‘Edward Hopper’s New York’ At The Whitney Magnifies The Master’s Six Decades In His Beloved City

Seated alone, an enigmatic young woman looks downward as she’s about to lift a coffee cup with a bare right hand while her left hand, encased in a black glove, rests on a small round table. Her crossed legs imply posturing and her nonchalance conveys a contemporary feel that’s emulated to this day by consummate New Yorkers.

The subject of Automat (1927) is modeled after Edward Hopper’s wife and fellow painter Josephine “Jo” Hopper. She was 44 at the time, and he reimagined her as younger for the painting.

The first automat opened in Berlin in 1985 as a fast food restaurant where vending machines served simple foods and drinks, and the first one in New York City opened in 1912, launching its popularity in industrial cities across the northern United States. It serves both to memorialize a historic trend and to act as personal homage. The Hoppers were frequent automat customers and Jo, who kept extensive diaries, chronicled how her husband consumed too much coffee.

Even though he’s capturing a moment in time, by omitting the vending machines in his composition Hopper created a scene that transcends that time. Two rows of bulbs from interior light fixtures reflect through the nighttime window, underscoring the nocturnal nature of New York. It’s refreshing to see a woman out by herself at night in 1927, a behavior that is surely more common in major global cities.

Opening October 19 at the Whitney Museum of American Art, Edward Hopper’s New York is a testament to the fungible and enduring nature of a city that’s always exhilarating and often moody. On view through March 5, 2023, the first exhibition to focus on the artist’s robust relationship with the city where lived most of his life thoroughly examines his wife and work through his depictions. Born in Upper Nyack in Rockland County, New York, in 1882, Hopper lived in the city from 1908 until his death in Greenwich Village in 1967. His studio, a historical landmark at 1 Washington Square North, is just over a mile away from the Whitney’s current location.

You’ll want to linger, looking deeply into the multitudes of personas and situations that we encounter in everyday life as New Yorkers. The canvases begin their conversations in the early twentieth century and continue to speak volumes to contemporary visitors who see simultaneously how much and how little has changed. Early sketches, prints, and illustrations are in dialogue with Hopper’s late paintings, telling the story of what it is to be a New Yorker.

Curated by Kim Conaty, Steven and Ann Ames Curator of Drawings and Prints, with Melinda Lang, Senior Curatorial Assistant, the exhibition features the Whitney’s recent acquisition of printed ephemera, correspondence, photographs, and journals from the Sanborn Hopper Archive alongside works from the Whitney’s collection and other exceptional pieces on loan from other museums.

Exhibitions like this enable us to live art history, the dynamic experience of witnessing how works of art transform through curation and context. Hopper depicts women who are relatable, who help us navigate our own psyches and circumstances.

We’re transported back to the grandeur and solitude of watching a film from lush red velvet seats in a nearly empty theater. The potential excitement on the screen is countered by the blasé yet elegant usher who foreshadows by 32 years the David Bowie Life on Mars lyric “the film is a saddening bore For she’s lived it ten times or more.”

The Bowie reference is justified by the timely and timeless evocative feel of Hopper’s only painting depicting a cinema screen. Our gaze bounces between the obscured screen, the backs of two seated guests, and the willowy blonde usher, inspired again by Jo Hopper.

Emotion imbues this quintessential New York scene, Hopper’s most elaborate theater interior, which borrows from and preserves the city’s rich history. A coalescence of Hopper’s research of the Beaux-Arts style Globe Theatre built in 1910 (now the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre), the Republic Theatre constructed in 1900 with a Venetian-inspired facade (now New Victory Theater), and the Strand Theatre (which opened in 1914 with white glazed terra cotta frontage was unfortunately demolished in 1987), the depiction traverses the cultural landscape of Manhattan. The Globe, the Republic, and even the Strand before its demise, have undergone myriad transformations, adapting to New York’s ongoing evolution as a global arts capital. Hopper reaffirms our faith in maintaining such institutions.

In a departure from the amalgam, The Sheridan Theatre (1937) showcases a specific theater, Hopper’s local favorite located a quick half-mile walk from his Greenwich Village home and studio. The blonde usher returns, this time as the central figure with her back facing the viewer and reclining on the rails of the oblong mezzanine. Two male counterparts stand to her left above the stairway, creating distance between the figures and amplifying her presence. Striving to emulate the radiance of the Sheridan’s electric lighting system, Hopper turned the lights off in his Washington Square studio while painting.

Hopper revisits the composite image, this time in a domestic sphere, with Room in New York (1932). This picture of a man reading the newspaper and a woman tapping a piano key, but clearly not playing a song or composition, suggests some distance between the couple. More importantly, it tells the story of a typical New Yorker, who never passes by an apartment window without peeking inside to see how others live.

“The idea for Room in New York had been in my mind a long time before I painted it. It was suggested by glimpses of lighted interiors seen as I walked along the city streets at night, probably near the district where I live (Washington Square), although it’s no particular street or house, but it is rather a synthesis of many impressions,” Hopper told American art historian Lloyd Goodrich.

Far more than “a synthesis of many impressions,” this groundbreaking exhibition is a celebration of the city and the master who co-exist and reveal the immortality of New York.

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