When SAM opened its new addition last year, the most famous of its newly promised gifts, Edward Hopper’s "Chop Suey," was out on tour. Now SAM is welcoming "Chop Suey" back to town with a very modest-sized exhibition of related Hopper works, but as KUOW art critic Gary Faigin points out – size isn’t everything.
Say, for the sake of argument, that the economic party is indeed over. As museums face leaner times, we may well see more exhibitions like the two-room Edward Hopper Women currently at SAM . If so, this well thought-out survey can serve as a good model for what such shows can aim to accomplish.
What small exhibitions cannot do is to provide us with a particular artist’s (or art movement’s) output in the full scope of its ambition and reach. Visitors unacquainted with Hopper’s other works (likely to be a minority of museum-goers) will find nothing here to enlighten them as to the artist’s lifelong fascination with Cape Cod, the sea, the American road, offices, lighthouses, or domestic architecture. There are no watercolors, a media Hopper excelled in, and no female nudes, a recurring focus of his interiors.
What we do get is the opportunity to spend time with two of the artist’s very best pictures, supported by other strong works on related themes, as well as a few (too few!) etchings and a beautiful selection of period photographs. Since there is no sense of urgency to get through the entire show before our energy and attention lags (a downside of the typical blockbuster), we’re all but required to spend more time with the individual pieces, going back and forth to make instructive comparisons.
Thanks to astute loans arranged by curator Patricia Junker, the links between the nine borrowed paintings on view and the locally-owned (and promised bequest) Chop Suey are indeed instructive. The works span the length of Hopper’s career, from a youthful self-portrait of 1905 bearing the unmistakable imprint of teacher Robert Henri, through a strong mid-career group, and ending with a single late work from the 1950s. All of Hopper’s best qualities and most enduring preoccupations are visible, especially those attributes that have made him such a unique figure in American art, a representational artist immune to avant-garde trends but beloved of the modern art establishment, nonetheless.
Hopper’s work falls into two categories – documentary and imaginary – and it’s the imaginary work that’s chiefly responsible for his reputation. Narrative paintings likeNighthawks, laboriously constructed in the studio from observed, remembered, and invented elements, seem to contain the quintessence of mid-century American life. Hopper’s distinctive imagery follows in the tradition of bold, sunlight-and-shadow artists like Winslow Homer and Thomas Eakins, takes lessons in paint handling and deadpan attitude from Manet (Bar at the Folies Bergeres), and pays homage to the world of the snapshot (New York Restaurant) and the theatre (Summer Evening). His human characters share the spotlight with their dramatic settings, environments so carefully and lovingly observed that they become characters themselves, engaged in a complex pas de deux with the living subjects they contain and shape.
Take New York Movie, for example, on loan from MOMA, where it is only infrequently on view. The basics of the image are simple enough: a bored usherette leans against a wall, lost in thought, while several patrons watch a movie in a nearly empty theatre. The beautiful blond woman with her form-fitting blue uniform, based on studies of Hopper’s wife Jo (who seems to have been painted nude, with the clothing added later), can be seen as the main character, except for the fact that she’s shoved nearly out of the picture, taking up a fraction of its space in the lower right hand corner. The image is dominated by architecture, the balcony of an ornate movie palace with all its trimmings; red plush chairs, brass railings, looming ceiling sconces, and a carved plaster column painted with more sensuality and color than nearly anything else on view.
If that molten column is a painted embodiment of the passions and desires of the two still, faceless moviegoers sitting nearby (the movie itself is reduced to a black-and-white abstraction, purposely cropped to be unintelligible), the usherette is provided with a symbol for her inner life as well. The pool of light that illuminates her also lights up the beautiful swirling paisley pattern of the rug she stands on, a private echo of the swirls on the auditorium column. Most tellingly, the picture is divided nearly in half by a huge, featureless, dark wall, creating an absolute break between the realm of the woman and that of the theatre: the public world walled off from the private, the manufactured Hollywood fantasy existing alongside the equally fraught inner life of the usherette.
No single photograph could contain all of the elements of the painting, nor could it have been painted from a single viewpoint. Hopper combined features of a number of different venues, explored in dozens of studies, to create this imaginary interior, and the space doesn’t make logical sense, but who cares? Masterpieces make their own rules.
After New York Movie, Chop Suey has a tough act to follow, but most viewers will find it even more visually satisfying. Here Hopper’s love affair with paint, his variety of surface treatments and compositional freedom creates a web of relationships both abstract and human that is taut, restrained, and evocative, with rich color notes of blue, red, and green carrying the eye to and fro. For the culturally curious, curator Junker has provided a fascinating catalog essay about the then-new phenomena of working girls dining out on their own and the birth of urban fast food (note to McDonalds: “Chop Suey” restaurants got there first), which provides a lively subtext to the scene of two couples at lunch at a mid-town “joint”.
But the most intriguing element of the painting isn’t the cryptic interactions between the diners (fill in the blanks), the trademark Hopper chevrons of raking light and shadow (some completely arbitrary), or the cropped block letters of the neon sign, with tiny light bulbs so reminiscent of blue dot candy on a paper strip. It is the heartless, searing, white light on the face of the one figure fully in view, the girl in green. Far more luminous in person than in reproduction, the light is achieved with the thickest and brightest paint in the image next to the deepest blacks, an arrangement that almost guarantees that we can’t take our eyes off her. But there’s the rub – Hopper (and the girl) seduces us, but to what end? Her face is almost literally a mask, with black eyes like holes in white fabric, intense but lacking inner life. In her blankness of expression and gesture, she’s giving away nothing, not to her dining companion, not to us – it’s seduction without consummation. The tension between restraint and sensuality, between revealing and withholding, is what gives Hopper his punch, and makes him modern. Renoir lets his café goers kiss, smile, flirt, and touch, but that’s so 19th Century; Hopper makes us look, but keeps us at arm’s length, perpetual outsiders. His main characters are frequently singled out by the brightest of lights, but we can’t get beyond their compelling surface, and never will. In the artist’s last painting, a portrait of himself and his wife, the couple wear actual masks - an echo of the face of the girl in green, decades later.
Perhaps it is making a virtue of necessity, but I did not find myself wishing for another set of galleries of Hopper works to follow upon the first two, nor did I miss the gift shop and cash register climax that always closes out the blockbuster experience. If the corporate-sponsored mega-show is indeed an endangered species (like some of the sponsoring corporations themselves), museums will find other ways to enlighten and uplift us, like this compact and thoroughly satisfying little show.