Modern Life: Edward Hopper and His Time

O, the problems of marketing. The Countess and I had wanted to take in this exhibition since it opened back in October. With one week left until it closes, and the Tent Show almost wrapped, we finally got there last Saturday as part of a junket that also included the new R. Crumb show at the Society of Illustrators, and the new burlesque exhibition at the Museum of Sex, which I covered for The Villager (article pending).

But…as I say, the problems of marketing. Both of us were keen to get a Hopper fix (the Whitney has 2,500 of his works) and what we found was a slightly different show. I didn’t mind as much as the Countess (see her review here) but I still wanted (and want) more Hopper! At any rate, the exhibition in question (and they say as much in their marketing materials–ah, the problems of marketing) shows us Hopper in context…what was happening in the country at the time, and how not only Hopper but other artists (especially other Realists and the Ash Can School) were reflecting those changes. Plenty of these were famous and hence treats: Thomas Hart Benton’s Poker Night from A Streetcar Named Desire (1948), Paul Cadmus’s Sailors and Floozies (1938), George Bellows’ Dempsey and Firpo (1924), some works by Reginald Marsh, and photographs by the likes of Steiglitz, Hine and Strand.

Many of the works were of especial interest to this lover of American theatre history. Hammerstein’s Roof Garden by William Glockens (c. 1901) was a special treat, depicting a tight ropewalker performing for the audience at that legendary venue:

John Sloane’s The Haymarket, Sixth Avenue (1907) depicts the front facade of that notorious venue, a raucous dance hall full of prostitutes, whose proximity to the legitimate theatre district made it something of a social problem:

Another favorite is Everett Shinn’s Revue (1908), depicting a singing comedienne of the era in front of the footlights in an early Broadway revue.

And, to return to Hopper, there’s his Untitled (Solitary Figure in a Theatre) (1902-1904), an early impressionistic work, with his major theme of solitude in the modern world already manifesting itself.

The dreary scene seems to anticipate Times Square of the Taxi Driver era, yet there was nothing like that in place at the time — not even Times Square!

And there’s another Hopper, The Sheridan Theatre (1937), which was in, of all places, Newark:

Apologies if this seems to be a show strictly about depictions of theatre in art — that’s just my particular interest. The main thrust of the Realists and the Ash Can School is that they acknowledge the validity of the quotidian as subject matter in art, as opposed to, say, heroic portraits of the rich and famous. Time has borne their instincts out — these paintings fascinate us not only for their beauty and the impressiveness of their technique, but for their content. One can stare at them for lengthy periods soaking in the details. The legitimacy of narrative in the pictorial art — which is what drew the Countess and I to the show in the first place.

There were a handful of amazing and famous Hoppers on view, in addition to those mentioned above. There’s Early Sunday Morning (1930), which my scenic designer Julez Kroboth referenced in her design for the set for The Strange Case of Grippo the Ape-man (it was the scene out the window…small town street with barber pole and fire hydrant). Other ones I liked, included Gas 1940 (1940), South Carolina Morning (1955), and Barber Shop (1931). In addition to his famous oil paintings, there are some lesser known earlier watercolors and charcoal and pen and ink sketches. We get to watch his style evolve along with that of his contemporaries. It’s most instructive and enjoyable, and, like I said, a bit of a tease.

If you’d like to catch it, you have a few more chances. It’s open through this Sunday, April 10. For more info go here.

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