One scene from Wim Wenders’ recent film The End Of Violence meticulously recreates Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks”. Since much of Wenders’ violent vision of Los Angeles is filtered through the peeping electronic eyes of a network of surveillance cameras, this ought to evoke the Hopperesque sense of our being intruders when we enter into a painted scene.
Instead, Wenders’ appropriation of “Nighthawks” rings hollow, a conceit reflecting Hollywood’s love of both Hopper and classic film-noir, but confusing and conflating the two, as if the violence and powerlessness of that film genre were somehow Hopper’s too.
We know that Hopper and his wife Josephine were inveterate movie-goers. We know from Deborah Lyons’ research that Hopper began “Nighthawks” the day after seeing Burt Lancaster in Robert Siodmak's film of Hemingway’s The Killers. But knowing that is not, in itself, enough to transform Hopper into Norman Rockwell’s evil twin.
The editors of Edward Hopper And The American Imagination have made the same false connection. These stories, poems, and essays were either written with Hopper in mind or supposedly reflect the spirit of his work. Most, ranging from a 1940 story by Norman Mailer to an excerpt from Paul Auster’s Moon Palace, deal with bums, hobos, and stiffs, and have at least an undercurrent of overt violence. Grace Paley’s Italian cop shoots his adulterous wife, his kitchen and himself. Walter Mosley’s black youngster kills his retarded playmate. This is about as close to Hopper as the kitsch poster, “Boulevard of Broken Dreams”, which pre-empted Wenders and this book by inserting Elvis, Marilyn, Bogart, and James Dean into “Nighthawks”.
It's as if Hammett or Hemingway were filtered through the grist mill of 40s movies and 50s pulp novels, melodramatic in a way Hopper simply is not. Only James Salter’s story “Dusk” comes close, in its uncomfortable, awkward intimacy between two people still alone, and its imagery of light and shadow, to a Hopper scene.
No story rings as false, however, as Tess Gallagher’s “From Moss Light” an embarrassingly self-absorbed poem, inevitably recalling Raymond Carver. Lines as arch as “a woman fond of wearing hats opined, 'chic chapeau!'” hardly relate to Hopper, much less illuminate him. Hopper and the American Imagination?
John Hollander’s poem, suggesting Hopper as abstract painter, throws some light on reality, and the non-fiction is far more telling than the fiction. Gail Levin’s essay on contemporary artists influenced by Hopper makes a similar, well-drawn comparison with Richard Diebenkorn, who has learned framing from the way Hopper uses architecture, both inside and out. Leonard Michaels’ essay on “New York Movie” compares Hopper to Wallace Stevens’ “plain sense of things”. A more interesting match might be Charles Ives. Both men have 20th century minds trapped in 19th century souls, and Hopper often seems to play awkwardly with the shapes of the visibly modern world. Though neither Ives nor Stevens was a full time artist.
There's another difference: Ives drew inspiration from his wife, Harmony, while Ed and Jo apparently waged lifelong battle. Yet it is to Jo that we owe the ledgers which are reproduced in Edward Hopper: A Journal Of His Work. Hopper provides a proportional sketch of each painting, and lists, in his spare handwriting, the materials used. Beneath, in her flowery, expressive hand, Jo describes each painting, and its disposition. Her descriptions belie the melodrama some read into his work. Jo may reserve some bitchy vitriol for Ed’s female figures, or the way they dress, but the paintings ARE the stories.
One of the things that attracts us to Hopper is the way his paintings leave themselves open to our imaginations. This is inevitable, given how his art insists on each object, including people, establishing its own space. He is a painter of distances: we look into scenes from odd angles, then discover light coming from two directions at once. Light does more than create mood; Hopper manipulates it to establish the relation between all the objects he paints. The two-dimensional sketches in the Journal make this obvious. This is why he has inspired generations of movie art directors and cameramen. But compare the figures in “Nighthawks” with the faces inside the diner in The Killers and you’ll see why the “mean streets” approach to Hopper is a dead end.
`It is also why Hopper’s people stand alone, each the start of a lonely crowd. The 1981 film Heartbeat used Hopper's vision to give Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady a backdrop for their now-iconic search for America. The essential emptiness of the wide-open highway and the loneliness of the places it leads to is more Hopperesque than anything in Edward Hopper And The American Imagination is able to suggest. Thankfully the Journal is here to remind us of that.
EDWARD HOPPER AND THE AMERICAN IMAGINATION
edited by Deborah Lyons and Adam Weinberg
Norton/Whitney Museum, 253pp, £18.95 (paper)
EDWARD HOPPER: A JOURNAL OF HIS WORK
edited by Deborah Lyons and Brian O’Doherty
Norton/Whitney Museum 104pp facsimile edition, £17.95