An illuminating show of drawings and paintings at Walker Art Center spans his 60-year career.
Aside from summers on Cape Cod, Edward Hopper was a lifelong city guy. From his Greenwich Village apartment, he roamed the streets of Manhattan, ducking into theaters and movie houses to sketch their plush interiors, noting shafts of light angled over stoops and walls, studying lonely figures in cafes and gloomy hotel lobbies.
Introverted and taciturn, the painter turned what he observed into strangely haunting images that have lodged deep in the public psyche. Filmmakers from Alfred Hitchcock to Wim Wenders have quoted his work, Madonna’s 1993 world tour was inspired by his 1941 painting “Girlie Show,” and the Brit-pop band Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark mentioned seven of his pictures in their 2013 single “Night Cafe.” And then there’s Homer Simpson, bellying up to the counter in a cartoon version of Hopper’s “Nighthawks.”
“It’s not just the world of art that he influenced, it’s culture,” said Walker Art Center curator Siri Engberg, who oversaw the installation of “Hopper Drawing: A Painter’s Process.” The show opens Friday at the Walker and runs through June 20.
Along with 22 key paintings, the exhibit includes more than 200 drawings spanning Hopper’s 60-year career, from precocious student sketches to self-portraits, Parisian scenes, studies and watercolors for the paintings. Multimedia interludes include a filmed interview with the artist and video enactments of several paintings recently produced for French television. Many of the drawings have not been shown before this exhibit, organized by the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York.
Not all of his signature paintings made the trip, however: “Nighthawks” is on loan to another exhibition, and “Girlie Show” is not included.
The Walker presentation follows a loose, thematic chronology starting with skillful early sketches. Born in Nyack, N.Y., Hopper (1882-1967) took an early interest in the yachts and sailboats built there, turning out bold studies of shipyards and vessels in full sail along with keenly observed still lifes and beautifully modeled nudes. In 1900 he enrolled in the New York Institute of Art and Design, where he trained as an illustrator but fell under the influence of realist painter Robert Henri, who urged students to record not just a scene but also what they felt about it.
Hopper’s Parisian moment comes as a surprise in the career of an artist so deeply identified with American motifs. Before 1910 he made three trips to France, filling his sketchbooks with crisp studies of cafe scenes and street characters, clowns, hustlers, boulevardiers. Back in the studio he compiled these types into “Soir Bleu,” a memorable surrealist tableau.
Isolation and loneliness are recurrent motifs, whether he’s painting the upper stories of buildings glimpsed while riding the elevated train or the claustrophobic interiors that recur throughout his career. Such moods were carefully observed and planned, almost as if he were laying out a film storyboard.
“He would often create up to 20-plus drawings for a given painting, fleshing out the architecture of a scene, working out his point of view, the posture of a figure, how a coffee cup was going to be touched, how fashions were depicted,” said Engberg. “He was very conscious of details, and drawings were his means of working them out.”
Lipstick in the shadows
The Walker’s famous “Office at Night” is a classic example. Painted in 1940, it depicts a couple working late at night. Streetlight falls across a desk at which the man is intently reading a letter and illuminates the corner where a curvaceous woman stands at a filing cabinet. Viewed from above, as if by a security camera, the scene feels ripe with sexual tension and guilty secrets.
Drawings show how the picture evolved, the man growing younger and more absorbed in the letter, the woman’s pose more provocative, her lipstick brighter.
Hopper and his wife, Jo, who posed for virtually all of his female figures, kept meticulous records of his paintings, including “Office.” Their description, in a ledger displayed nearby, notes “plenty of lipstick” on “Shirley” and mentions an alternative title, “Confidentially Yours,” that hints at a possible blackmail theme.
The same records show Hopper picking up a $1,000 prize for the picture at a 1945 exhibition and selling it to Walker Art Center for another $1,000 in June 1949. Asked by the museum for an explanation of the picture, he responded with “some hesitation,” because “such writing always seems too inadequate to convey the essence of a picture.” But, he added, it was probably inspired by glimpses of enigmatic office encounters he observed from the “el” train at night. The office furniture “has very definite meaning for me,” he admitted, and the sources and play of light were important.
“Any more than this, the picture will have to tell, but I hope it will not tell any obvious anecdote, for none is intended.” he concluded. The Walker, however, has commissioned two contemporary writers — Laird Hunt and Kate Bernheimer — to imagine scenarios inspired by the painting. They will be serialized on the Walker website starting in April.
Even in the country, loneliness reigns. The houses along “Route 6, Eastham” are empty and still, though the sun is shining merrily. And in one of Hopper’s last pictures, “Road and Trees” (1962), nature is reduced to strips of grass, asphalt and sky framing a brooding band of impenetrable trees.
The show ends with paintings and drawings of that most intimate of spaces, the bedroom, a subject he returned to again and again. Typically Jo Hopper is alone there, gazing out a window toward a distant light, but always wrapped in melancholy silence.
“All of the pictures walk that perfect line of revealing a little, but not too much,” said Engberg. “He gets your imagination started but keeps everything ambiguous.”
Mary Abbe • 612-673-4431