Edward Hopper Drawing - The Whitney

Silly me, thinking this exhibition would consist "only" of drawings.

Yes, these do constitute the emphasis; after all the exhibition claims to be the first major museum exhibition to focus on the artist's drawings and his process, a process to which the drawings themselves are essential. Many of the displayed works derive from the Whitney's own collection, a bequest of Hopper's widow (who is also the subject and/or model for many). The exhibition is arranged thematically, with galleries focusing on a particular overarching topic—the road, the office, the bedroom, Hopper's years in Paris—radiating around a central gallery more specifically articulating his techniques and artistic development. As such, the display makes clear how Hopper returned to favored themes throughout his career, amassing stores of sketches to serve as visual resources he could continually mine for inspiration.

Images courtesy Whitney website unless otherwise noted.

Hopper's drawings are, however, by no means the only works on view. In fact, the entire point of the show is to illustrate how the act of drawing informs Hopper's broader output. The "Parisian" gallery, for instance, makes this mode of working abundantly clear. Hopper's numerous sketches populate a case in the center of the gallery, while more fully realized and colored characters, along with a few oil paintings, grace the walls. His delightful caricatures enchant, and reminded me of animation stills I have seen. It is very clear how these characters could and did become subjects in Hopper's final paintings. Note the man in the lower left corner of Soir Bleu (lower left). He appears nearby in an individual portrait entitled Le Maquereau ("The Pimp"), and also, perhaps, in "Couple Drinking" (below right).

Soir Bleu, 1914. Oil on canvas. 36 x 72 inches. Whitney Museum of American Art, Josephine N. Hopper Bequest 70.1208.
Couple Drinking, 1906-07. Transparent and opaque watercolor, graphite pencil, and fabricated chalk on paper. 13.5 x 19.88 inches. Whitney Museum of American Art, Josephine N. Hopper Bequest 70.1340.

The exhibition's pairing of preparatory sketches and studies with final (often quite famous) paintings forms a progression that allows us to witness Hopper grappling with general aspects of composition as well as very specific elements, like the angle at which a hand holds a cigarette. The juxtaposition permits viewers a much greater appreciation of Hopper's approach. Seeing all 19 known drawings for Hopper's famous Nighthawks was for me like being granted top-secret access to an initial storyboard design for a much-loved movie. Here detailed notations on salt shakers and coffee urns, there the angle of a man's hat, and one study that—while sketchily rendered—fully evokes the singular atmosphere of the final piece. In a seemingly contradictory manner, he was very concerned with detail, but not with confining himself to the authenticity of a particular moment in time. The curator's identify this combination—the imaginative filtering of Hopper's memory with his deliberate selection of component parts—as the source of his works' poetic qualities.

Study for Nighthawks, 1941 or 1942. Fabricated chalk and charcoal on paper, 11.13 x 14 inches. Whitney Museum of American Art, purchase and gift of Josephine N. Hopper by exchange 2011.65

I am far from alone in recognizing a cinematic tone in many of Hopper's works. Indeed this comparison forms the basis for the narrative in the next gallery which, not coincidentally, centers around Hopper's painting of, well, a movie theater. Or rather, an usherette in a movie theater. And the light in the movie theater. Here again we find a wide array of related works, beginning with Hopper's exploration of various venues to decide on a locale for his final piece. The accompanying wall text and archival photos demonstrate how faithfully Hopper' rendered several New York theaters, as well as the usherette's uniform. Additional works on display reveal how Hopper clarified his composition, while still others record particularities as specific as the details on the subject's shoes (below left).

New York Movie, 1939. Oil on canvas, 32.25 x 40 inches. The Museum of Modern Art, 396.1941.
New York Movie, 1939. Oil on canvas, 32.25 x 40 inches. The Museum of Modern Art, 396.1941.

The exhibition's inclusion of archival references increases both its interest and its depth. In the previous gallery, one wall panel launches into Operation Find the Nighthawks. This panel investigates several locations that potentially inspired the painting's setting, and presents them along with a map and vintage photographs (below). Ultimately conjecturing that the gallery at the corner of the Flatiron building was "it," the Whitney installed a recreation of the famous painting in its windows at 5th Avenue and Broadway. I wish the show had mentioned this, or perhaps it did and I missed it, but I'm glad I chanced upon a mention of this extension of the show in The Gallerist!

Archival photographs and map indicating potential sites of inspiration for Nighthawks. Image by the author.

This identification of a particular site is just one instance of several in the show. In a gallery presenting the painting The Williamsburg Bridge, the wall text references an archival photo of the original buildings, which Hopper apparently included in the only other exhibition ever to delve into his process. I would have liked to have seen that particular photo, but I loved that these resources were provided elsewhere. The exhibition's website provides even more; you can select a painting and view associated studies, and in some instances viewers can also see several related photographs from the collection of the New York Historical Society. (Click the "See the Studies" box on the upper right corner of the website, or follow this link.) I also really like that the website explains the decisions behind its design: the display order reflects the chronological trajectory of the works. The online portion of the exhibition also includes the audio guide stops, for those of us who did not partake on site, and I believe even provides additional audio material. All of these aspects constitute an excellent use of the website to "show more," to expand beyond what one can view in the exhibition proper.

And talk about process! The Whitney offers us an opportunity to literally stand in Hopper's place in front of the well-known work Early Sunday Morning. The painting sits—unframed and au natural!—upon Hopper's own easel (which he built himself and used for more than forty years). This was for me perhaps the most thrilling moment of the show, a chance to see the familiar work anew, and moreover from the artist's own vantage point. You are Hopper—Where would you keep your brushes? Your palette?

Early Sunday Morning (1930) atop Hopper's own easel. Image by the author.

In its exploration of Hopper's work this show presents throughout a variety of strokes, textures, and media cohesively held together by the thematic groupings and the consistent investigation of studies versus paintings. It really encourages close looking on behalf of the viewer—how is this composition different from the final version? How does this detailed sketch of a subject's face compare to the version displayed at left, to the painting on the right?

A few factors, however, disrupted the hyper-focused inspection the exhibition otherwise encouraged. The lack of a significant line for Pay What You Wish Friday was misleading; it was, of course, crazy crowded. Early on a staff member approached me to take a quick survey. Museums, I will always take your surveys. I know how crucial they are to your understanding your audience and gauging their perceptions and needs. Yes. This particular questionnaire concerned the use of digital photography in the galleries, inquiring whether I knew I could take pictures in the special exhibitions and asking if I would share them via social media outlets. I must say, had it not been for this encouragement, I would never have taken so many pictures, even had I already known it was permitted. And perhaps neither would have everyone else, which would have been a very good thing. From the time I answered the question "does taking photos impact your visit positively or negatively"—Positively!—to the time I completed the exhibition, my answer changed completely. In this I do not except my own behavior; pleased as I am to have a few mementos (and I did share them, too), taking pictures ultimately proved a massive distraction from appreciating the works at hand.

One of the many photos I took with my cell phone. Image by the author.

In many ways, then, this exhibition offered a valuable and enjoyable learning experience, even for a viewer like myself who has seen numerous Hopper exhibitions. As it promises, the show is truly the first of its kind, in no small part due to what the website describes as the "groundbreaking archival research into the buildings, spaces, and urban environments that inspired [Hopper's] work." I'm thinking I'll seek out the Flatiron installation, and perhaps mount my own sketching expedition (not exhibition) in the Village this week. I may even hunt down the location of Early Sunday Morning and see how it looks on, say, a late Monday afternoon.

Hopper Drawing is on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art from May 23 — October 26, 2013. The museum's address is 945 Madison Avenue at 75th Street, and it is open Wed-Sun from 11am-6pm, on Fridays 11am-9pm. General admission is $18, $14 for ages 19-25, seniors/65 and over, and full-time students. Ages 18 and under are admitted free. Fridays are pay-what-you-wish from 6pm-9pm.

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