As the 20th century progressed, images of paintings by Edward Hopper permeated American and European culture, conflating to become, for many, ‘Images of the USA’. This imagery or, as we would now say, these icons have continued to circulate so smoothly that, when I actually find myself in front of a Hopper painting in a museum, I am surprised anew by the intense power of that material object to captivate my attention and to hold me in its hushed perimeter. The origin of this seduction is of course to be located partly in the narrative spell that Hopper casts, the inchoate fiction that his pictures spin for us— suggestive enough to serve as an incipit or opening chapter, yet vague enough to enable the widest set of developments, as the number and variety of paperback covers derived from Hopper ‘images’ have demonstrated1.
Yet this is only half — or less than half — of the story. One of its other fractions is the sheer visual potency of the painted surface, the lavish formal traps of line and color that the artist composed for over fifty years. Parts of a Hopper canvas can thus be seen to have a life of their own, a life abstracted from the ‘Hopperesque’. The aim of this paper is to tease out, isolate and analyze this other, abstract Hopper and to pay some attention to it. I will first take a look at the meaning of the term abstract, and consider Edward Hopper’s attitude to abstraction in painting. Then I will experimentally investigate the existence of a certain abstraction in Hopper’s canvases with a view to describing its link with the figurative elements. Finally, I will attempt to assess how this contributes to the way we see and value Hopper’s paintings.
Producing meaning by its use in opposition to the term concrete, the adjective abstract designates something that is separated from particular matter or from actual instances, something which the 1913 edition of the Webster dictionary defined as ‘existing in the mind only’. The movement away from complexity towards simplicity is expressed in the verb to abstract, evoking a process of distillation or of extracting an essence. An abstract is therefore a general idea, a summary, or an epitome.
Non-figurative, non-concrete, non-particular, non-complex... the dictionary definitions evoke a privative dimension for the term under study. But the same idea can be expressed positively in terms of ‘purification’. In painting, the term can thus mean a total concentration on the constituent elements of the art itself: line, shape, color, brushstroke, format, formal relationships... This can of course become paradoxical as abstract art then turns out to be quite material and involved with the concrete elements of a painting. However, we can restrain from plunging too far into this paradox by convoking that historical figure of early abstraction, Wassily Kandisky (Bonfand : 5-19). For the latter, ideas and spirituality were founding elements in abstraction, and the purification at work in abstraction comes from the fact that the art is not devoted to outer appearances, but to inner vision. A similar basis in spiritual ideas can be attested for the abstract art that was being produced in the USA as of the 1940s (Bonfand : 91-117).
One particular meaning of the term ‘abstract’ might hold our attention for a moment. That is its use to refer to a person as someone remote, dissociated, or distracted. This initial medieval sense of the word, formed from the Latin abstractus (with the privative ab) meaning ‘withdrawn from worldly interests’ fits well with a lot of the figures in Hopper. They are, as it were, abstracted from their situations.
The Merriem Webster dictionary tells us of the crossed histories of the terms abstract and extract which intersected and then separated in modern English. Both words stem from Latin through the combination of trahere (meaning to draw, to detach) with the prefix ex- (meaning “out of”, “away from”) or ab- (meaning “off, away from”). Abstract is most frequently used as an adjective and a noun, but less commonly as a verb; this contrasts it (in a kind of mirror image) with extract, which is more common as a verb. The noun abstract applies to something that has been summarized, and summarized means reduced from a larger work. Both extract and abstract render the idea of “removing” or “pulling away”, but can an extract have the epitomizing function of an abstract? If something is removed from a Hopper painting, does this extract give us something of the essence?
During his long career, Edward Hopper resisted and fought against abstraction. Although Hopper did not like to be associated with the term ‘American Scene’, he did prefer the realist strain of American art to the modernist strain that was embodied in a variety of attempts — such as those of Max Weber, John Marin, Marsden Hartley— to import European innovations that tended towards abstraction (Chassey : 21-28).
In the editorial for the first issue of the magazine Reality, in 1952, Hopper denounces abstraction, equating it with lifelessness and opposing it to imagination. He considers abstraction as an intellectual process. That is a description that might fit with the work of Barnett Newman, but far less with the work of Jackson Pollock, surely as sensual as it is intellectual, as instinctive as it is rational. As for Mark Rothko, his painting proceeds through a spiritual rather than an intellectual logic. However, it is probably not the process that Hopper is attacking here, but the arguments made in favor of the dominance of abstract art, arguments which were probably associated with Clement Greenberg2:
One of the weaknesses of much abstract painting is the attempt to substitute the inventions of the intellect for a pristine imaginative conception. The inner life of a human being is a vast and varied realm and does not concern itself alone with stimulating arrangements of color, form, and design. (Smithsonian)
‘Stimulating arrangements of color, form, and design’, says Hopper, are not enough to make a painting. That of course is an idea that had already been refuted in 1890 in a famous assertion by Maurice Denis3, and proved untrue in practice by Hopper’s American contemporaries Ellsworth Kelly and Frank Stella, both making abstract art. Of course, what Hopper means is that such formal arrangements are not enough for him to make a painting.
The term "life" as used in art is something not to be held in contempt, for it implies all of existence, and the province of art is to react to it and not to shun it. Painting will have to deal more fully and less obliquely with life and nature's phenomena before it can again become great. (Smithsonian)
This is also contestable if the claim is applied to Pollock, Clifford Still, or Sam Francis. But even if Hopper is dictating to others in 1952, it is more useful to conclude that the truth of what he says is as a description of his own process. What is important for Hopper is life and, for him, the life of his paintings is infused with his inner life. Hopper believes abstraction to be lifeless.
What would happen, I wondered, if we extracted parts of a Hopper painting? In order to answer that question, I decided to proceed on an experiment, selecting for that purpose the painting in Madrid, at the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum, entitled Hotel Room. https://www.museothyssen.org/en/collection/artists/hopper-edward/hotel-room. Painted in 1931, it is relatively large with respect to the viewer, measuring one meter 50 by one meter 65. It is, I believe, a particularly poignant picture. To concretize my speculations, I made a version of it (Figure 1), taking the motif of the woman reading, and putting that motif into a circle (like the circular ‘zooms’ one finds on museum websites). Then I placed the circle within three panels, grey on the left, yellow and black on the right, taking the colors I used from the bedroom in the picture.
In other words, I took out a figurative motif which — like the editorial borrowings, croppings and reframings of Hopper used on book covers — preserves the ‘Hopperesque’, and then I took out some structural and chromatic details in order to present that motif within a more abstract structure based on zones of the canvas. This practical exploration was motivated by the question: is the DNA, as it were, in one type of extract only, or can it be detected in both types? Looking at Hopper’s Hotel Room, I had had the impression of a certain impassibility of the backdrop behind the seated figure— perhaps, I wondered, it was an imagined backdrop to a real pose by Jo Hopper, the canvas thus representing a real woman, as it were, sitting in an abstract setting. Of course, once I went away and acted on my speculation, I was forced to recognize how figurative these ‘abstract’ panels that compose the setting were.
The first panel (Figure 2) clearly implies three dimensions with the shadow on the wall, the depth of the folds and the transparency of the curtain with respect to the wall. And if the second panel (the bright backdrop behind the figure that sets off the head in shadow, Figure 3) is definitely more abstract, it would still be exaggerated to imagine Hopper painting this large white zone in a manner similar, say, to an artist like Robert Ryman.
The experiment enabled me to see modulations that I had not noticed and that contradicted the impression of reduction and simplicity; for instance, how in the original the grey panel forming the left side of my revisited version is actually pink at the top and yellow at the bottom. My impression of abstraction in Hopper was beginning to seem erroneous. I found confirmation, however, of the hypothesis for an abstract Hopper in the short film produced for the television channel Arte by Mathieu Amalric in 2012, called Next to Last (Autumn 63) and devoted to Hopper’s Sun in an Empty Room. In this 5-minute film, zones of the canvas are framed close-up in slow movements that successively evoke abstract paintings by Newman, Ryman and Rothko.
Amalric gives credence to the idea that a Hopper painting offers a story to the eye while the serious work is being done by the deep structure of the painting. This recalls T.S. Eliot’s famous remarks about meaning in poetry:
The chief use of the “meaning” of a poem, in the ordinary sense, may be … to satisfy one habit of the reader, to keep his mind diverted and quiet, while the poem does its work upon him: much as the imaginary burglar is always provided with a bit of nice meat for the house-dog (Eliot : 144).
Does what I have called the abstract (the colored panels I made for my version) function as a formal game that holds the viewer’s gaze once the latter has been hooked by the figurative bait (here, schematically, the seated woman)? Or is it something that has hooked the painter while he thought he was occupied with a scene to portray? What, in other words, is the deal done between the ‘abstract’ and the figurative in Hopper?
The first hypothesis is that we look at a painting by Edward Hopper because we are invited into a story, a situation which captures us, but which is so disquietingly open-ended that we cannot help but linger over it; and as we linger, we linger over the colored panels, the structure of planes and of lines, in other words, the chromatic geometry. The thematic irresolution is, as it were, appeased by the chromatic resolve, the resolution by the artist of a formal composition. So if we were initially hooked on the content a story, now we have become hooked on the way it is being told.
The viewer’s experience perhaps matches that of Hopper himself. The artist imagines a scene, so he sets up the props, he has Jo pose this way and that; he has created a pictorial situation and begun to paint it, but in the process of painting, he forgets the ‘story’. He relinquishes his focus on the figure and the décor, seeing everything as degrees of light, as photo-metric information to be registered by the “transparent eye-ball” (Emerson : 6) and to be transcribed by the well-trained hand, as if the latter were capable of a sort of manual photogravure. In this scenario, the artist becomes a camera, a receptor and engraver of colored marks on a canvas. “Painting”, says James Elkins (5), “is an unspoken and largely unrecognized dialogue, where paint speaks silently in masses and colors and the artist responds in moods”. Hopper, perhaps despite himself, has become absorbed in the marks being placed on the canvas, and the visual magnetism of these marks has gained all his attention. He no longer cares about the hotel room, the suitcases or indeed the woman.
This detachment might explain the famously vacant expression on the face of many of his figures, or the absence of light or detail on their faces, as if they were dummies and not people (see, for instance, the figures in Room in New York, 1932). Moreover, the décor in Hopper too, is often reduced to a minimal set of signs, as if it were being stripped bare. Thus, Nighthawks (1942) could be seen as a film set for a thriller; the 7th avenue street scene in Early Sunday Morning (1930) is a theatre backdrop; the room in Morning Sun (1952) is empty except of a bed; and the city being approached in the eponymous 1946 painting is a ghost town. Throughout Hopper’s canvases, there is a sense of emptying out, of absence, of withdrawal — a purification which Pierre Fresnault-Deruelle (253-262) calls raréfaction de la vie. Either the artist has lost interest in the life in the representation or he has set up something that is eating away at it from the inside4. Hopper’s world is, as it were, being emptied from within.
But, after all, what is the use of an abstract Hopper? One use of course is to make of the artist something other than a Realist, and to help account for the fact that many of his paintings do not fit with the label Realism. If certain of his pictures such as Rooms by the Sea (1951) make us think of Magritte, it is because the space represented is not a realistic space but a mental space or a dream space (Gaillard, 111). Just as a certain literary naturalism, in Zola or Stephen Crane for instance, led towards distortion and fantasy, Hopper’s work might thus be considered to have sometimes entered into the realm of the surreal or the fantastic. If they were not so barbaric, unnaturalist, unrealist, or even abrealist might be terms that would fit Hopper.
The second virtue is to remind us, in case we had forgotten, that Hopper is literally pursuing light, as he famously said: “What I wanted to do was to paint sunlight on the side of a house” (Levin : 294). And indeed, Hopper marvelously captured the eerie precision of the light on Cape Cod, just as Vermeer had captured the specific light of northern Europe or Cezanne that of Aix-en-Provence. Yves Bonnefoy entitles his beautiful essay for the Marseille exhibition of Hopper in 1989, “Photosynthèse de l’être”. Bonnefoy uses the word heliotropic, as if the artist were a plant, and his painting a biological urge. The way I understand the French poet’s use of photosynthesis is in the suggestion that the figures of Hopper’s landscapes need the light in order to thrive, and that the human being painting, or contemplating, the landscape also needs the light in order to exist.
I would go along with Bonnefoy when he argues that this light has for Hopper a spiritual dimension. Hopper’s quest in painting light is to sense out either a spiritual presence, or to register a spiritual absence. That is a quest implicit in the American tradition of Luminism, a tradition which Robert Rosenblum claimed as a precursor for Rothko (Rosenblum : 115). I would suggest we include Hopper as an heir too, Hopper for whom Emerson and Transcendentalism were a crucial stance with respect to the world (Ottinger : 36-37). Hopper’s light consists not only in sunlight on brownstones or sunlight in a cafeteria, or that of an actual lighthouse on Cape Cod, but a light that is both outer and inner, an inner light of the human soul which may in other terms be an equivalent to the “inner life” of things.
Might not light itself, moreover, be considered as an abstraction? When we speak of a certain light, we draw it away from the particular matter that it envelops. The great competition between Realism and Abstraction being fought in painting in the U.S.A. in the 1930s was also being played out and resolved within photography. In his Equivalent series, dated 1927-29, Alfred Stieglitz demonstrated that the abstract and the figurative were mere modalities of framing. We have similar evidence of this in the work of Weston, Cunningham, and Outerbridge when they capture light, transcribe it, and create a figurative image, forging in the same gesture photographic abstraction and figurative representation, creating the latter through the former.
The final value of ‘abstracting Hopper’ is to see Hopper again not just as a cliché, but as a great artist. His work is valued of course because it inventories the urban forms of the 20th century, because it pictures the world power that the USA had become. Hopper, however, is also an inventor of forms. This assertion is not new, but perhaps requires restatement. A certain intellectual disdain for Hopper has been voiced particularly in France (Kempf). The fact that the first major Hopper exhibition in Paris took place only in 2012 is indicative of this neglect, and an evolution in the appreciation of Hopper can be charted, for example, through a comparison of the article published in Le Monde by art historian Philippe Dagen on the occasion of the Hopper exhibition in 2004 at Tate Modern, and Dagen’s reinstatement of Hopper as a major figure in 2012 while reviewing the Paris exhibition5.
The aim of this essay has been to tease out, isolate and analyze another, more abstract, Hopper. My experiment and speculations have sought to give the abstraction in Hopper its due beside the imagery— beside, or rather inside. For, like a Trojan horse, Hopper’s gifted storytelling is ushered into our imagination and his pictorial chromatics then conquer us from within. What wins out in the end is the abstractive logic of Hopper’s persistent phototropism.
But that is perhaps to overcompensate for the cliché that Hopper’s images became and to overstate the case for an abstract Hopper. The full story, the truer story, is, of course, comprised of the collusion as well as the tension between the narrative and the formal; it is formed by the unfamiliar deal struck deep between the figurative and the abstract, between the drawing and, as it were, the drawing away.
- Hotel Room. Edward Hopper. 1931. Oil on canvas, 152,4 x 165,7 cm. Musée Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid.
- Sun in an Empty Room. Edward Hopper. 1963. Oil on canvas, 73 x 100 cm. Collection privée.
- Room in New York. Edward Hopper. 1932. Oil on canvas, 73,5 x 91,5 cm. Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery, Lincoln.
- Nighthawks. Edward Hopper. 1942. Oil on canvas, 84,1 x 152,4 cm. The Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago.
- Early Sunday Morning. Edward Hopper, 1930. Oil on canvas, 89,4 x 153 cm. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.
- Morning Sun. Edward Hopper. 1952, Oil on canvas, 71,4 x 101,9 cm. Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio.