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Hopper and The Strokes Of Midnight

By Paul Richard
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, September 14, 2007

Here's one clue to Edward Hopper. It comes from "What Are Masterpieces" by Gertrude Stein, which came out in 1940. "It is very curious," wrote that curious avant-gardist, "but the detective story . . . is . . . the only really modern novel form that has come into existence."

Stein was hinting at a mood -- of secrecy and suffering and aloneness among strangers -- that, new in 1940, is still part of who we are. Hopper lets us see it. Manliness and mystery pervade "Edward Hopper," a show with masterpieces, which goes on view on Sunday at the National Gallery of Art.

He was noir before that concept formed. Its mood of hidden knowing is a constant in his art. Hopper carves it out of shadows in his etchings. He pulls it from clear sunlight in his watercolor views of coastal Maine and Massachusetts. His oil paintings of the city summon it with color (maroon, acidic greens) and lead us to its lair, to anonymous hotel rooms, to freight yards at the city's edge, to the movie theater's dark.

There are no cops in his pictures, no guns, no snapping traps, nothing as crude as that. He refuses denouements. It's emotion he is after. Hopper (1882-1967) needs no creaky plots, just pale yellow window shades, sun-fall on a red brick wall, the glint of chrome at night.

To enter Hopper's world is to become his accomplice. The four figures you see in his best-known oil, "Nighthawks" (1942) from the Art Institute of Chicago, are not its only players. You are there as well, present but unseen.

It's nighttime in the big city. Safe folk are abed. Two men in gray fedoras, and one hard-featured woman, a redhead in a short-sleeved dress, are seated at the counter of an all-night deco diner. All of them appear to be listening to silence. The woman stares, distracted, at something in her hand -- a dollar bill, the check, perhaps a book of matches. A counter guy is serving. The windowsill is emerald. The coffee mugs are thick and white. The streets are still. The nighthawks are like specimens floating in a tank of light. A triangle of ceiling, as sharp as it is bright, hangs above them like a blade.

You're the unobserved observer, the watcher from the shadows, a kind of private eye.

The big window, you'll have noticed, has no pane. Norman Rockwell, another hugely popular painter of the time, was fabulous at painting glass, but Hopper didn't have his skill, and often leaves it out. His through-the-window glimpses -- such as "Apartment Houses," "Night Windows," the Hirshhorn's "Eleven A.M." -- are often similarly glassless, heightening the surreal sense of penetrating vision. You see with eerie clarity what is going on inside.

I loved "Nighthawks" as a kid (if you grew up in Chicago, you could ride your bike to see it). I loved Humphrey Bogart, too, and Raymond Chandler's Philip Marlowe, for not so different reasons. Fearless, knightly wanderers have been admired by Americans since the days of Daniel Boone. You can feel that admiration in Winslow Homer's paintings of men at war and sea. You can hear it in the strong and true and pared-down prose of Ernest Hemingway. (In 1927, when Hemingway's "The Killers" appeared in Scribner's Magazine, Hopper sent the editor a letter of approval.) It also fueled the quests of such New York street photographers as Walker Evans and Robert Frank. It's a staple of the movies. It's all over TV.

A Freudian might note that Hopper's pictures bristle with strong, upstanding verticals -- chimneys and masts, lighthouses and barber poles. Hopper won't paint limpness. He isn't into S-curves. Hopper, notes Franklin Kelly, the National Gallery's representative on the three-museum team that put the show together, paints "anti-sissy" art. He rejects the genteel. No ladies twirling parasols, or maids arranging flowers, decorate his pictures.

Unlike popular George Bellows, his virtuoso schoolmate, or Andy Warhol later, he never hymned the super-rich. Nor was he charmed by chic. Critics of the day used to slam the tastelessness of the complicated, tall, out-of-fashion Victorian houses that he painted in the '20s ("atrocious," "blatantly hideous"), but Hopper sensed the dignity of those scorned survivors, and he lets us see it, too.

His early art is rooted in France and in the Ash Can School. He'd gone to art school in New York, and thrice had lived in Paris, but the tall, laconic painter was never a bohemian. He cannot be imagined drinking absinthe in Montmartre's cafes, or wearing a beret. In photographs, he wears sober three-piece suits.

Cubism, constructivism, utopian Bauhaus modernism, action painting -- all these passed him by. So did the leftist sympathies of his schoolmate Rockwell Kent, and Evans and Ben Shahn. A scholar asked him once, did his work have "social content?" "None whatsoever," he replied.

He did respond to movies. Often, when unsure of what he ought to paint, he'd spend the day at a double feature. You can feel this in his pictures, in the brightness of their lighting, their unexpected points of view.

"New York Movie" is a memory retrieved from the Palace Theater in Times Square. It isn't just its subject -- the plush of the decor, the starlet-pretty usherette, the unclear black-and-white image on the screen -- that makes it cinematic. "Its spatial arrangement -- a near view on the right next to deep space on the left," as the gallery's label notes, "echoes a montage effect in film, juxtaposing a close-up and a shot into deep space to establish an association between the two."

Even "Early Sunday Morning" owes something to the movies. Its windows are like sprocket holes; it unrolls before your eyes like a strip of film.

Hollywood, in turn, has been borrowing from Hopper for the last 60 years. (The scary Bates Motel in Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho" seems to come straight from his art.) Hopper isn't "difficult." His work is representational, insistently American, easily accessible, and hugely popular as well. It's just the sort of art that many modern curators sniffily dismiss. Walt Disney and Rockwell have seldom been admitted to the grandest of museums (hey guys, the 20th century is over; you can't keep stiffing them forever), but Hopper gets a pass. His training was academic. He was never an avant-gardist. All his life, he distrusted pure abstraction and the tastemakers who pushed it. But that distrust was not returned.

Abstraction's champions loved him, as did everybody else. Even critic Clement Greenberg, who dismissed Hopper's methods as "second-hand, shabby, and impersonal," and thought him "simply . . . a bad painter," couldn't help but fall for him. Hopper's "House by the Railroad" was the first oil painting in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art.

Hopper was no rebel. A Republican in politics, he was aesthetically and technically conservative as well. Still, something of his vision was curiously in sync with the abstraction of his time.

Jackson Pollock's skeins and webs, Mark Rothko's floating atmospheres and Agnes Martin's grids all form open fields into which the mind can drift. Hopper, in his plotless narratives, conjured endless spaces, too. Their enigmatic ambiguity opens up your mind. Is that slim, blond usherette remembering in agony, or yearning for a lover or merely bored? Your guess is good as mine.

"He seems in his paintings to be on the verge of telling a story," as John Updike has observed. But Hopper never quite gets there.

"Sun in an Empty Room" (1963), one of his last paintings, ends the exhibition. The soul of Hopper's art haunts that empty picture -- though the only thing we see is a window without glass and sunlight on a wall.

His brush is often clumsy, his portraiture unsure. This doesn't seem to matter. What matters is the stilled, uncanny spell his pictures cast. "Why I select certain subjects and not others," he once said, "I do not exactly know." Hopper had a medium's gift. What marks him as a master is the wondrous way he channeled the spirit of his time.

Edward Hopper is on exhibit in the National Gallery's East Building through Jan. 21. The 110-picture show, which opened in May at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, will then travel to the Art Institute of Chicago. Its Washington showing is supported by a grant from Booz Allen Hamilton Inc. The gallery, at Fourth Street and Constitution Avenue NW, is open Monday through Saturday 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Sundays 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Admission is free.

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