NEW YORK — A lot of things go missing in the paintings of Edward Hopper. Most notably, it’s people. In the first half of the 20th century, he painted New York when it was the largest city in the world, yet his streets are often empty, or haunted by only a few isolated figures. New York was then, as it is now, a diverse city, rich with racial and ethnographic diversity, but that, too, is absent in Hopper’s imagination.
Manhattan was becoming a relentlessly vertical landscape when the artist took up residence there in 1908, yet he frames it horizontally, cropping off the tops of the new high-rise buildings. The erasure of modernity includes roads without cars, tracks without trains and skies without planes, which were cluttering airspace by the time of Hopper’s death in 1967 at age 84.
Perhaps that should make Hopper’s work feel old-fashioned and out of touch, but that’s not the impression that emerges from the Whitney Museum’s extensive and illuminating exhibition “Edward Hopper’s New York,” which includes about 200 paintings, watercolors, prints and drawings. The Whitney holds a vast trove of Hopper’s work, bequeathed after the artist’s death by his widow, Josephine Nivison Hopper. Of all the major museums in New York, the Whitney is the most New York-centric in its audience appeal, and the Hopper exhibition is perfectly on brand: an invitation to New Yorkers, past, present and future, to navel-gaze and ponder the enigma of why the greatest city in the world is both the cause and cure of loneliness.
Silence seems to be the key. If you eliminate people, of course you eliminate a lot of noise. But the paradox of Hopper’s greatest paintings is that they feel silent even though their subject matter suggests a soundtrack. There are no people in a magnificent set of watercolors Hopper made of rooftops — including water tanks, chimney pipes and skylights. But surely the city noise can be heard from this elevation, only a few stories above the fracas?
There are no trains or people visible in the Whitney’s beloved 1946 Hopper masterpiece “Approaching a City,” which shows train tracks receding into the ominous void of a tunnel or overpass. But the sky is full of daylight, and these tracks were some of the busiest in the world. So why can’t we hear the crescendo wail of their approach, or the falling-pitched cry of their passing into the distance? And what of the noise made by the train on which we are presumably riding?
When people are present, Hopper’s strategies for suggesting silence become even more complex. No matter whether we are in the room or outside of it — peeping in with voyeuristic detachment — windows eliminate any sense of what filmmakers call diegetic sounds, those that emerge organically from things within the frame of the image. In Hopper’s 1932 “Room in New York,” we seem to be spying through a window on a domestic scene in which a man reads a newspaper while a woman in a red dress sits idly at an upright piano, picking out a single note with the forefinger of her right hand. But the sense of silence is palpable, and even if we were a pigeon sitting on the window ledge, that piano would be mute.
The list lengthens: Curtains flap silently in the wind; people gather in a theater without the quiet cacophony of the murmuring crowd or the orchestra tuning in the pit; two actors greet an audience at the lip of a stage, but the applause has been hoovered up by some strange, aural vacuum. In Hopper’s world, restaurants full of people are as silent as empty streets at daybreak. There is something more than the muffled phantasmagoria of urban life going on here.
Curators Kim Conaty and Melinda Long offer enough information to suggest clues to the mystery. Hopper’s erasure of the ambient noise of the city probably had something to do with his internalized defenses against change, especially the loss of the old, low-slung New York he knew from his decades-long residence on Washington Square. Construction was noisy, and it made the city more dense and chaotic. Perhaps in his effort to freeze time, to hold on to an image of the city that was disappearing, he froze out the sounds, too. Imagine a film of urban life stuck on a single frame, the image static and the soundtrack inaudible.
A chapter of the exhibition devoted to theater (Hopper and his wife were regulars) also raises the question of spectacles and spectatorship, and the way in which New York turns life into a show, and its residents into a passive audience. The “fourth wall” that divides the audience from the actors always seems present in Hopper’s work, even when the image has nothing to do with the theater. And that fourth wall is absorbing all the sound, rather like the walls and shadows in a Vermeer painting seem to absorb every energy that is extraneous and unnecessary to the scene.
The terrifying thing about being a spectator, whether in a theater, movie house or sitting in the subway idly staring at other riders, is that it makes our consciousness subordinate to the more real and majestic reality of other people. We watch, while they seem to live. The rise of mass media, glossy magazines, movies, radio and eventually television coincides with Hopper’s decades in New York. His paintings capture a bygone New York, but they anticipate Instagram, in which we defend against our own annihilation by constructing images of perfect lives. In Hopper’s case, it was the perfect city, not idealized but scrubbed of everything that intruded on his own, private sense of the place.
A late Hopper, and one of his most touching, isn’t in the exhibition (it’s held by the Smithsonian American Art Museum), but it would make a powerful coda to the show. The 1960 “People in the Sun” was supposedly inspired by people Hopper saw in Washington Square Park on a sunny day in January. They sit on wooden folding chairs, drinking in the light. But Hopper has replaced the buildings of New York with an image of open fields and mountains in the distance, perhaps a Western landscape. They could be passengers on a ship or guests at a hotel, sitting on the balcony.
One man, however, is reading from a piece of paper, and paying no attention to the spectacle. He looks a lot like an early self-portrait of Hopper himself, with the same hair and profile. And he has the same long legs as Hopper.
It was painted near the end of his life, and one imagines that the paper he holds is a theater program and he is looking at it, trying to make sense of what is about to happen. Who’s in this show? What is it all about? But the lights are about to go down, the curtain will rise, the drama will begin, and with that, a more intense reality will commence.
He will just be a silent figure in the back row, anonymous and nonexistent.
Edward Hopper’s New York Through March 5 at the Whitney Museum of American Art. whitney.org.