CUBIST IN DISGUISE?
"Edward Hopper," June 7-Dec. 3, 2006, at the Whitney Museum of American Art, 945 Madison Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10028.
There’s been much talk about the moody silences of Hopper’s spaces and the oddly disturbed figures around or in them -- they seem to be living the lives of quiet desperation of which Thoreau spoke. But I suggest that the people are distractions from Hopper’s real concern: buildings. They abound in Hopper’s works, often dwarfing the figures into insignificance -- Night Shadows (1921) is a characteristic example -- or using them as foils to offset structure and space. Buildings are man-made constructions of geometrical space, and as such inherently abstract and autonomous. They have a charismatic quality of their own, independently of the people who use them. Hopper is a kind of Cubist, treating buildings as abstract structures with a life of their own, and often more uncannily alive than the people who use them.
Cubism was in part inspired by Cézanne’s "little cubes," as Picasso called the buildings that spotted Cézanne’s late landscapes. They are the point of departure for the cunning geometry of the buildings in Picasso’s early Analytic Cubist masterpieces, for example, Reservoir, Horta del Ebro (1908) and Houses on the Hill, Horta del Ebro (1909). Hopper’s houses also have the authority of geometry, but they look peculiarly irrational next to Picasso’s Cubist houses, which, for all their oddness, have a quasi-Bauhaus look, although they’re eccentrically rather than dogmatically rationalist.
Hopper’s houses are also recognizable as functional buildings inhabitable by human beings. Picasso’s aren’t: they have no human function. They’re pure abstractions, formal constructions which seem to have no human significance. Picasso’s constructions are not buildings in the everyday practical sense: they are a sort of "archisculpture," to use Markus Brüderlin’s cogent term for modernist buildings that blur the boundary between functional architecture and abstract sculpture. The more they read as abstract sculpture, as Picasso’s structures do, the less humanly purposeful they are. Modern rationalist architecture is in fact not very functional, if part of its function is to emotionally support people, not simply to physically contain them.
Hopper’s buildings may read as Cubist archisculptures, but they clearly have psychosocial import. Hopper registers their effect on the people who live and work in them: his buildings raise the pressing question of when a house becomes a home -- an empathic place, more humanly meaningful than an abstract castle. The answer, Hopper’s pictures imply, is never: the fit between his buildings and his people is not very good.
His huge office buildings and endless row houses infect his people with their anonymity and banality, belittling, deadening and isolating them. The people seem to embody the buildings. Only Hopper’s women show flickers of erotic aliveness -- his men are emotionally inert -- as the red in which they are often dressed, when not naked, suggests. But the unsettling presence of the erotically anxious women does nothing to break the fatal spell of the buildings. Indifference is built into their anonymity and banality, evoking abandonment and alienation, explicit in the void that haunts Hopper’s pictures. The incommensurateness -- or ironical commensurateness -- of the anonymous and banal modern environment and the human beings who exist in it, and unwittingly become as anonymous and banal as it, is Hopper’s basic psychosocial theme. Hopper’s office buildings and domestic housing are hardly what D. W. Winnicott calls life-facilitating environments, suggesting that death lurks in them, as Hopper’s zombies confirm.
I think that Hopper displaced Cubism onto the familiar lifeworld, with its familiar structures, experiencing them as abstract constructions to convey the sense of alienation implicit in Cubism. He did not become a pure abstractionist because he wanted to make the alienation socially explicit. He’s a sort of late Cubist, ironically returning to the emotional sense of Cubism to show its social truthfulness. In this he resembles Sheeler, but Sheeler saw beauty in his alienated buildings -- modern constructions -- as though alienation could be converted into detachment by giving it esthetic purpose. Sheeler also viewed ordinary structures as Cubist-type constructions, that is, arrangements of interactive planes forming three-dimensional spaces, the esthetics of their self-presentation complicated by the sunlight and shadow that fall on them.
It was not that Hopper and Sheeler rejected the so-called de-familiarizing effect that began with Cubism, but rather that they found the so-called familiar world inherently unfamiliar when looked at carefully: they discovered that it makes uncommon sense. Nor were they against "formalism," but found pure form everywhere, which is why they didn’t bother to apotheosize it in art. For them the abstract and the real converged. Indeed, they were somehow the same. The absurd deconstructions of Analytic Cubism and the ironical reconstructions of Synthetic Cubism were beside the artistic point, which was to see the abstract in the real and the real in the abstract while maintaining the integrity of both. This was precise observational sense: to elevate abstract structure at the expense of the objective reality in which it seemed to be embedded was to betray their reciprocity in esthetic perception. For Hopper, the complete separation of the real and the abstract, and the depreciation of realistic representation and the elevation of pure abstraction as the be-all and end-all of art -- its transcendental fundament, so to speak -- was not the advance in artistic wisdom the modernists claimed it to be. It was an unwitting artistic decadence, a dubious Solomon’s wisdom, for it destroyed what Kandinsky called the "welcome complementation of the abstract by means of the objective and vice versa."
The "ultimate ideal," as he said, is their "absolute equilibrium," and we see that in Hopper’s pictures. It is the "ever-varying balancing act" between "the ‘purely artistic’ and ‘objective’," to again use Kandinsky’s words, in Hopper’s pictures, that gives them an Old Master consummateness, suggesting the inadequacy of purely abstract or (social) realistic art. Both are one-sided, and because of that lost their vitality and became self-stereotyping, that is, dead-end mannerisms. Hopper’s pictures are not products of the mass culture industry, which is what a good deal of contemporary abstraction and realism, with their brittle flashiness, seem to be.
The House by the Railroad (1925) is an uncanny construction, at once commonsensically real and perversely abstract. Its flat walls are enlivened by ornamental shapes. The building is an ironical Cubist sculpture on a railroad track pedestal as well as a symbol of alienation by reason of its isolation. Hopper is drawn to the modern mix of pseudo-pure geometrical form and desolate environment, as Sunday and Manhattan Bridge and Lily Apartments (both 1926) suggest. The curb and the bridge railing have the same function as the railroad track. They are horizontal stages for ironically "uplifting" constructions. Pure abstraction and psychosocial alienation -- embodied by the lonely figure in Sunday, a pathetic non-person symbolizing mass man -- coincide for Hopper, even as he cherishes the spontaneous appearance of the expressively abstract in dull social reality.
Hopper is an ironical intimatist, perhaps most obviously in his interiors. They are as geometrically barren and alienating as his exteriors. Intimacy is impossible in them, only loneliness, as the figures who pass through them -- often leaving their luggage unpacked -- suggest. The interiors convey the false intimacy of mass culture. It involves the need for the organically exciting and enlivening -- and the socially perverse transformation of it into boring lifeless kitsch almost as soon as it is experienced. This expressive reduction is evident in the fake ornament and homogenizing color that routinely adorn Hopper’s buildings and rooms. They are deceptive tokens of superficial difference on indifferent facades. There is no escape from life-draining anonymity and banality in Hopper’s world. There is only false uniqueness hiding radical sameness.
The City (1927) and Early Sunday Morning (1930) are perhaps the classic examples. Sometimes the human beings are "decorative" devices, as in Tables for Ladies (1930) and The Barber Shop (1931). Is the former a reprise of Degas’s Bar at the Follies Bergere, the latter of a Vermeer? Tradition haunts Hopper’s art, for traditional artists never separated the abstract from the real, indeed, they eloquently integrated them, paradoxically giving them more artistic space to exist on their own. In traditional art abstraction and realism become innovative because they maintain their inner connection.
Expressive planarity dominates Hotel Room (1931) and Room in New York (1932). Female or male, Hopper’s figures are social puppets, although his women seem to be looking for a way to cut their strings. Life has subsided in all of them, however much it may still flicker in the females. Or rather it has moved into the planes -- the dead walls that become planes of living light in the Hotel Room, and Office at Night (1940). The wall planes are clearly much more intimate and vibrant than the people.
Mrs. Scott’s House (1932) and House on Pamet River (1934) are complicated angular and planar constructions. Their isolation affirms their esthetic autonomy and tragic import. Gas (1940) is a construction of dark and light planes, with a row of decorative gas pumps, ironically with the same sexy redness as the woman’s dresses. Signs of passion appear like rashes in many of Hopper’s pictures, signaling the passion for life that has been socially stifled. Nighthawks (1942) is also a construction of dark and light planes, ingeniously converging in the triangle in which the figures seem trapped, as though in the vice of an hourglass. They pass time, not knowing they are in a timeless pyramid. As always, Hopper’s geometry has more presence than his people, not only because geometry is eternal and people are transient -- Hopper’s people always seem to be passing through rooms and buildings (which will outlast them), temporary guests with no permanent home, suggesting their own impermanence -- but because Hopper gives geometry a sensory power that his people can never have. In contrast to his hollow men and almost hollow women, Hopper’s geometrical space is a zone of esthetic plenitude.
The troubled woman in A Woman in the Sun (1961) lacks the emotional charge of the plane of light in which she stands, or for that matter of the wall planes in indirect light. Similarly, there is more expressive power in the bay window in which the woman in Cape Cod Morning (1950) stands and the picture window which the woman in Western Motel (1957) sits in front of than in their bodies. They all look out, in expectation of they know not what -- escape from the room and house, a passionate lover to rescue them from their isolation, the liberated self they never were? They are a small part of the enormous geometrical space that can exist without them. It is another realm of being -- perhaps superior by reason of its unconcern, implicit in its sterile abstractness. Is Hopper enacting the modern debate between the abstract and the real? Or is he announcing their stalemate?
Similarly, the People in the Sun (1960) lack the intensity of the luminous flat plane on which their sun chairs rest and the blue plane of sky they face, and even the bit of wall plane of the building behind them. They are trivial compared to the geometry. The man reading may have an interior life, but it seems shallow compared to the emotional depth invested in the surrounding planes. Second-story Sunlight (1960) makes it clear that Hopper prefers the extraordinary emotion generated by geometry -- even simple planar geometry, its surface covered with uniform color to make its flatness emphatic -- to ordinary human emotions. Geometry is everywhere, and so are people, but the former affords what Malevich called non-objective emotion, with its sense of transcendence of objective reality, which no person can ever arouse, for people are all too real, even when they as futile and defeated as Hopper’s people. Hopper’s buildings are as iconic as Malevich’s square, if not as purely abstract. They are ironically abstract, for Hopper never forgets the devastating effect of the abstract environment on the modern human beings who have created it.
DONALD KUSPIT is professor of art history and philosophy at SUNY Stony Brook and A.D. White professor at large at Cornell University.