Saturday, January 06, 2007

Hopper, Conference at Night

(click on the image to see a larger version)

I visited the Wichita Art Museum this morning and, after gallery fatigue had set in, I sat down in front of this Edward Hopper painting--in my unlearned opinion, one of his very best. I'd seen it many times before, but today, as I rested, I had a chance to look at it carefully and, in between dealing with a couple of obsequious docents, I jotted down some notes.

In this, as in his best paintings, Hopper isn't just depicting a space. his work invites, even compels the viewer to see his works as narratives the plots of which we can only speculate on.

"Conference." But the ledgers are closed and the desks aren't just bare--they're barren; one man already (I always assume he's leaving) has his hat and overcoat on, while the other not only has no suit jacket on, his tie appears loosened and his sleeves are rolled up above his elbows. The two men's appearances signify that very different evenings stretch ahead of them--they are at cross purposes, which belies the usual meaning of the word "conference": people gathered together for a common purpose.

But the woman: how does she figure into this painting? Her head occupies almost its exact center; her rather severe gaze peers past the seated man even as she stands near him, but she appears to be leaning back from his gesturing hand and thus, at the surface level of the painting, appears to lean toward the standing man. I find myself thinking, as I look at it, that perhaps she is in some way the subject of the "conference." What is her relationship to these men? A co-worker being asked by the seated man to stay and work late (the standing man being her Significant Other)? A sexual bone of contention between the men? Perhaps some combination of both?

The book Toward an American Identity, an exhibition catalogue for a touring exhibit of the WAM's paintings back in the '90s, is (fortunately) of little help with this painting. One interesting thing I learned, though, is that Hopper's wife, Jo (who posed for most of the women in his work), liked to invent names and biographical details for the figures in his paintings. About this one, she says "Deborah is . . . a queen in her own right" and that "Sammy," the seated man, is "better looking than here in drawing" (157). Good to know. But her comments do seem to hint that something other than work is the subject of this particular "conference." Beyond that, though . . .

The author of the book says in passing that Hopper has "an aversion to narrative." I take that to mean that he seeks to avoid telling an entire story within the frame of the painting, thus creating the sense that what we see is neither begun nor completed but is somewhere in the middle of something. Hopper may have an aversion to narrative, but it's imperative that the viewer be willing to spin a yarn or two as s/he looks at his work.

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debra said...

Paintings like this intrigue me, because as you say, they cause you to wonder who are these characters, what is their relationship to one another, and what came before and after this particular captured moment.

I love the creativity of deciding that for myself. Then it becomes "my painting". I'm afraid if I knew what the artist was trying to portray, it would no longer hold any meaning for me and I wouldn't look at twice. That would be a pity, wouldn't it?

John B. said...

Thanks for you comment. As I looked at it yesterday, I kept thinking about how Vermeer's best paintings are similarly allusive/elusive, though (I'd say) considerably less-bleak in their worldview.

Something else I read yesterday but didn't note is that Hopper wants his paintings to be open-ended. There's a story about how his wife imagined that a female figure in one painting is looking out a window at her neighbor across the street, and Hopper rather testily replied, "She's not looking at anything--she's just looking out a window."

Gwynne said...

Well, I tried posting a comment earlier so if this is a duplicate, I apologize. The other has vaporized. Anyway, I wanted to say that I like your blog and especially liked this post. I can sit and stare at Nighthawk in the Chicago Art Institute for a long while...there is something very surreal about Hopper's work. I also really like the Vermeer (?) painting in your blog's header. I love both artists and enjoyed your comparison.

About the open-ended thing, Hopper was painting at a time when artists were rebelling against our tendency to reduce art to words, to show us that the language of art encompasses all of our senses, not just words (the beginning of the abstract movement in America). Vermeer, who used iconographic symbolism to convey morals and allegory in his work, did paint in a style that evokes a lot of the same feelings as Hopper, but I imagine Hopper was trying to turn the likes of Vermeer on his proverbial head. ;-)

John B. said...

Thank you for visiting and for the kind words. For my part, I've enjoyed the times I've dropped in at your place, and I've taken the liberty of including a couple of your posts in the KGB Carnival. I hope you'll come again sometime.

That is indeed a Vermeer in the banner. As for your comment about his work and Hopper as a sort of antidote to message-mongering in art, I suspect that both are right. I can't shake the feeling at times, though, that Vermeer hopes to create a bit of tension between the iconography and his paintings' figures and in that way achieves his ambiguity. Some smart person will likely think this is a dumb thing to say about Vermeer, but I'll at least try it out: It's as though Vermeer puts competing narratives--too much information--into his paintings, while Hopper's goal is to empty his paintings of meaning as much as possible: tough to pull off via the medium of representational art.

Gwynne said...

Thank you for the links to my posts. I wondered why I was getting more Kansas visitors. ;-)

And as you said, smart people may differ, but I think that's true of Vermeer...I think he did raise questions about moral issues by placing ambiguity in his work. But in some ways, Vermeer's work was very simplistic, seemingly devoid of meaning, representing only everyday ordinary life and mundane tasks. But when you looked deeper the ambiguity arose. And then, it's almost laughable, that so much is being portrayed with so little. Woman Holding a Balance epitomized this in my mind.

And while Hopper stripped his work of the details, there's still plenty of tension in his work. Probably because there is so much that is unknown. I liked your exploration into that unknown here.

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