Edward Hopper’s Fantasy Island
“Edward Hopper’s New York,” the Whitney’s latest dive into its extensive Hopper holdings, sounds at first like the museum coasting on its hometown hero. Here is an occasion to trot out works like “Early Sunday Morning,” which makes a tidy Anytown of rowhouses along Seventh Avenue. But focus instead on that apostrophe in the title: This is Hopper’s New York, emphasis on the possessive, and for all its crowd-pleasing fare this is a more challenging show about his dominion over the city.
In paintings we know well and many we don’t, as well as some enlightening works on paper and writings, the artist long described as a Realist is recast as the architect of his own personal fantasy metropolis. He dispenses almost entirely with street life and traffic, ignores skyscrapers and the Brooklyn Bridge, and inserts imaginary buildings where it suits him; he peers in at private apartments from elevated trains and surveys his own neighborhood from rooftops. He turns offices, restaurants and movie theaters into stages for just one or two actors. He paints windows and storefronts without glass, as if he could just reach in and touch the people and things inside.
In one illuminating section of the exhibition, Hopper even tangles with the infamous urban planner Robert Moses over the transformation of Washington Square Park. For most of his life and career Hopper lived at 3 Washington Square North, and to judge from his correspondence with Moses and others he seems to have viewed the park as his own backyard. He first wrote an aggrieved letter to Moses in 1936 objecting to the condition of the lawns and to fencing that blocked the park’s greenery; later, fearing eviction by an expanding New York University, he sent him a second, more urgent missive and received a condescending response suggesting that he take up his concerns with the school chancellor.
Displayed near the letters are watercolors and works on paper made from Hopper’s rooftop, with Washington Square in the background. Air shafts, water towers and chimneys crowd these pictures, coming together to form a kind of substitute skyline — a private mini-city. “Hopper’s identification with this view signals his personal stake in this place, laying claim not only to the space he rented within the building but also to all that he could see from this vantage point,” the show’s curator Kim Conaty writes in her catalog essay.
Organized by Conaty (who heads the museum’s drawings and prints department) with the senior curatorial assistant Melinda Lang, the exhibition of some 200 objects weaves together recently acquired archival material with an impressive number of major paintings on loan from museums across the United States. (One of the show’s many revelations is that some of Hopper’s New Yorkiest paintings reside in other cities; “New York Office” is at the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, and “Sunlight on Brownstones” at the Wichita Art Museum.)
Hopper himself came to New York from the suburb of Nyack, across the Hudson, commuting in for art school by ferry before moving to East 59th Street in 1908 and finally settling into his longtime home at Washington Square in 1913. His early oil sketches show the city as he saw it from the water, with hulking ferry slips and a passing tugboat belching smoke. These are resolutely prosaic works; where Whitman saw “River and sunset and scallop-edg’d waves of flood tide,” not to mention crowds of hopeful immigrants, Hopper sees infrastructure.
He was fascinated by bridges, particularly the Queensboro (as it was known in Hopper’s day) and Manhattan Bridges that opened not long after his move to the city, as well as the already in use Williamsburg and Macombs Dam Bridges. He depicted their steel trusses and cantilevers, as well as the views from their spans: the grassy stretch of Blackwell’s Island (now Roosevelt Island), the tops of tenements peeking out over the Delancey Street ramp.
The panoramic sweep of a bridge also suited Hopper’s “contrarian” view of New York, as Conaty argues persuasively in a section of the show called “The Horizontal City.” Here, in the midst of a boom of vertical construction that included the Chrysler Building and the Empire State Building, Hopper gives us the low-rise architecture of “Early Sunday Morning.” Displayed alongside it is the similarly proportioned, if less picturesque, “Apartment Houses, East River,” showing a sprawling residential complex of no more than eight stories. As the Museum of Modern Art director Alfred H. Barr Jr. observed of Hopper, “His indifference to skyscrapers is remarkable in a painter of New York architecture.”
Perhaps that contrarian streak explains why Hopper never once painted the Brooklyn Bridge, despite his interest in the other East River crossings. He omitted it even from the background of his 1932 painting “Room in Brooklyn,” a crystalline view of the borough from the inside of a stately, sunlit brownstone. As his wife, Jo, wrote of this picture, it “left out the Brooklyn Bridge (and more or less Brooklyn).”
Jo Hopper, an artist in her own right as well as the model for many of the figures in Hopper’s paintings, is a strong presence in a gallery dedicated to the couple’s life in Washington Square. She is also recognized in a quietly heartbreaking catalog essay by the critic Kirsty Bell that scrutinizes Jo’s turbulent relationship with her husband, the claustrophobia of life in their small apartment and studio, and the subsumption of her career into his. There is a sense that Hopper’s proprietary relationship to the city, as put forth in this show, extended to his marriage.
In his late works, from around 1950 on, New York becomes simply “a city,” or “the city.” These are the Hoppers that tend to resonate most with a contemporary audience, both for their mood of alienation (lately interpreted with an eye to pandemic isolation) and the set-like appearance of the rooms the figures inhabit: “Office in a Small City,” with its lone worker gazing out from his corner perch, or “Sunlight in a Cafeteria,” where a man and woman seated at neighboring tables in a corporate canteen seem not to acknowledge each other.
These scenes are composites, imaginary cities assembled in Hopper’s mind from remembered pieces of the real New York — a fact reinforced by the title of this final section of the show, “Reality and Fantasy.” Here the Whitney distances Hopper ever further from Realism, or at least makes clear that the word had a meaning for him that was as internal as it was external. In his “Notes on Painting,” from a journal Hopper kept in the 1950s, he wrote: “The dreamer and mystic must create a reality that you can walk around in, exist and breathe in.”
Certainly, there is a tendency to see Hopper’s paintings as rooms we might walk around in; in the words of his most astute critic, the late Brian O’Doherty, “Hopper’s mysterious realism invites you in, to test the logic of his space with reference to your everyday experience.” In 1994 the artist Jack Pierson extrapolated the hotel rooms in Hopper’s art into an installation; more recently the wraparound bar from “Nighthawks” has been turned into an augmented reality attraction. Hopper himself encouraged us to see the windows in these late paintings as a proscenium, as the Whitney emphasizes in a gallery dedicated to his interest in the theater.
In his last painting — the small 1966 canvas “Two Comedians,” made the year before his death at 84 — the connection is explicit: A Pierrot figure and his female counterpart — the artist and his wife, Jo — approach the edge of the stage to take their final bows. There is a profound intimacy to this sign-off, which eliminates the fourth wall and closes the gap between Hopper’s New York and ours.
Edward Hopper’s New York
Through March 5 at the Whitney Museum of American Art, 99 Gansevoort Street, Manhattan; (212) 570-3600; whitney.org