Edward Hopper’s works often evoke a sense of isolation, of characters alone in a big city. They are intrinsically American, evocative of a particular place and time in our history. “Hopper Drawing,” a brilliant exhibit at the Whitney Museum of American Art, examines Hopper’s process by looking at the numerous drawings he made including those that served as sketches or studies for his most famous paintings.
While just 21 finished works are on display there are a couple hundred drawings as well as sketchbook pages. It’s interesting to see Hopper’s vision unfold—a character’s stance changing various times or a location morphing into something quite different from its model. Even a seemingly simple doorway can be seen to switch numerous times. I particularly liked reading his annotations including notes to indicate what colours to use. Hopper's work is often compared to film noir so it’s not surprising to find some of the drawings resembling storyboards as if he was seeing the work in film stills.
Included in the exhibit are many early drawings by Hopper—dozens of nudes from his student days as well as sketchbook pages from trips to Paris filled with images of café society and various Parisians, including many elaborately made-up women. These drawings may not instantly be recognizable as Hopper but they show a young man finding his own style.
In addition to some wonderful and familiar paintings of New England, many of which are of still recognizable locations, there are some special treats in the exhibit that normally require a plane trip to see.
One of these is Hopper’s legendary “Nighthawks” (1942). Parodied so many times and reprinted on countless postcards and posters, this famed painting is always something of a shock to see in person, as if you almost don’t believe it’s real. There have been countless debates over the exact location that inspired Hopper (it most likely was a combination of a few places) so it’s fascinating to see the evolution of the famed diner take shape in numerous drawings as is the repeated changes to one of the men at the counter. Hopper worked out every aspect on paper; even the coffee urns got their own drawing.
My personal favourite though is “New York Movie” (1939), which shows a female usher waiting for the film to finish. I always like to imagine what the woman is doing. She may be simply listening to the film but I think she's lost in thought, spending the few moments she has to herself before the lights go up. In the exhibit we see 52 different drawings that Hopper made using different city theatres as his inspiration. Over and over again he worked out the columns, the seats, even the usher herself, using Mrs. Hopper as the model.
And speaking of New York, one of the highlights of the exhibit is a piece with just one accompanying drawing. “Early Sunday Morning” (1930) is displayed frameless on an easel, as if Hopper has just walked away. It’s quite effective and reinforces the image of the artist at work.
“Hopper Drawing” is at the Whitney through October 6, 2013. For more information, visit here.