The Glimpse and the Gaze

Edward Hopper’s New York at the Whitney Museum of American Art focuses on the artist’s personal view of the metropolis.

By James D. Balestrieri

“Edward Hopper’s New York” is the absolute right title for the new exhibition of the American master’s work now on view at the Whitney Museum of American Art. Underscoring every theme in the show—“show,” as in reveal, or as in a stage play, or as opposed to “tell”—that’s another concept to explore as we go—is a single observation: Edward Hopper’s New York isn’t New York. It’s the artist’s vision of the city that was, is, and was becoming, as seen through his desires and anxieties. I went right for psychology there, didn’t I? And isn’t that what we think of Hopper’s New York, that it’s a city filled with haunted, isolated individuals, people pent up with desire in a city that wants to deny them and grind them down? Our idea of American urban modernity—as alienation, as loneliness—is intricately, and intimately, bound with Hopper’s imagery. And yet, as I went through the images and read the essays in the catalogue, I was struck by the very real possibility that this thesis—an assumption, really, that New York is a character, an antagonist—is at odds with the truth.

Room in New York, 1932. Oil on canvas, 29 x 36 in.
Sheldon Museum of Art, University of Nebraska—Lincoln. Anna R. and Frank M. Hall Charitable Trust. © 2022 Heirs of Josephine N. Hopper/Licensed by Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

What if we choose to see Hopper’s buildings as buildings—apartments, offices, theaters, neighborhoods—rather than as metaphors for mental prisons of our own making, sites of repression and repositories of dashed dreams? What if Hopper’s New York is a city that runs beside the city that humans inhabit and traverse? Old buildings and new, short buildings and tall, ornate dowagers alongside sleek deco towers—imagine these as characters, ever-shifting, erected, bustling, remodeled, neglected, demolished—characters constituting a city of their own. Perhaps Hopper saw buildings the way Thomas Cole saw trees, not as emblematic of a forest, but as individuals with personalities and story arcs. It’s a worthwhile exercise, one that compels us to set aside any knee-jerk interpretation of urban alienation and reexamine the formal structures in Hopper’s paintings: point-of-view, juxtaposition, light, color and shadow, the forms beside and within forms, the frames within frames. Voyeurism, for example, is an oft-studied theme in Hopper, but this complex psychological idea, in Hopper’s work, is entirely dependent on his construction of spaces we look into, windows we look through—even when we can’t see their frames—and spaces we look from.

Hopper’s influence, however you look at his work, is pervasive. For example, even if caped crusaders aren’t your thing, the cinematography, art direction, and direction in the new film The Batman are a feast for the eye of the Hopper fan. Mixing contemporary looks with a Hopperesque, film noir aesthetic, one scene stands out. We are standing outside, looking in through the rain-streaked window of a corner diner with a rounded window, outlined in blue neon in a nod to Hopper’s Nighthawks, one of the most reproduced, parodied and honored paintings in American art. A solitary figure, the villain, sits hunched over at the counter, seen through The Batman’s eyes. Then, in a moment reminiscent of Hopper’s Automat, we’re looking out, through the villain’s eyes, at the Batman, whose face is obscured by the film noir rain beading the windows. Hopper’s paintings give us—the viewer, the voyeur—a certain corporeality. Darby English’s extended, beautifully written mediation—“Hopper’s Welcome”—on the artist’s unpeopled nocturne, Drug Store, elucidates the viewer’s awareness of self and body in Hopper’s work. We know where we are, so we know that we are, that we exist. Who we are is another question. Contrary, however, to conventional, art historical thinking, Hopper’s solitary, introspective figures, as English conceives them, implicate rather than alienate, making us aware of our own bodies—our forms—in his urban spaces.

Approaching a City, 1946. Oil on canvas, 27 1⁄18 x 36 in.
The Phillips Collection, Washington, D.C., acquired 1947, © 2022 Heirs of Josephine N. Hopper/Licensed by Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

The final shot from The Batman scene places us on a nearby rooftop—also one of Hopper’s favorite subjects—looking down on two lit windows: the diner and the villain’s apartment, now crawling with cops, and The Batman. The shot is a kind of nocturnal take on the right half of Hopper’s 1927 painting, The City, reversed in the film. Kim Conaty’s catalogue essay, “Approaching a City: Hopper and New York” describes The City as “a condensation of views and distinct buildings, not all of which were drawn from existing structures. Rather, it serves as a ‘digest of urban architecture,’ as one art historian has aptly described the range of 19th– and early 20th-century styles (Federal, Gilded Age, modern) brought together to emphasize the ad hoc nature of New York’s built environment.” Second Empire, Beaux-arts buildings sit across the street from modern, glass-fronted Art Deco skyscrapers, a street overarched by the Elevated train. In Hopper, it’s always the El, never the subway; the El allows him, and us, those glimpses through windows, glimpses that become gazes on canvas.

The Batman’s Gotham isn’t New York, it’s Hopper’s New York, through the rain-slicked eternal gloom of a film noir night.

It’s ironic, and the exhibition makes this clear, that while we think of Hopper’s paintings as images of American urban modernity, the artist himself was more of an antiquarian, often horrified—a bit like H.P. Lovecraft during his brief New York sojourn—especially as regards the indiscriminate destruction of “old” New York. Hopper himself, along with his wife, Jo—who was also a fine artist—lived in an old building overlooking Washington Square and had to fight to remain there against the modernization of the neighborhood and New York University’s expanding need for real estate.

Morning Sun, 1952. Oil on canvas, 28 1⁄8 x 40 1⁄8 in.
Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio. Museum Purchase, Howald Fund. © 2022 Heirs of Josephine N. Hopper/Licensed by Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Even more ironic, and astonishing, is the revelation from the show catalogue that Hopper himself said, “I just never cared for the vertical.” The Whitney’s most celebrated Hopper, Early Sunday Morning, epitomizes Hopper’s admission. As the exhibition avers, Hopper’s New York is a “horizontal city.” The row of shops with apartments above is a nod to the city’s past, and to “the surface of the earth,” that, according to Jo, Hopper preferred. All but unnoticed is the small square of skyscraper at upper right, a glimpse of the future edging into the present in order, eventually, to edge out the past.

Glimpse. The glimpse that becomes the gaze. Gaze swings us back to psychology, but of the Lacanian variety—as opposed to the Freudian—where the “gaze” is an attempt to dominate and define an object of desire through the eye. The voyeurism of The Batman back forms into the Hitchcockian nosiness of Rear Window, where voyeurism can’t be helped when people are packed so closely together, living their private lives in public, as it were.

As in Rear Window, Hopper turns every window into a proscenium. Windows seen from the El, from without, from above, from below. Even when we are inside a room, he typically shows us the frame, combining inside and outside, as in Morning Sun or Office in a Small City, or simply showing us an edge, a limit to our view, as in New York Interior or Room in New York. Whatever stories those works conjure, the frame within the frame lets us know that we are the ones writing the scripts. The glimpse becomes the gaze, but the gaze is an illusion, arising from our desire for a narrative that we must acknowledge as our own. The paintings themselves not only don’t tell a story, but they also deliberately resist any specific narrative.

Queensborough Bridge, 1913. Oil on canvas, 25 7⁄8 x 38 1⁄8 in.
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Josephine N. Hopper Bequest 70.1184. © 2022 Heirs of Josephine N. Hopper/Licensed by Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

The Hoppers loved the theater and went often. yet Hopper had no interest in painting the action onstage or backstage—as, say, Reginald Marsh or Don Freeman did. For Hopper, those in the audience are the players, enacting unwritten scripts—at least three: one in their reality, one in their minds and one in ours—as they wait for the curtain to rise. A 1937 canvas, The Sheridan Theatre, makes the curve of the upper balcony the central element. At left, an usher greets two theatergoers, while a woman at right looks down towards the stage. Each individual is a world, a universe. The sweep of the curved balcony, dark archways, ceiling lights, banister and the green carpet take us from the curve of the heavens to the grass beneath our feet—all artifices, of course, all aspects of the theatrical aesthetic that wants to transport the audience to another world.

There are cities within cities within cities. Recent novels, such as China Mieville’s The City and the City in which two cities, through an anomaly in physics occupy the same geographical space, and Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, where another, darker, dangerous and more adventurous London thrives beneath and beside the quotidian city build on the idea that other “cities” exist alongside the one we make, and that make us. Hopper’s New York isn’t New York in a host of ways. There are no people of color in his paintings, no children nor much evidence of the elderly. His figures are white, middle class figures, in late youth or middle-age. And there are no crowds.

Today, of course, life is also lived online, in cities we create on various virtual platforms. As if we are the forlorn old buildings in Hopper’s paintings, or the people in them whose introspection often seems like isolation, online life makes it seem as though there’s another world where everyone is happy and accomplished and always on vacation. The truth of this folds and refolds “Edward Hopper’s New York” into new layers and makes his work even more relevant.

Automat, 1927. Oil on canvas, 28 1⁄8 x 35 in.
Des Moines Art Center, Des Moines, Iowa. Purchased with funds from the Edmundson Art Foundation, Inc. © 2022 Heirs of Josephine N. Hopper/Licensed by Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photograph by Rich Sanders, Des Moines, Iowa

The 1946 canvas Approaching a City turns the proscenium arch into a portal of sorts, an entry into “a city.” Painted post-World War II, post-Hiroshima and -Nagasaki, the stark geometries of the painting push Hopper in the direction of another terrific American modernist, Ralston Crawford. Above the wall that dominates the picture plane, old brownstones—one with a mansard rooftop—loom new, beige buildings, industrial cubes, the one at far left truncated by the top edge of the canvas. Tracks converge and vanish into a dark maw. Park Avenue at 97th Street—I passed though it every day for decades on my way to work. And every day, the city was a new city, as it always is, or seems to be, even when it is monotonous. Other buildings, razed to bury the El, once occupied the space where the tracks and tunnel are in Approaching a City. Like the millions of New Yorkers who came here before me, these buildings came and went, while other come and go, and all leave their mark in an endless state of becoming. I wonder if Hopper ever took the train and caught a glimpse of the ghostly brownstone shops and dwellings that still look out from the insides of that tunnel, from dust-coated windows and doors—like something out of Charles E. Burchfield, or Charles Addams. If Hopper had seen them, would he have painted them? Imagine, if you will, the starkly beautiful 1921 etching, Night Shadows—with its solitary figure and shadow that seems about to detach itself and walk away on its own—but without light, save for the flash that bleeds for a moment from a passing train, and without a figure. Or would that glimpse have been too much, even for Edward Hopper’s New York?

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