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The Great American Pessimist

August 31, 2010

Don’t be fooled by the veneer of friendly nostalgia. Edward Hopper was ahead of his—and our—time.

Hopper’s Soir Bleu (1914).

(Photo: Sheldan C. Collins; Courtesy of ©Heirs of Josephine N. Hopper, Licensed by the Whitney Museum of American Art)

Edward Hopper, viewed a certain way, becomes a dear old chestnut. Rooftops, lonely girls, railroad tracks, gas stations (those queer old pumps), soda fountains, spooky-quaint houses. A melancholy Norman Rockwell. He can be used to conceal a cranky dislike for abstract, modern, and contemporary art—Hopper himself didn’t think much of the Picassos and Pollocks of the world—and he remains, as always, good box office. The Whitney, often rebuked for being trendily obscure, all but owns the Hopper franchise. Shouldn’t the museum enjoy a moment of rest, reputation, and the elderly paying customer?

Inevitably “Modern Life: Edward Hopper and His Time,” organized by Barbara Haskell and Sasha Nicholas, will have something of this cozy old-movie feel. Drawn almost entirely from the Whitney’s collection, the show is constructed around Hopper, but includes work from 34 other well-known artists who made their names before World War II and whose imagery is fairly realistic. (They range from John Sloan of the Ashcan School to the Precisionist Charles Sheeler.) The show intends to have a jangly urban emphasis, but the “modern life” invoked in the title obviously refers to a different modern than the one we know today. This is a survey of another, earlier America.

Yet the invitation to nostalgia—to an America when the modern still seemed homespun—need not be accepted. Because of Hopper. He is, despite the endearing retro bits, a great American pessimist who should particularly interest our own dispirited time. Hopper is both a dreamer and a dream-slayer; he stills fashion, hope, solace, and conviction. He did that in his era; he can do it now. Hopper, if provincial, is powerfully so. He sets today’s conventions, in art and elsewhere, into relief. He enriches the American darkness. Four words come to mind.

Silence. Contemporary culture would surely die of boredom if it were not noisy and discordant. Sound, in today’s New York, is often layered upon sound (an iPod on the subway). The art world, small as it is, hopes against hope that it will be loud. What a difference Hopper makes. In the neurological condition called synesthesia, the stimulation of one sense involuntarily elicits an experience in another sense. Where Hopper is concerned, we are all synesthetes: To see his paintings is to hear silence.

Read more at: The Great American Pessimist

By Mark Stevens

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