Life Studies: Edward Hopper's drawings

from The Magazine ANTIQUES, September/October 2013.

The hope of the artist is to resist interpre­tation. Emerson said that "to be great is to be misunderstood" and, pressed to explain his troubles, Hamlet cried to his inter­locutors, "You would pluck out the heart of my mystery." Among contemporary artists, Jasper Johns has made a creed of reticence, and Edward Hopper was also famously tight-lipped. When the curator and critic Katharine Kuh interviewed Hopper about his motives for painting, he replied, "The whole answer is there on the canvas. I don't know how I could explain it any further."[1]

Nevertheless, for the last ninety years art his­torians have never stopped trying to crack the enigma that is Edward Hopper (Fig. 3). With both full-scale and focused exhibitions occurring nearly every other year in the United States and Europe, one might well conclude that the field of Hopper scholarship is fundamentally exhausted. However, a remarkable exhibition and catalogue and an independent publication have demon­strated that new facts and new interpretations are still forthcoming. Hopper Drawing, organized by the Whitney Museum of American Art, is the first major museum exhibition to delve into the artist's drawings and their relation to his creative process in unparalleled depth. On view in New York until October 6, the exhibition will travel to the Dallas Museum of Art from November 17 to February 16, 2014, and the Walker Art Center in Minne­apolis from March 15 to June 22, 2014.

Brilliantly conceived and written about by Carter E. Foster, the Whitney's Steven and Ann Ames Curator of Drawings, the show is a revelation in its analyses and elucidation of an enormous por­tion of Hopper's oeuvre that the artist dismissed as unworthy of being seen.[2] Whether or not we agree with Hopper, the drawings are intimate records of the ways in which he observed people and places and then distilled ideas from those initial notations. "De­spite his generally negative statements about his drawings," Foster writes, "he was fully at home in this technique, one he mastered before any other and practiced more thor­oughly than oil, watercolor, and etching combined."[3] With more than twenty-five hundred drawings in the Whitney's collection alone, Hopper's "accomplishments as a draftsman," Foster states, can be characterized "as the most significant constant over his long career, one that stretches across and thus ties together the nearly eight decades during which he made his extraordinary contributions to modern art."[4]

Choosing from drawings owned by the Whitney, Foster has matched suites of preparatory studies to the unforgettable paintings that re­sulted from them, including Soir Bleu, Manhattan Bridge Loop, Early Sunday Morning, Nighthawks, Office at Night, New York Movie, Gas, Rooms for Tourists, Morning in a City, and Sun in an Empty Room. The works on paper and the oils often parallel Hopper's own creative process, which always transcended literal transcription. He worked from life and from his imagination-from "the fact" and from "improvisation," as he termed them-and if his initial drawings in a series chronicle the facts he observed, the later studies and paintings are syntheses of those facts sharpened by the alterations, eliminations, and inventions of memory and imagination. Very few of the paintings are exact copies of the drawings. As Foster observes, "Hopper's drawings, especially his studies for major oils, are the material record linking the observed world and his subjective transformation of it."[5]

by Émile Jacques Ruhlmann (1879-1933), 1926. Macassar ebony, amaranth, and ivory. Metropolitan Museum of Art. By Cynthia Drayton

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