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In my mind, the best thing about 20th Century American art was Edward Hopper. This is hardly a bold statement; Hopper had his detractors but he is generally included in the very top tier of American artists. Toward the end of his career (Hopper died in 1967), some art hipsters had begun to regard his work as too traditional, too pre-war to be cool, but he was, and remains, one of the most influential painters America has ever ever produced.

Just about everyone knows Hopper, if not by name than by the sight of his most recognizable painting; Nighthawks. It’s right up there with the pool-shooting dogs in terms of its connection to the American psyche and even people who have no affinity for art know it. A lot of people, however, would be shocked to learn that Elvis, Bogart, Marilyn Monroe,¬† and James Dean were not in the original image.

Nighthawks (Edward Hopper, 1942)

The lack of interaction among the characters in Nighthawks is Hopper’s signature. For me, the isolation and alienation inherent in Hopper’s work has always been its strongest feature because it mirrors so completely how my life had felt to me most of the time. This could just as easily be a couple of booths at the Texan on State Street in the wee hours of some morning when I was in my 20s, after the bars had closed down. There’s a listlessness about the characters, a lack of emotional connection. That couple may have met over drinks earlier are are just now settling into the understanding that they have nothing at all to talk about. I also find it significant that the place has no door. Read into that fact whatever you may.

A far more meaningful painting for me is Excursions Into Philosophy.

Excursions Into Philosophy (Edward Hopper, 1959)

This painting resonates with me at a number of levels. I return to it now and again to remind myself of the cloud of melancholia that I floated around in for all those years, just in case I get cocky about how good things are at the moment. I wonder if that cloud still lurks, around some corner somewhere or in a dusty box in the basement. I could tell you exactly what I see in Excursions but what’s the fun in that? It will likely speak to you in a totally different language if you listen carefully.

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