Wednesday, May 15, 2024

'The Vacuum with American Light'

Edward Hopper is often a favorite painter of literary-minded people because, I suspect, so many of his works suggest in-media-res excerpts from larger narratives. Looking at his paintings is like opening a novel to a memorable scene, without access to backstory or subsequent events. All of his paintings depict people or their creations, usually buildings or rooms, but include no still lifes or unpeopled landscapes. They are “interactive” because thoughtful observers will ponder the scene and fill in the rest of the story. You can do that with some of Grant Wood's work too, but not Jackson Pollock. 

Hopper is indelibly American, in the same sense as Robert Frost and Wright Morris. Had the Golden Record aboard Voyager I and II contained a painting to represent America, it would have been one of Hopper’s – probably Nighthawks, that national Rorschach test, the best-known American painting of the last century. No painter before or since has made loneliness so beautiful. In 1964, Hilton Kramer described Hopper’s American quality: 

“In the decade following World War I, Hopper settled on a vein of imagery that has been his special glory ever since. Recognizably American in its architectural and landscape subjects and in the character of its urban desolation, this imagery has established a repertory of scenes and motifs—the lonely, nocturnal glimpses of nearly deserted restaurants, theaters, and hotel rooms; the white clapboard houses and fantastic nineteenth-century mansions of New England, with their peculiar geometry of mansard roofs and dormer windows—which are now among the standard visual archetypes of our native imagination. Without investing it with false heroics or inappropriate rhetoric, Hopper raised this imagery to the level of poetry, where it stands free of both easy sentiment and facile historical encumbrances.”


Several of our best poets have expressed kinship with Hopper. In a journal entry collected in Journey Around My Room (ed. Ruth Limner, 1980), Louise Bogan writes:


“Edward Hopper’s ‘A Room in Brooklyn.’ A room my heart yearns to: uncurtained, hardly furnished, with a view over roofs. A clean bed, a bookcase, a kitchen, a calm mind, one or two half-empty rooms—all my life wants to achieve, and I have not yet achieved it.—I have tried too hard for the wrong things. If I would concentrate on getting the spare room, I could have it almost at once. . . . I must have it.”


Bogan’s reading of the painting is contrary to most understandings. She sees that clean, well-lighted place as a  sanctuary. In “American Light: A Hopper Retrospective” (Hello, Darkness: The Collected Poems of L.E. Sissman, 1978), Sissman describes “Sun in an Empty Room,” painted by Hopper four years before his death:


“[L]eaving 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.”


Hopper died on this date, May 15, in 1967, at age eighty-four.

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