One of the things I find bothersome in our modern culture is the Rachel Ray syndrome, the one where someone speaks in an overly theatrical, exaggerated manner that sounds about as genuine as an upper crust British accent in the mouth of a West Virginia coal miner. Rachel may be a fine lady but she gushes way too much, and it always rings false to my ear.
This is not a thing we have to worry about with Hopper or his characters. Part of what makes his work so compelling is the complete lack of theatricality in his people, even when they are in the theater. They are presented as off the cuff, normal, banal. But it is a studied and artistic banality to which we respond without thinking. These are our kind, he is saying, these are our places, and somehow, by magic, he implies an epic sweep of emotion and drama and peril that appears in no way or form on the canvas. Directors of cinema, envious of his technique, have consciously and deliberately emulated his style of lighting and blocking to heighten tension within quiet, solitary scenes.
For his part, Hopper always denied that his pictures were anything other than what they appeared. When people invented back stories for his tableau he accused them of trying to “Norman Rockwell” his work. He believed that the viewer should decide his own opinion of art and should defend his view fervently, particularly if it ran counter to common opinion: “…Else tomorrow a stranger will say with masterly good sense precisely what we have thought and felt all the time, and we shall be forced with shame to take our opinion from another.”
He was a man who was hyper-conscious of his surroundings and his time. He lived in an apartment building off Washington Square in New York City that had known two of “the Eight” as tenants (Ernest Lawson and William Glackens), where Thomas Eakins (an artist Hopper much admired) had lived and worked, where Henry James had been born “…next door at No. 2,” The Dial was born there, E. E. Cummings and John Dos Passos both lived there for a while. The writer and artist Brian O’Doherty (to whom I owe all my best Hopper quotes and details) reports that Hopper protected his building from his enemy, New York University, which “…wanted to engulf it.” (It’s amazing how long famous New Yorkers have spent hating New York University for one thing and another. Fran Liebowitz is only one of the latest.)
Ach, I am getting off track here.
Here’s the long and the short of it. Hopper saved my life. Hopper helped me find my way back to myself. Hopper made the doing of something, the creative act, a pleasure for me again.
Hopper’s last painting, done about a year before his death, is of a pair of clowns taking their applause from an unseen audience. Hopper and his wife, saying goodbye. They were in their eighties. He died first and she followed ten months later staying behind just long enough to tidy up his affairs.
I said the last time I would do no more Hopper columns except the interludes and I say it again this time, too. I am notoriously unreliable.
This is the 100th column of the Automat. It has gone from being virtually unread to being the first choice for those who wish to crib their art papers from the internet. I want to thank all my readers for their support over the last two years. I am just warming up.