New York Movie, 1939, Oil on canvas, 32.25 x 40.125 approx (81.9 x 101.9cm), Museum of Modern Art, New York City (Not on view)
My desktop wallpaper is a copy of Edward Hopper’s New York Movie from 1939. I changed it in honor of the birthday of this blog begun on October 11, 2010. In that first post I wrote about Hopper’s The Automat. I had no particularly clear image of how to approach a column then. I didn’t know how to get decent pictures of the paintings I wanted to discuss. I didn’t know how to generate traffic (still don’t). I just knew I wanted to learn to do a new thing and since I knew so little about art, I thought this would be an excellent place to start.
And so having stumbled through a whole year of weekly blogs I return to tip my hat one last time to Mr. Hopper who is pretty much always a treat.
Hopper kept meticulous records of how he approached his major works. We know from these records that he worked on over fifty sketches coming up with this little tableau. The copy I’ve shown above is taken from The Archive, but it differs considerably from the image we find at MOMA which you can see below. I have to believe the MOMA image is more faithful to the painting, but I can’t very well run down to take a look, and even if I could, they’ve got it tucked away somewhere.
One of the saddest things to learn when you begin to explore art is how many fantastic works are simply unavailable to view. There is something wrong with a culture that lets me buy the entire run of Dark Shadows on DVD but hides a work by one of our greatest artists. I realize there is just so much wall space in the world and museums have to cycle stuff around to keep themselves fresh but still, shouldn’t we have figured this out by now? (I saw a display at a major museum where the artist had knocked several holes in a wall with, I guess, a sledgehammer, had hung great stenciled letters reading “King Kong” on the wall, and scattered a bunch of children’s toys along the floor in front. “Poignant,” “Deep,” and “Intellectual” were all words that did not occur to me as I considered how much nicer that wall would have looked with Hopper on it.)
It is 1939 and the focus of our attention is, as often in a Hopper painting, on a woman who is alone. Her uniform is stiff blue, perhaps woolen or heavy canvas-like cotton that would wear well in the winter cold. She holds a flashlight in her left hand. She holds her right hand to her face. There are few patrons in the theater, which leads us to suspect it is a midweek matinee. Movies enjoyed large crowds even through the Great Depression because they were cheap and helped people get away from their troubles for a little while. But by 1939 jobs were picking up and so there are fewer people for the matinee today.
Our usher stands in a small, lighted alcove arranged to keep its light from annoying the customers. Stairs promise upward to her right leading to the balcony, and beyond to the projection booth. There are emergency stairs to the left of the screen (our right) up front which lead outside. To get out of the theater you have to go that way, you have to go to the front where everyone can see you leaving.
I know what she’s thinking because I can’t help but know; I have been there, too, with my Deep South hunger to be shuck of this town, this life, this nothing and become something else, something that drives itself from the force of its own talent and intellect. Look at her face. She is running lines to herself. That’s right. She is an actress, and when she is not an usher, when she is free of this heavy, starchy uniform she is graceful and sophisticated. Look at her shoes, how stylish they are. From here she slips into a smart little number and goes straight from the cinema to her audition knowing this time she will click, this time she will score a featured role with lines and a little bio on the left hand of the program beneath the ad for Forsyth’s Candy Store. She is going to be a star, can’t you tell? She stands in the soft glow of a loving spotlight, her moment in the theater, with a promise that everything, everything is up from here, that there are greater heights than even she with her Kansas City hunger might have dreamed.
It has to work. Because otherwise, she would have to give it up, this thing that everybody already knows is her most precious dream. That would break her heart. She would have to slip into the auditorium and make her way to the front, to the exit, to the outside. Right in front of everybody. And the saddest thing, the one that would hurt the most, is that their eyes, the eyes of this audience, of all the audiences there are in the world would never leave the screen. Would never, even now, turn to her.
No one would see her go.
Compartment C, Car 293, Oil on Canvas 20 x 18″ (50.8 x 45.72cm) IBM Corp.