Visions of isolation

By GREG COOK  |  May 2, 2007

Hopper spent his winters in a fourth-floor apartment in Greenwich Village, but he bought land on which to build a house in Truro in 1933, and he summered there most every year for the rest of his life. Although he traveled across New England, New Mexico, South Carolina, California, and Mexico looking for subjects, his focus is manmade landscapes. Paintings of roads rolling over Cape Cod’s windswept dunes and sturdy Maine lighthouses speak of taming nature.

His New York is all rusty rooftop pipes and chimneys, the girders and trusses of bridges, sickly-green electric lights. He increasingly focuses on oil painting. And people begin to appear in invented scenes that hint at mysterious stories we can’t quite puzzle out. They’re inspired by movies and plays and memories of places glimpsed during walks and train rides. His vantage point is often high, from a building or an El train, peeping into windows across the way or down to the street below. He loves doors and windows, where inside meets outside.

Women are the stars, usually in tight outfits or scantily clad, energizing canvases with their sexuality, their vulnerability, their unattainableness. Like the woman in the 1944 Morning in City, they appear alone, exhausted and sad, hardened by life, staring out the open windows of cheap apartments and hotel rooms. He spies couples alienated from each other in claustrophobic Manhattan apartments. In Automat (1927), a woman sits by herself at a restaurant table at night, nursing a cup of coffee or tea. In New York Movie (1939), a bored usherette leans against a wall of a grand, velvety movie palace. To the left, a man and a woman sit alone together in the darkness, escaping into a Hollywood fantasy.

Hopper’s extraordinary 1929 canvas Chop Suey seems to catch two women in cloche hats during a pause in their conversation over tea in a second-floor Chinese restaurant. Gold late-day light slants in past the flashing “SUEY” sign outside. All the dynamic opposing angles give the composition a jazzy fractured Cubist vibe. And, wow, the colors — reds, oranges, and yellows punctuated by one woman’s form-fitting green sweater.

He returns to this red-green combo again and again, and that includes his 1942 masterpiece Nighthawks, the famous scene of four alienated people trapped in a No Exit diner. The restaurant is an oasis of acid artificial light on a deserted midnight Manhattan corner. A couple sit together at one end of the counter ignoring each other. Around the corner a guy sits alone, with his back to us. The counter man keeps himself busy at the right. Any conversation seems to have gone dead. The air is thick with dread, like the moment before everything goes wrong in a film noir.

At the height of Abstract Expressionism in the 1950s, Hopper seemed an anachronism, but today he’s clearly part of the American Scene realism that includes documentary photography by Dorothea Lange, Robert Frank, and Stephen Shore. And he comes into focus as godfather to the staged photos of Cindy Sherman, Jeff Wall, and Gregory Crewdson.

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