When the nighthawks come to roost, everyone else is supposedly asleep. As Edward Hopper shows them perched by a counter, their glassed-in space looks unnaturally bright—like an overexposed photograph or, yet, the real world in the dilated pupils of a dreamer suddenly roused. When Nighthawks was painted, in 1942, an all-night diner would have been fairly common in New York City, but Hopper makes the setting look almost paranormal. Instead of a public place that can be seen by anyone, it seems we're looking at something reserved for the eyes of an undercover detective, or a voyeur. Yet the frisson that comes from Hopper's paintings seems to have less to do with any choice of subject than the overall impression that even inanimate objects are presented in a different way, somehow more explicitly
With their transcriptions of commercial and social banalities, the paintings betray Hopper’s training as an illustrator. They also approach, or mimic, the mechanical visualizing of a camera. By suggesting the absence of a human observer, or at least the concealment of an observer, the paintings give viewers the sense of being a fly on the wall, even if the wall is across the street and one story up. In Hopper's wide shots, city locations may be spacious, but they’re devoid of crowds. Because the human figures are usually viewed from a distance, they often convey less about themselves than the size or tone of surroundings.
For all their detachment, Hopper’s paintings are also striking for their minute detail. They faithfully reproduce features of buildings, signage, and the mundane props of commerce, not unlike the depopulated inventory of Parisian streetscapes and architecture in the photographs of Eugène Atget. But the details in the paintings are also about reproductions—the way the world is configured in mass production for mass consumption. This can be seen in the generic symbols of commerce, or the repetitive patterns of its infrastructure. In Hopper’s best known paintings from New York City from the 1920's through the 1940's, even the interiors are usually mass-produced: apartment buildings, hotel rooms, or offices. If there’s a single space, it has multiple, look-alike parts: rows in a theater, seats on a train, tables at a restaurant, or stools at a diner. Hopper’s Hotel Room, minus the occupant and her belongings, is so barren as to look more like a storage compartment than a surrogate home. In these massively reproduced settings, it’s easy for the human figure to look more generic than singular. Instead of the painter’s individual portrait, the impression is more like seeing a photographer’s proof sheet.
In Hotel Room, there’s at least the hint of a secret. A woman who’s almost completely undressed sits on a bed and reads a piece of paper. Though a black rectangle in the window indicates nighttime, it appears the unwrinkled blanket and sheets have yet to be pulled aside for going to sleep. The paper almost certainly hints at some kind of relationship, and possibly disappointment. Whatever that may be, the melodrama would hardly be new. What is new for its time is how it’s easier and more common for that relationship to involve a stay in a hotel room. But there’s little to be read on the woman’s face, which is in shadow. Rather than reveal an event in her life, she blends in with her surroundings—a room not of her own, where intimate matters are concealed, even in the absence of others. Against this interchangeable backdrop, with the occupant in a quadrant among quadrants, it is hard to distinguish between romantic attachment, a honeymoon, or a one-night stand. But, rather than inadequately signifying only one of these scenarios, couldn't the painting also convey how all of them--even if only by association or undertone--could overlap in a single time and place?
It might even be said that some Hopper paintings are less real than realistic. Like Atget’s photographs, the paintings show settings with little or no visible trace of function or personal narrative. In the 1940 painting, Gas, there’s man at a pump, but no car, and no grease-stained rag hanging from his trousers. In Chop Suey, there’s still no food on the table shared by two women—just the anticipatory marker of a teapot. In New York Movie, there’s a disconnect between the shadowy zone of theater seats (some still empty) and the glow of a lamp on the blond hair of an idle usher. Dressed in a blue uniform, she stands against the back wall of the auditorium, with a hand pensively on her chin, oblivious even to the likely discomfort of keeping vigil in high heels. Office at Night shows a man sitting at a desk and a woman standing at a file cabinet. They certainly seem as functional as any office workers, but the woman’s outfit—highlighting graceful calves and the swell of haunches—is much more distracting for the viewer than the man at the desk: enough to dramatize the absence of any other form of interaction, or its concealment. Even when there’s a hint of interaction, whether between the women in Chop Suey, or the man and woman side by side in Nighthawks, we can infer little more than the faintest evidence of conversation—a few crumbs of dialogue, or even gaps between words (as if the scene had been caught by a shutter pressed at random).
The disconnect between surface and function that made Atget an accidental Surrealist has a similar effect in Hopper’s paintings. In Hopper’s freeze-frame, even a mechanical object or the plain grid of storefronts, as in Early Sunday Morning, breaks loose from the tyranny of the functional and claims, if not exactly a life, then a presence of its own. One reason for this is that the grid isn't entirely plain. The molding at the roofline and the cornices over the windows are a touch of decorum, but also the mark of a style outmoded in the age of skyscrapers and Art Deco. Their obsolescence is still fresh, still untouched by the aura of preservationism. Once meant to embellish function, or even disguise it, these features become all the more noticeable--more crystalised, as it were--as the storeblock's functions, with passage of time, seem more transitory.
By contrast with the likelihood of quiet conversation between the women in a Chinese restaurant, the large fragment of a sign outside the window speaks all the more loudly to an unseen horde of potential customers. No longer directed only at people walking by, the sign is meant for people moving in traffic, even at some distance. Changing the view of common figures by the way they are juxtaposed is what Hopper also does even in one of his most straightforward paintings, The House by the Railroad. What is almost too obvious to notice is that the figures in the painting seem deserted, with neither inhabitants in rooms nor a train on the rails. The house seems unusual because it is not juxtaposed with other buildings that have similar characteristics. True, this could be an isolated house in the countryside that could very well be glimpsed from a train. But, instead of a more natural streak passing by, Hopper gives the surveillance of the stationary viewer. This makes the house, or at least its ornamental surface, look all the more monumental, like some ancient edifice encountered in a wasteland.
It is easy enough to say that many of Hopper’s paintings are sparsely populated—not only by human beings, but by everyday objects that rival them as centers of attention (a hydrant, a radiator, an idle cash register, a typewriter, a barbershop pole, even the lustrous pair of coffee urns in Nighthawks). Is this an obsession with objects, the dehumanization of people, or the surrounding vacuum that makes them stand out as dissimilar equals? In Hopper’s urban settings, there’s even an absence of litter, as if a crumpled paper bag or a dented can might be loaded with narrative distraction.
Commentators usually describe the human figures in the paintings as solitary or even lonely. Maybe it is more appropriate to say that, in the city paintings, the people are deprived of solitude. For anyone who grew up accustomed to smaller communities (including Hopper himself), it must have been very noticeable how a big city imposes reserve. Far from necessarily being trapped or in some personal crisis, the people in the paintings might be--not entirely unlike some of Hopper's buildings and roofscapes--maintaining decorum: when among strangers, their personal business, except when discreetly announced, should be kept inside. That even extends to the painter and viewer of the paintings, who are, as it were, kept at a distance.
Even when two people might be speaking to each other, as in Nighthawks, their intimate exchange is masked by the semblance of disengagement. Surrounded by a world of strangers, they adapt by putting on a psychological armor that makes them seem impenetrable. And the strangeness from which they defend themselves is registered less by the presence of other people (who are hardly in abundance) than by their absence, as in the empty seats ignored by the usher at the movie theater. Do these individuals strive for singularity amid so many interchangeable reproductions, or do we see only the surface: a mask that copies the mechanical surroundings, to avoid standing out? Not only are Hopper’s urban landscapes a far cry from the prototypical familiarities of Norman Rockwell, but also from the vernacular spontaneities of urban villages. Considered as a real-world model for a representational painter, the impenetrability of Hopper’s figures can simply be a fact of life, at least for their time. What could make him an accidental documentarian is how much cities have changed. If their zones of spacious impersonality remain, they are more taken for granted, but also more porous and more adjustable. After all, in the age of wireless and digital reproduction, even crowded public space can be punctuated by absorption in a laptop or iPod, the encryptions of graffiti, or the invasive privacy of talk on a cell phone.
Regardless the distance in time for viewers, Hopper’s paintings condition them to see that appearances are not always to be taken at face value. A piece of visual surface can just as easily be a mask, a mirage, or a sign (literally or figuratively)—such as the framed landscape on the wall of a hotel lobby, so much like the landscape rolling by in the window of a train (where, as in the hotel lobby, the view is disregarded by a woman with graceful legs reading a book). Against Hopper's non-descript backgrounds, ordinary clothing (whether a man’s fedora or the woman’s single glove in Automat) can seem a trifle genteel or at least calculated—even if no more a declaration of status than the strain of decorum put in relief by impersonal surroundings. Because of her glove, the woman sitting at the table in the automat looks almost fastidious, but Hopper places her slightly off center horizontally, making her compete for the viewer's attention with a radiator on the floor and a flock of lights reflected overhead.
In the real world of cities, these combinations of appearances are what civility and schedules only allow us to glimpse on the fly. By freezing that almost photographic moment, Hopper lets us observe watchfully and head-on for as long as we please. Too invisible to feel self-conscious, we are free to contemplate what the Surrealist Louis Aragon once referred to as the “poorly lit zones” of human activity. “There, where the most equivocal activity of the living is pursued,” he wrote, “the inanimate sometimes assumes a reflection of their most secret motives: our cities are in such a way populated with unrecognized sphinxes who don’t stop the passing dreamer and pose deadly riddles unless he turn toward them his meditative distraction.”
Once we have the power to do that, even the impenetrable becomes revealing.
An exhibit of Edward Hopper’s paintings and sketches is at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, from May 6 through August 19, 2007. Photographs of Hopper paintings courtesy of the MFA.