Art Review Archives:
by Mark Strand
The image acts upon our primal brain; the word, upon the thinking brain; and yet the word is necessary to articulate what we see and feel about an image, to examine these and come to new understanding. In Hopper, Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Mark Strand does just that: expressing, in simple yet eloquent prose, the elusive qualities and emotions contained in that artist's urban scenes. Strand's sensitivity when speaking of the visual makes Hopper a book which lends a distinct appreciation to viewing the artist's work.
Hopper is divided into thirty-two sections of one to three pages each. Each miniature essay - either on a painting or paintings, or on Hopper's work considered in the abstract - is anchored, or lent emphasis, with a Roman numeral heading in large type. It is a simple and effective framing of Strand's lyrical prose. The works considered span thirty-eight years of Edward Hopper's work in oils, from House by the Railroad, painted in 1925, to Sun in an Empty Room, painted in 1963, the "last great painting" four years before Hopper's death. The attention is on the paintings: the table of contents consists of painting names and years; within the text, each picture is clearly identified with title, year, and location. (Illustration credits at the end detail dimensions and media.)
The works are organized at will, and a subtle grouping can be discerned in Strand's choice of sequence: cityscapes; buildings and looming nature; lonely architecture; isolated people, and their interaction with light; the light itself ("In Hopper's paintings, light is not applied to shape; rather, his paintings are built from shapes that light assumes"); isolated people in distinctive interiors; and to close the work, two "interiors without people." Strand allows his text to compare and contrast, to note which painting was painted first, which later. He moves freely among the vocabulary of the thirty paintings, and throughout, his authorial voice has a certain coolness reflective of their mood.
The first painting in the book is Nighthawks (1942) - appropriately, as it is one of the most well-known of Hopper's works: overexposed to Nighthawks (and to its Bogie-James Dean-Elvis-and-Marilyn spinoff, Boulevard of Broken Dreams) we may pass it by and pay no more than cursory attention. Strand's description invites new viewing, brings into words qualities we may have noticed, but not expressed - the light ("It is as if the light were a cleansing agent, for nowhere are there signs of urban filth"), the physical geometry of the scene (the diner's window forms "the geometrical shape of an isosceles trapezoid, which establishes the directional pull of the painting, toward a vanishing point that cannot be witnessed, but must be imagined"). Ultimately, Strand interprets the forces that make this image so compelling:
Strand's observations, as he explains, "recognize the importance for him [Hopper] of roads and tracks, of passageways and temporary stopping places, or to put it generally, of travel. They recognize as well the repeated use of certain geometrical figures that bear directly on what the viewer's response is likely to be. And they recognize that the invitation to construct a narrative for each painting is also part of the experience of looking at Hopper." Of Pennsylvania Coal Town (1947), Strand comments:
His words bring to the fore an awareness of the mystical quality of Hopper's light, its effect on the character in the painting - and on ourselves.
The one regret of Hopper is that its illustrations are in black and white. The reduction of color to black, white and halftones reveals clearly the trapezoids and triangles of which Strand speaks; but it also oversimplifies. The color vocabulary is lost, and with it, part of the power of which Strand speaks (the 'annunciative' quality of the light in Pennsylvania Coal Town is something only dimly felt). Surprisingly, perhaps because the black and white illustrations are so recognizable and because Strand's narrative speaks more of geometric shape and light and shade than of rainbow hue, the absence of color is a factor which may not be realized until subsequent readings, or until a full-color text brings an awareness of Hopper's rich, often moody hues: the menacing blueness of the forest in Cape Cod Evening (1939), for example, or the thick, subterranean ochres and lamp-lit orange of the cinema interior of New York Movie (1939).
Mark Strand is well able to articulate in words the compelling, often uneasy quality inherent in Hopper's paintings, and in ourselves as viewer of their scenes, in a way that rings true, yet leaves room for us to create our own dialogue with the image. He states, "The truth is we are enacting two contrary impulses - we are looking both at and in, moving between the two as we shift from one side of the canvas to the other." Likewise do we move between image and word: and in this case, image and word each lend depth to the other. Hopper stands out as a pleasurable small work, well worth reading.
--Katherine Rook Lieber
Editorial Note: Books mentioned in www.artscope.net reviews may be purchased through this site's Amazon.com link. All quotes, unless otherwise identified, are from the book itself.