Friday, November 04, 2011

`Peoples the Vacuum with American Light'

Hotel lobbies are transient places, or places that accommodate transience. We pass through them on the way to somewhere else. They simulate the rootedness and comfort of a living room – couches, lamps, carpets – while resonating with adventure, illicit or otherwise. Think of all the hotel lobbies in films noir. This is from Raymond Chandler’s final complete novel, Playback (1958):

“The main part of the lobby was up three steps and through an arch. There were people in it just sitting, the dedicated hotel lounge sitters, usually elderly, usually rich, usually doing nothing but watching with hungry eyes. They spend their lives that way.”

On the second page of Saul Bellow’s Seize the Day (1956), Tommy Wilhelm passes through the lobby of the building where he lives in Manhattan, the Hotel Gloriana:

“After breakfast the old guests sat down on the green leather armchairs and sofas in the lobby and began to gossip and look into the papers; they had nothing to do but wait out the day.”

Edward Hopper painted “Hotel Lobby” in 1943. I’ve just read Harriet G. Warkel’s Paper to Paint: Edward Hopper’s `Hotel Lobby’ (2008), published by the Indianapolis Museum of Art, which owns the painting. Warkel works there as curator of American painting and sculpture, and her monograph supplies interesting details about the evolution of the painting. She notes, for instance, that the fourth figure in picture, the night clerk whose face is barely visible above the lamp shade on the right, was a late addition. She says:

“The final placement of the shadowy clerk may be the artist’s suggestion of the mystery surrounding people waiting in a hotel lobby.”

Well, yes. Like many Hopper paintings, “Hotel Lobby” suggests an enigmatic narrative, and the clerk adds another layer of mystery. But Warkel, like many who write about art, consumes much space saying little. There’s a lot of psychological speculation, many paragraphs about “alter egos” and “the inner workings of the artist’s mind,” but sixty pages devoted to a single painting have to be filled with something. When she writes “Perhaps this explains why a Hopper painting is difficult to interpret even though it is rooted in reality,” she fails to see that the two parts of that sentence don’t go together.

A deeper reader of Hopper’s paintings is L.S. Sissman. In the first section of “The West Forties: Morning, Noon, and Night,” titled “Welcome to Hotel Majesty (Singles $4 Up),” Sissman renders a Bellow-like portrait of another Broadway hotel lobby. Its guests carry bags

“…containing their one best
Suit, shirt, tie, Jockey shorts, and pair of socks,
Half-empty pint, electric-razor box,
Ex-wife’s still-smiling picture, high-school ring,
Harmonica, discharge, and everything.”

Among his other gifts, Sissman shares Hopper’s eye for evocative detail. He admired Hopper’s paintings, as “American Light: A Hopper Retrospective” (Hello, Darkness: The Collected Poems of L.E. Sissman, 1978) suggests. Describing “Sun in an Empty Room,” painted by Hopper four years before his death in 1967, Sissman writes:

“…leaving a sizeable memorial
To his life and to the state he lived in:
A green tree blowing outside; streaming in
Through the two-light window, forming cream oblongs
On window wall and alcove wall and on
The bare wood floor, a shaft of morning sun
Peoples the vacuum with American light.”


JoeKeller said...

The Warkel sentence would make sense if it read: "Perhaps this explains why a Hopper painting is difficult to interpret BECAUSE it is rooted in reality."

William A. Sigler said...

The most helpful insight I’ve come across on Hopper’s enigmatic work came from a fellow painter and friend of his whose name (and exact quote) escapes me, something to the effect of don’t get fooled by the idea that Hopper is a realistic painter, his works do as much injustice to the world of appearances as those of Picasso or Dali, he’s just more subtle about it. And we see that here, too, the distorted perspectives that make a small room spacious and vice versa, the impossible angles of light that provide diagonal rhythms like artificial film noir cinematography, the dreariness rendered not with chiaroscuro but the rich grey sun of another world. And the ubiquitous Josephine placed in alienated pose (reading, no less!) like an existential trompe l’oeil.

I read your post having just returned from a few days stay in an Upper West Side apartment approximately the size and age of this imagined hotel lobby. It was a humbling experience to know how claustrophobic everyday life is for so many even well-to-do people in the city. The sublime of the experience was in the Sissman quote you cite, how the sense of possessions suffers most. One feels like a denizen of Sissman’s fleabag hotel (or as Tom Waits, the epic cultivator or squalor, put it: “a tinker, a tailor, a Soldier’s Things/his rifle, his boots full of rocks/oh and this one is for bravery/and this one’s for me/and everything’s a dollar in this box”). It’s the setting of long-faded glory framing all one has that is so poignant, especially as it is surrounded by all that is new, fashionable, prized displayed to remind to us of what we’ve lost. One so much wants it to be the 1950’s on those streets, and so we look upon Hopper’s disturbing images with nostalgia and longing, for a time when things were newer and cleaner, and the loneliness was purer, because there was still a suggestion that human interactions existed for a reason beyond commercial transactions.