July 12, 2013

"Hopper Drawings" @ The Whitney

I love a chance to go behind the scenes - backstage at the theater, the kitchen at a restaurant, a greenhouse at a botanical garden - to see up close how something is created.  It puts the end result in a whole new context and I find myself with a much keener appreciation for the finished product.

The same idea applies to art as well.  A visit to an atelier opens up a fresh perspective on the artist's work - where it comes from, how it was created, and a glimpse at the artistic process in action.  So when the Whitney Museum of American Art announced its upcoming exhibition "Hopper Drawing" I thought it would present a new viewpoint and consequently a better understanding of this iconic artist's work.

The American artist Edward Hopper (1882-1967) is probably best known as a painter and print-maker of unsettling, even haunting, pictures.  Both his urban and rural scenes and landscapes are imbued with a sense of solitude, even foreboding, that leave the viewer wondering just what exactly is going on behind the deceptively simple image.

What is not very well known about Hopper is that he was also a superb draftsman and his seemingly stark and straightforward paintings are the result of countless preparatory drawings.  In fact, he drew all his life and began his artistic career as a commercial illustrator, a field he abandoned as soon as he sold his first watercolor!  The Whitney holds a large collection of his drawings, bequeathed by the artist's widow, and is now for the first time presenting them alongside the eventual paintings.

Like most East Coasters, I am familiar with the works of Edward Hopper, his lonely houses, near empty late night diners, tension filled offices and suggestive bedroom scenes.  I find many of his images quite disturbing but appreciate his ability to pose a thousand questions in a very uncomplicated - although beautifully executed - canvas.  But seeing the lead-up to these atmospheric oils added an entirely different dimension.  It was fascinating to see the sketches, his experiments with positions and composition and how they related to the finished oil painting. 

Take, for instance, Hopper's most important work, "Nighthawks", 1942.  According to his sketchbooks, he spent several months preparing to paint this image.  From the most abstract early chalk "scribble" to a finished drawing, one can clearly see how he tested different formats and perfected important details until he was ready to put the oil paint on the canvas...

The result is one of the most famous paintings by an American artist in the 20th century!

As well as presenting about a dozen iconic paintings with their accompanying drawings, the exhibition also shows some of his early works, some self portraits, a group of watercolor sketches done in Paris as well as landscapes and few drawings of his wife.  "Hopper Drawings" is a most interesting and informative show and truly opened my eyes to the genius of Edward Hopper.

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