Let us guess that whenever we read a sentence & like it, we unconsciously store it away in our model-chamber; & it goes, with the myriad of its fellows, to the building, brick by brick, of the eventual edifice which we call our style. – Mark Twain
I didn’t realize until years later how much of my work and my practice as a writer may have been influenced by my early love of Edward Hopper. Like many in my dorm, I had a poster of Nighthawks on the wall, and the more I saw of his work, the more I responded to it. In doing so, I suspect, I was unconsciously absorbing a number of lessons.
Hopper paintings are spare with clean lines. They have unexpected perspectives and odd angles. The bottoms of cars are cut off, so that you can only see their tops. A lighthouse may be shown off to the side. The angle-of-vision may be coming from above or below; however, it doesn’t call attention to itself (or how clever the artist is). These aren’t Dutch camera shots. Rather they attune you to ways of seeing the world.
Richard Hugo once said that he was given the advice to never write a poem about subject matter that needed a poem written about it. (You think the subject itself, your mother’s illness say, is enough to evoke emotion in the reader.) Hopper doesn’t do obvious dramatic moments or star portraits or the stereotypical icons and landscapes. Instead, he paints everyday locations and lives – gas stations, offices, movie theaters. As he once put it, “Maybe I am slightly inhuman… All I ever wanted to do was paint sunlight on the side of a house.”
He focuses on simple objects and moments, but they are charged with energy and emotion. In Office at Night, a boss and secretary work. A piece of paper has fallen. Should she pick it up? If she does, how? Because of the smallness of the space, if she bends over one way, her butt is presented to her boss; the other way displays her cleavage. There is the implicit tension and eroticism of looking; their two desks face each other. They are with one another, next to one another, all day.
In Nighthawks, a couple sit beside one another. He smokes. She has placed her hand near him, towards him, but they don’t touch. The frisson of closeness, the melancholy of not touching. Our isolation even as we are adjacent. (Hopper once said “the loneliness thing is overdone” but he didn’t say that it wasn’t there or inaccurate.)
Sometimes it’s the spacing and juxtaposition that suggests the dynamic. Sometimes it’s the title itself. A woman sits naked, except for slippers, looking out an apartment window. Is it night? Early morning? No, it’s “11 a.m.” In a different work, a woman sits on the edge of a bed. A car can be seen through the window. The title “Western Motel” not only gives information, but is enormouslysuggestive. Traveling. The West. Transit. What’s she running from? Or to?
At some point, I realized that admiring Hopper wasn’t cool. After all, too many people liked his work. He was considered a kind of “art” lite, better than Norman Rockwell of course, but along the same lines in terms of simplicity. A moody artist for angsty youth. So, I took down the Nighthawks poster and rarely mentioned him. Then several years ago, on a trip to DC, I went to a Hopper exhibition at the National Art Gallery. For the first time, I stood before the originals, and their power struck me anew. I had been right when I was younger; these pieces were amazing. I felt ashamed by my shallow disregard. The more I looked at these paintings, the more I saw. And, as I read the catalogue about Hopper’s discipline, his relentless revision, and his commitment, I realized that I still had much to learn from him. His work is back up on my wall.