Thursday, September 16, 2010

Edward Hopper



Later this Fall I'll be heading north to go and work in the old painting studio of perhaps the most prominent 20th century American realist artist, Edward Hopper. That's Hopper above in a self portrait done in his maturity. I've been very fortunate to have the opportunity to stay and paint in his studio thirteen times since 1983, due to the generosity of it's current owners.

I love the portrait above. Hopper seems to gaze out at us with a thoughtfulness and understanding I find touching. In reality he was a complex personality, troubled by depression and some social anxiety that pushed him to live an almost reclusive life. But while that may be true, he was also a man of enormous talents and extreme generosity, devoting his life to a vision that has meant so much to so many.

In my own case, I think I owe 90% of my current direction as a painter to this man. I was an art major at Oberlin College in the late 1960's. Seeking the approval of my teachers, I did work like theirs- paintings owing much to Frank Stella, Mark Rothko, and other heroes of the day.

Then I found a half dozen books on Hopper in the college's art library and something started to change. Though I couldn't put it into words at the time, I was drawn to his work. Night after night I'd pick up the same few books, page through the reproductions, and wonder why I felt so at home in his world. My own colorful abstract acrylic paintings seemed even at their best more clever than insightful. Hopper was whispering in my ear to start looking out at the world and teaching me of the poetry that could be found there. Forty years later, his whisper is still echoing.




Above is an early self portrait Hopper painted during his days when he was under the spell of the uber-teacher of the day, Robert Henri. Like me decades later, you can see Hopper was trying to paint like his admired teacher. Later on, he would find his own voice.




Hopper married a fellow student from Henri's class and years later, when she inherited money, they designed and build his famous studio in Truro out near the tip of Cape Cod in Massachusetts. Above is an elderly Hopper sitting on a bench that's still there in the studio. In the background of the photo, just as she was in real life, is his wife Josephine.




Hopper designed the house as a straight forward, no frills painting environment. Dominating the structure is the painting room itself, commanding fully half of the house. His 10' tall, north facing studio window floods the painting room with a light that is nothing short of delicious- just like in his paintings.





And here's the studio viewed from out on Cape Cod Bay. It's at the top of a high sand dune. When you're up there it feels a quite a bit higher than it looks in this photo. Amazing views all around. And always there's a sense of clear unobstructed light, the hallmark of his paintings.

I want to close with a drawing I began just yesterday afternoon and completed this morning. It was done on location in Easton, MD. It's the view of the intricate roofline of the Academy Art Museum where I was headed for a meeting later in the afternoon.



Philip Koch, Academy Art Museum, vine
charcoal, acrylic wash, soft pastel, 10 x 8", 2010


There's a lot of Hopper in it, especially the clear expressive silhouettes and hard, sharp lighting flowing into the drawing from the side.

I rarely do architecture anymore, partly because when I paint it I feel almost overpowered by Hopper. His work was a huge benefit to me, but over the last 15 years I've stepped back from his direct influence, on purpose. Hopper's vision had such a commanding personality that one can get lost standing in his shadow. Hopper had to struggle for years to grow out of Robert Henri's excessive influence. Following my own path meant I had to stop dating this guy.

In my own way, I've chosen to concentrate instead on exploring just the natural world. And I've thought long and hard about what was good in those brightly hued abstract paintings I made all those years ago. It was their whole hearted embrace of color. I've been putting those worlds together to see what I can cook up. Still, once in a while, it's fun to go swimming again in Hopper's waters.

I'll be doing a series of posts about Hopper, his achievements, and what he's meant to me in the next couple of weeks.


6 comments:

  1. Quite a journey it's been, of discovery not to mention reconnection. It also reads like a dream experience for a Hopper-inspired artist (myself included): To spend an extended period in the space he occupied, seeing the light and the views he was deeply affected by. May it be as great for you as it sounds to me!

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  2. David, thanks for your comment. It IS a beautiful place, and it has a real romance to it given its history. In a funny way though, I find the sources Hopper used for his paintings also have a very ordinary side. He saw the potential in them, but it took his eye and imagination to install the real magic we think of as "Hopper."

    In the old days before I had spent a lot of time painting up on Cape Cod I used to think Hopper painted it more or less the way it looked. Later on I came to see just how much of his paintings came from within himself.

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  3. David,

    Forgot to mention I enjoyed your website- you have a painting of cast shadows going across the snow and up a wooden board fence that was great.

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  4. Thanks for your kind comment and visit, Philip. You're absolutely in touch with what Hopper was all about, despite what critics want to say. As he said best when asked what he was after: "I'm after me." And given his introverted personality, he was well connected—not many could influence him!

    Should you have some time and be interested in an interview I had with his biographer, Gail Levin, you can find it here:
    http://faculty.baruch.cuny.edu/glevin/Gail%20Levin%20Interviewednew.htm

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  5. David- thanks for the link to your excellent interview with Gail Levin. I didn't know for example Hopper was afraid of flying, but he really didn't ever paint airplanes did he. Or his avoidance of skyscrapers which many of his contemporaries celebrated. Years ago I brought Gail Levin down to speak at my school, Maryland Institute College of Art, to give a talk on Hopper.

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  6. My pleasure, of course. So glad you likewise had the chance to be with Gail. Her "Hopper's Places" books were instructive about his version of realism by showing where he had been and then how he interpreted it. Low tech all the way since it obviously didn't interest or appeal to him.

    I'll be thinking of your pending trip to the Studio as my wife & I travel to the Cape at the end of this month. And, by the way, if I haven't previously said so, I will now: your work--especially your use of color--is outstanding!

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