Image credit: “Manhattan Bridge Loop, 1928.” Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons
If there’s a sure thing in the art world, it’s that any Edward Hopper show will be both an artistic and audience success. The current exhibition at the Whitney until March 5, 2023, Edward Hopper’s New York is certainly a success on both levels.
A weekday visit was like attending a show on the B train at 5:00 pm. Throngs of people fought for space to view paintings and sketches, as well as commercial work related to New York, the city that served as Hopper’s perfect setting for what has long been viewed as his paradoxical preoccupation: solitude.
We see characters isolated in private, but also in shared spaces, in restaurants, in offices, in theaters, and on trains. These people are alone even when they’re with other people: a couple taking their coats off as they take their seats in “Two on the Aisle” (1927) are looking away from each other, as is the couple standing on the stoop of a brownstone in “Sunlight on Brownstones” (1956). Even in settings where groups gather, in restaurants, for example, with a couple of rare exceptions the diners are eating alone.
In “Chair Car,” none of the passengers on a railroad car is sitting next to anyone else. All are strangers to each other; no one has a friend or lover.
One almost has to take it on the painter’s—or the museum’s—word that these are New York paintings.
Almost totally absent are the crowds that define New York. Hopper couldn’t paint something like George Bellows’ famous 1908 oil painting “Stag at Sharkey’s,” showing the crowd around the boxing ring almost physically involved in the bout: such human connection is absent in Hopper’s city.
Theater features frequently, either directly (in scenes set inside movie theaters or of players taking a bow), or metaphorically (the views through windows, both from the outside in and the inside out, as if turning life into a stage).
The theme of solitude is an obvious one when discussing Hopper. But there is another constant in his work, one magnificently on display here. New York has many things, but the beauty of its natural light is not one of its distinguishing characteristics.
And yet Hopper’s paintings are as much about light as they are about solitude. He is a modern heir of the great masters of light, of Georges de la Tour, of Vermeer, of Caravaggio, of the sadly underrated Dane Vilhelm Hammershøi. These great painters turned candlelight and natural light into virtual characters in their paintings.
Hopper’s light is necessarily different. In his paintings of buildings, particularly roofs, the harsh sunlight turns them into abstract works. But in his most important works light comes from many directions and many sources: table lamps, streetlights, sunlight, neon, moonlight. In some cases, the light even seems to emanate from the figures.
If Caravaggio and de la Tour were maters of candlelight, Vermeer, Hammershoi, and Hopper were masters of window light.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art owns three paintings by Hammershøi; one of them, “Moonlight, Strandgade 30,” depicts nothing but a window set in a wall, the moonlight filtering through it. In the Dane’s work, as in that of Vermeer, it is natural light filtering in and falling on one or two subjects that is featured.
In Hopper’s work, windows are given several tasks. They serve to form frames within the painting’s frame, closing in our focus. But they also turn the action occurring within them or through them into minimalist theater.
In Hopper’s 1962 “New York Office,” the lone woman standing behind the window competes with varied levels and sources of light: there is a row of ceiling lights running above and behind her, while bright sunlight illuminates the woman, the front of the building in which she works, a patch on the wall to her right, and a portion of the narrow street alongside the building.
But the rest of the neighboring street is in shadow, the windows in the buildings lining that street are darkened. The darkness and light form a frame that doubles the frame the window forms. The woman is doubly, or perhaps triply the focus, and doubly or triply alone.
The light here is almost exactly that of an earlier painting, the 1956 “Sunlight in a Cafeteria,” the sun cutting the canvas in exactly the same way as in the office. Light recurs several times in the titles of paintings in this show, suggesting that the element of light overriding any individuals who might be within it.
In the city, at ground level, sunlight is a limited thing. It’s only on rooftops that light is unimpeded, bringing out the details, the lines of objects and constructions. Shapes are brought out so clearly that in a case like “City Roofs” (1932) the chimney, the pipes, and what is perhaps a dovecote the work takes on the look of a surreal de Chirico. Such works are the closest Hopper comes to abstraction: light unimpeded is for objects alone.
“New York Movie” from 1939 is a virtual summary of Hopper’s vision. Here is the perfect blend of the themes of solitude and light. The painting, from the collection of MoMA, shows a female usher standing on the far right of the canvas, leaning against a wall, her chin resting on her hand, while a couple of viewers seated rows apart in the darkened theater watch a film, the screen partially visible on the left. The usher is separated from the theater in which she works by the light that falls on her from a wall fixture with three branches and perhaps from an overhead fixture. The far right is all in light, as is the staircase to her right. But there are more sources of light; ceiling fixtures in the theater itself, and the light from the black and white image on the screen, which partially illuminates a spectator’s face and even a small spot on the stage in front of the screen. There is even what appears to be an unlit flashlight in the usher’s hand. Light is everywhere, Hopper shows us, even in the dark. And solitude is everywhere as well, even—or especially—in social spaces. These modes and scenes appear and reappear in this magnificent and finely representative show.