Throughout the show there is a sense of an artist of immense ability and artistic ambition finding his way toward what was to become his signature voice and his special place in American art. One overall problem is that there are no prime examples of what we have learned to expect from Hopper — the presentation of a deeply dramatic sense of a moment, a poetic visual theater.
Looking at later paintings like the iconic diner scene in "Nighthawks" or the partial figure through the window in "Night Windows," which aren't in the exhibition, there are ordinary figures going about their quotidian affairs, haunted by a feeling that the edge of the existential abyss is just beyond what we can see. The psychological intensity is largely based in how Hopper handles light and shadow. There's a wide tonal range and specific details are either shadowed or brightly lit to give each scene its disquieting resonance.
For experienced Hopper watchers, this show is an education about how he continued to discover aspects of his own work that he could bring to something more emotionally and intellectually ambitious than what he saw in most of the painting of his day. He won through to his extraordinary understanding by hard work and, most likely, unswerving self-criticism. This important insight, however, would exist only for those who have a close familiarity with the major aspects of his mature body of work. The show's weakness is that it describes the road without revealing the destination.
Not that there aren't some fine paintings here. The large "Captain Upton's House" from 1927 is a fully realized work in what had become, by then, his signature method, perhaps developed in part by his Maine experience. The light and point of view make the building and its lighthouse seem more than real, as if it were building itself and its weather as we look at it. The little "Road in Maine," 1914, hints at a hidden mystery as the road curves around a rock outcropping, punctuated by telegraph poles without wire. The series of watercolors with drawing from 1926 depicting the gear and rigging on the deck of a beam trawler reflect the hard work and heavy weather that are part of life on such a vessel.
By the 1920s he was mastering the dramaturgical skills that would bring his work to a profound level of emotional veracity that has rarely been matched, and that he maintained for another forty years. His influence not only extended to painters like Rothko, but to filmmakers as diverse as Alfred Hitchcock, Wim Wenders, and Ridley Scott, and beyond — to Tom Waits, Madonna, and even Japanese animation. Part of his magic was his ability to be at once accessible and deep.
Another problematic issue that haunts this show is the basic question of organizing a show around geography. Hopper spent most of his life in New York and Truro, Massachusetts, but no matter. The museum has gone to some lengths, including an interactive map, to inform visitors where he went during his relatively short stays in Maine.