‘Edward Hopper’s New York’ exhibit at the Whitney is all about silence

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‘Edward Hopper’s New York’ exhibit at the Whitney is all about silence

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NEW YORK – Many things disappear in the paintings of Edward Hopper. The most important thing is that it is people. In the first half of the 20th century, he painted New York when it was the largest city in the world, but its streets are often empty, or haunted by only a few isolated figures. New York was then, as it is now, a diverse city, rich in racial and ethnographic diversity, but that too is absent from Hopper’s imagination.

Manhattan was becoming a relentlessly vertical landscape when the artist took up residence there in 1908, yet he frames it horizontally, cutting off the tops of the new high-rises. The erasures of modernity include roads without cars, tracks without trains, and skies without airplanes, cluttering the airspace by Hopper’s death in 1967 at the age of 84.

Perhaps that should make Hopper’s work feel old-fashioned and out of touch, but that’s not the impression that emerges from the Whitney Museum’s extensive and enlightening exhibition “Edward Hopper’s New York,” which features some 200 paintings, watercolors, prints and drawings. does not include The Whitney holds a large collection of Hopper’s work, which was bequeathed after the artist’s death by his widow, Josephine Nivison Hopper. Of all the major museums in New York, the Whitney is the most New York-centric in its audience appeal, and the Hopper exhibition is perfectly on brand: an invitation to New Yorkers, past, present and future, to navel-gaze and to ponder the mystery of why the largest city in the world is both the cause and cure of loneliness.

Silence seems to be the key. If you eliminate people, you obviously eliminate a lot of noise. But the paradox of Hopper’s greatest paintings is that they feel silent, even as their subject matter suggests a soundtrack. There are no people in a magnificent set of watercolors Hopper made of roofs – including water tanks, chimneys and skylights. But still, the city noise can be heard from this height, just a few floors above the fracas?

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There are no trains or people visible in the Whitney’s beloved 1946 Hopper masterpiece “Approaching a City,” which shows train tracks receding into the eerie void of a tunnel or overpass. But the sky is full of daylight, and these tracks were some of the busiest in the world. So why can’t we hear the crescendo howl of their approach, or the descending cry of their passing in the distance? And what about the noise made by the train we’re supposed to be riding on?

When people are present, Hopper’s strategies for representing silence become even more complex. No matter whether we are in the room, or out of it—peeking in with voyeuristic detachment—windows eliminate any sense of what filmmakers call diegetic sounds, those that emerge organically from things within the frame of the image. In Hopper’s 1932 “Room in New York,” we seem to spy through a window a domestic scene in which a man reads a newspaper while a woman in a red dress sits idly at an upright piano and a single note with the index finger of her right hand. But the sense of silence is palpable, and even if we were a pigeon sitting on the window sill, that piano would be mute.

The list grows longer: Curtains flutter quietly in the wind; people gather in a theater without the silent cacophony of the murmuring crowd or the orchestra tuning into the pit; two actors greet an audience on the lip of a stage, but the applause is rushed by some strange audience vacuum. In Hopper’s world, restaurants full of people are as quiet as empty streets at dawn. There is something more than the muted phantasmagoria of urban life going on here.

Curators Kim Conaty and Melinda Long provide enough information to suggest clues to the mystery. Hopper’s obliteration of the ambient noise of the city probably had something to do with his internalized defense against change, especially the loss of the old, low-lying New York he knew from his decades-long residence in Washington Square. Construction was noisy, and it made the city denser and more chaotic. Perhaps in his attempt to freeze time, to hold on to an image of the city that was disappearing, he also froze the sounds. Imagine a film of urban life fixed on a single frame, the image static and the soundtrack inaudible.

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A chapter of the exhibition devoted to theater (Hopper and his wife were frequent visitors) also raises the question of spectacle and spectatorship, and the way New York turns life into a performance and its inhabitants into a passive audience . The “fourth wall” that separates the audience from the actors seems always present in Hopper’s work, even when the image has nothing to do with the theater. And that fourth wall absorbs all the sound, rather like the walls and shadows in a Vermeer painting seem to absorb every energy extraneous and unnecessary to the scene.

The terrifying thing about being a spectator, whether sitting in a theater, movie house, or on the subway silently staring at other riders, is that it subordinates our consciousness to the more real and majestic reality of other people. We watch, while they seem to be alive. The rise of mass media, magazines, movies, radio and eventually television coincided with Hopper’s decades in New York. His paintings capture a bygone New York, but they anticipate Instagram, in which we defend against our own extinction by building images of perfect lives. In Hopper’s case, it was the perfect city, not idealized, but scrubbed of everything that intruded on his own, private sense of place.

A late Hopper, and one of his most poignant, is not in the exhibit (it is held by the Smithsonian American Art Museum), but it would make a powerful coda to the show. The 1960 “People in the Sun” was supposedly inspired by people seeing Hopper in Washington Square Parking on a sunny day in January. They sit on wooden folding chairs and drink in the light. But Hopper replaced the buildings of New York with an image of open fields and mountains in the distance, perhaps a Western landscape. They could be passengers on a ship or guests at a hotel sitting on the balcony.

However, one man is reading from a piece of paper, and does not pay attention to the spectacle. He looks a lot like an early self-portrait of Hopper himself, with the same hair and profile. And he has the same long legs as Hopper.

It was painted near the end of his life, and one imagines that the paper he is holding is a theater program and he is watching it trying to make sense of what is going to happen. Who is in this show? What is it all about? But the lights are about to go down, the curtain will rise, the drama will begin, and with that a more intense reality will begin.

He will just be a silent figure in the back row, anonymous and nonexistent.

Edward Hopper’s New York Through March 5 at the Whitney Museum of American Art. whitney.org.

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