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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.
Art, Painting, American art, 20th century art, Edward Hopper, Wichita Art Museum