Modern Life: Edward Hopper and His Time, Whitney Museum, New York

Anyone inclined to dismiss Edward Hopper as a middlebrow peddler of noirish mood pieces should hustle over to the Whitney, where his genius now smoulders alongside sunnier fare. “Modern Life: Edward Hopper and His Time” plants this visionary in his native context, among the realists who reconnoitred New York’s boisterous nightlife and lonely alleys. It is a superb, intelligent exhibition, intimating the extent to which Hopper was both of his time and spectacularly beyond it.

The Whitney shows us how he moved among modernists of all stripes and styles. After first arriving in New York around the turn of the 20th century, he studied with Robert Henri and embraced the Ashcan School’s entanglement with its moment. “Art cannot be separated from life,” Henri proclaimed. “We value art not because of the skilled product but because of its revelation of a life’s experience.”

The Ashcan artists knew how to seize the speeding instant and wring it for drama. They had trained as magazine illustrators and learnt to transform everyday events into lively, appealing tableaux. Everett Shinn haunted the theatre, tracking panther-like divas as they stalked the stage. John Sloan parked himself outside a club where gentlemen mingled with demi-mondaines. George Bellows patrolled the boxing ring, ready to record the clash of limbs.

Hopper cruised the streets with his pals, poking into cafes, theatres and cabarets. He, too, wanted to cram the hectic jamboree of urban life on to his canvas. Despite the enthusiasms he shared with his Ashcan friends, Hopper was different from the start. He sought to forge something deep out of the urban clatter, something psychologically and formally complex.

It took a while for him to find his way. In the not entirely successful “Soir Bleu” (1914), he thrusts seven monumental characters together on the thin stage that is a restaurant balcony. A powdered prostitute, a white-faced clown, a military man in epaulettes, a bearded bohemian and a pair of slumming aristocrats impose on one another’s space but do not interact. Each, feigning public detachment, flounders in private sorrow. It’s an ambitious but inert picture, too heavy-handed in its allegory of disconnection.

Hopper soon learnt to align his symbols more closely with external realities. In the poignantly voyeuristic “New York Interior” of 1921, a girl framed in an apartment window – glimpsed, perhaps from a passing elevated train – sits on her bed with her back to the viewer, sewing a length of cloudy fabric spread out in her lap. She is only partly dressed. It’s one of those disturbingly intimate vignettes that the city sometimes offers up, an instant that may mean nothing to the subject but to the viewer feels heavy with significance. She may be listening to music or talking to someone through an open door. In a second, she may jump up to answer the telephone. But the way Hopper has lit, framed and composed her, with one sinewed arm extended to disrupt the symmetrical triangular geometry of her pose, she becomes a study in isolation.

Hopper found the same mute soulfulness in buildings as he did in people. In “Early Sunday Morning”, not a single figure mars the reverent quiet of a row of storefronts along Seventh Avenue, but eloquent shadows make the doorways speak, and each window on the floor above declares its individuality by the erratic fluttering of a curtain or the distinctive lifting of a sash.

He was not alone in his fascination with the expressive power of stone, wood and steel. In the 1920s, his interests overlapped with those of the precisionists, who abstracted architecture into a metaphor for the nation’s destiny. The Whitney offers up Charles Demuth and Charles Sheeler, who painted odes to the factory, with its clear, fluid lines and pared-down elegance. Sheeler worshipped the industrial behemoth as a modern cathedral and Demuth, in “My Egypt”, conceived it as a monumental pyramid. The show skips Joseph Stella, who would have fit right in here with his cubist deconstructions of the Brooklyn Bridge.

But despite these sympathies of subject matter, Hopper veered on to a different aesthetic path. He loathed abstraction and believed that art depended on “fact seen through personality”. He had no truck with modernist cravings for self-expression, inner vision or spirituality, and he felt that abstract art was merely decorative. “The inner life of a human being is a vast and varied realm,” he wrote, “and does not concern itself alone with stimulating arrangements of colour, form and design.”

And while the precisionists used abstraction to sanctify the promise of industrial technology, Hopper was unfriendly to the idea of progress. (A steadfast conservative, he despised FDR’s New Deal and once drove 300 miles from Cape Cod to New York just so he could vote against the president.) So though he painted the Queensborough Bridge in 1913 when it was just a few years old, its twin pylons resemble dark towering monsters with stumpy legs, ready to trample the tiny Victorian farmhouse that still clings to its lot. In “Railroad Crossing”, wind buffets a small old-fashioned home hemmed in on all sides by modernity: black-winged electrical towers menace the front and back of the building, while train tracks it cut if off from the cool, nourishing woods.

Where the precisionists gloried in the patterns of the machine age – grids of flat, uniform windows, walls rising in smooth planes – Hopper carved cornices and gables out of light. It’s this almost tactile radiance that separates him. He would return to the same place at the same time each day, observing, for instance, the way 7am sunshine rakes a New England shop in a flat and lonely glare.

The Whitney has encircled him with his contemporaries but not his peers. Hopper admired Vermeer, Eakins and Rembrandt, and it is those artists he most resembles in his deployment of light as metaphor. On a country road at dusk, the fading sun catches a line of tall robotic gas pumps that dwarf the attendant. For Vermeer, light symbolised the passage of time; for Rembrandt it represented revelation. Here, Hopper invests the sun’s ever-changing rays with a more personal and melancholy array of meanings: alienation, resignation and stoicism. In Hopper’s world, shadows can be consoling, and light is gloomy stuff.

‘Modern Life: Edward Hopper and His Time’ continues until April 10,

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