Creativity Through Subtraction
“The man is the work.” Edward Hopper
The “Edward Hopper In Maine” exhibit at Bowdoin College this past summer and early fall was a wonderful example of a hunch I’d had for years about Hopper’s best works.
If you had been in lower Manhatten eighty years ago as autumn approached the city and you perhaps saw a popular movie and maybe had a cup of coffee at the Horn and Hardart, you might have seen him. Tall and thin, soft felt hat and and a tweed jacket a bit worn and loose fitting, the man would have appeared to have been completely unremarkable as he sipped his coffee. Except he wasn’t unremarkable at all, this man was Edward Hopper, one of Americas premier painters of the 20th Century.
You know his most famous works, the Nighthawks At The Diner, or Sunday Morning, iconic images of the isolation and gritty emptiness of emerging modern American cities. The marvelous tall, isolated victorian house next to the railroad tracks or the rows of brick tenaments with the lattice of an elevated train treesel between us and the buildings, are all images that have been picked up by pop culture and imbedded in our collective national memory.
While you invited yourself to share his table at the busy automat all those decades ago, you would have found it difficult to begin a conversation with this tall, reserved fellow. But if you’d persisted and he did admit at some point that he was an artist, a painter, he would have cut you off and left straight away if you had lumped him in with the new modern painters. As he worked further and further into the body of work that hangs in our museums and important collections, Hopper became more and more adamnant that modernism was a dead end and he’d have no part of it.
Taken all together, the work from Hopper’s mature career are one of our treasures and one of our puzzles. The dynamic composition, the easily digestible imagery, the dry paint handling, do their best to erase the presence of the artist and allow us our personal reverie with the work. But he remains before us each time. The awkwardly modeled figures, the evidence of the struggle to weight each image, even each brush passage, with psychological meaning, often overwhelms those paintings. In some works, it feels as if he doesn’t trust us to bring enough intensity of feeling on our own.
What must have been thirty years ago, I attended a huge Hopper retrospective at the Whitney Museum in New York. Hopper’s wife Jo had lived only a short time longer than the artist and she had been his record keeper and curator of every sketch, every small oil, every note. Upon her death she bequeathed everything to the Whitney. It took some time to sort and organize it all but well worth the effort for that retrospective stands out in my memory as a very special visual event.
Going in, I was already familiar with the paintings that had turned into a thousand posters and calendars and movie sets. Coming out I knew in my heart that Edward Hopper was one of the early, great modern painters and he had hidden that fact from the public for his entire career. In fact, it seemed to me his career was built around denying this fact.
I was once again struck by this ‘secret’ of spontanaety and modern approach this summer at Bowdoin’s exhibit. The first room held paintings that had burned in my memory for 30 years and hadn’t been able to see since. These were works the artist made on Monhegan Island in the early twentieth century. They were direct and dramatic renderings of shadow and light on the cliffs and hills jutting out and sliding down into the ocean, along the shoreline of Monhegan. On close inspection one realizes that these small paintings are using that rugged landscape simply as a vehicle to carve compositional space and evoke form with thickly applied, simple brushstrokes. These wide and luscious strokes moved with the directional surface of the land while paring down description to the minimum required to allow us to enter the space.
These paintings were built from economy and aesthetic concerns very much in tune with what American modernists such as Arthur Dove and Charles Burchfield would show us some ten or fifteen years further on - power drawn form dynamic composition and mark making that held directness and quality of brush handling above detailed description. Antecedants to the abstraction and action painting that was to follow, when subject became the paint and space themselves, it was astounding to once again see that Hopper could have led the way a decade or more in advance.
I wonder still, as I look at the images for which Edward Hopper became known and which he most closely aligned himself with, why did he suppress those early paintings? How does an artist choose the direction they take their work and at what cost? It seems to be a dramatic example of the creative process under a puritan kind of control. Erasure of the self and imersion in the psychology of the message. As one examines the life’s work of Hopper the sharp composition and effective handling of shadow and light remain a strength throughout. It is the people and the flotsam of descriptive detail that are awkward and almost out of place. A creativity born out of intent and control, Hopper surrendered intuitive exuberance in his painting in place of control and message - fueled by commerce (he had to make his living and protect his reputation) and public opinion. His work is so very American not only because of his Twentieth Century subject matter but also because of his motivation for what he left out.