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Tag Archives: Edward Hopper

I found myself wondering this morning what Edward Hopper, who was painting scenes of personal isolation and alienation more than a century ago, would think if he were around today as saw people “talking” to each other by tapping a screen on a smartphone.

For me, the smartphone is the perfect symbol of the slow, agonizing death of conversation. We don’t have to talk to anyone anymore; we just need to send a stream of sentence fragments through the ether and wait for a similar set of sentence fragments to come bouncing back. I’ve actually seen, more than once, groups of people at restaurant tables not talking to each other but, instead, silently pounding out messages on their little screens to people God knows where. It makes me wonder why they bothered to come out in the first place.

I imagine you could take any number of Hopper’s paintings, put smartphones in the hands of the people therein, and not really change the painting much at all. The technology wouldn’t create the distance between people, it would only make it a bit more tangible.

Cape Cod Evening (Edward Hopper, 1939)

Cape Cod Evening (Edward Hopper, 1939)

Take a good look at Cape Cod Evening, above. If you put a pair Iphone 5s in the hands of this couple, would you really widen the obvious gulf between them? I don’t think so. Do the same with his classic Nighthawks. Same result.

Take a look, too, at the dog; animated, aware, living the moment in both time and space. This is one reason why, if I were ever given the choice, I just might choose to live at least one lifetime as a dog.

I doubt Hopper, who would be celebrating his 129th birthday today if he were still among us, would be pleased by what he would see, but I’d bet that he’d notice it. The smartphone certainly didn’t put this chasm between us, but it certainly gave it, figuratively speaking, some weight.

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.

I am 54 years old today.

I spent the weekend celebrating this minor milestone. The celebration had it’s highs and lows as I reflected on the good times and spectacular meltdowns that have marked the trail I see when I look over my shoulder. I guess I should be thankful for everything, including all that self-inflicted pain, because all those things have conspired to make me what I am today.

One of the many activities on my busy social schedule was a trip to the Detroit Institute of Art. It may surprise a lot of people to learn that Detroit, that monument to the decline of the American Empire, is also the home of an absolutely world-class art museum. The irony of that cultural jewel in the middle of an economic war zone wasn’t lost on me, particularly as I watched a homeless man searching through a trash can beneath a sign advertising the Rembrandt Exhibition (admission fee: $16), but that’s a subject for another day.

I had a mission in mind. In addition to viewing the exhibition of photographs of a dying Detroit that is on view until April, there was a particular painting that I wanted to see, that being John Sloan’s McSorley’s Bar.

McSorley's Bar (John French Sloan - 1912)

Sloan is a bit of a hero to me, a member of a group of American painters known as the Ashcan School who, at the beginning of the Great American Century, decided to paint the real lives of real people in the bustling streets of New York. They were, I’m given to understand, rebelling against the academy, as many good artists are prone to do from time to time. This particular group of rebels gave voice and dignity to people who were previously of no real interest to American art; immigrants, laborers, bums, drunks, the vast ocean of urban inhabitants who fueled our ascendency to global greatness yet did not benefit much from it. In short, they painted my people. Had they worked in Detroit or Pittsburgh, they may have encountered my grandfather in one of those dingy bars and immortalized him on canvas.

I found this painting after spending some considerable time with 18th century French aristocrats, Dutch peasants, the English Gentry, several hundred years of gruesome Catholic religious iconography (including the particularly bloody style of crucifix that I grew up fearing at St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Saginaw), some really bad portraiture from post-Revolution America, a huge room full of absolutely stunning American landscapes from Thomas Cole and others, and then, finally, two rooms full of offerings from the likes of Picasso, Matisse, Degas, and even a Monet thrown in for good measure. DIA has a wonderfully rich collection that I only sampled in the three hours I spent there.

McSorley’s Bar was the grail I sought, although¬† I still don’t know why I so needed to see it and understand even less why it had such a powerful emotional effect on me when I found it. I guess it represents the very best of what I know of American art, the pride we have as Americans tempered with the responsibility we feel for our brothers and sisters. I wish we felt that kind of responsibility these days instead of the fear and contempt that I see.

I felt so good after visiting McSorley’s Bar that I was able to look at a couple of Warhols without openly mocking them. Well, without mocking them very much anyway.

Though I am a photographer rather than a painter, I can trace some of my own artistic heritage back to Sloan and his friends, through Edward Hopper, the very best of the American Realist painters. On this day, on top of all else, I will be thankful for those footsteps to walk in.