the walls washed in sunlight. Sun in an Empty Room from 1963 was an intentionally curated counterpoint, I suspect -- the journey from painting sunlight on the side of the house to painting sunlight within.

Illuminating the interior.

The placard on the wall details Hopper’s response when he he was asked what he was trying to get at with his art:

"I'm after ME", he replied.

To which I added my own quiet postscript: And you want us to know.

Edward Hopper: Sun in an Empty Room

[1] I’d argue that Flickr is more than just a place where folks seek self-expression -- it’s a place where folks seek connection through that self-expression. Its true appeal lies in the connectedness that the architecture enables -- the comments where folks thread back and forth; the groups where like minded souls post like minded content.

1 comment:

anniemcq said...

yes. yes, yes, yes.

And thank you, because in my pea size mommy brain, I totally forgot that I saw the Winslow Homer exhibit when it was at LACMA when JH was a baby. I don't remember much except how grateful I was for those patrons wearing those damn headphones because they couldn't hear JH.

I think it was the last art exhibit I took him to. But that, thanks to you, is soon to change. Love this post, friend. Just love it.

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