Sunday, September 4, 2011
A Friend in the Metropolitan
My old friend Bob Sheridan who was one of the first people I met when I went off to college in Oberlin, Ohio emailed me a photo of the Edward Hopper oil above yesterday. When I first met Bob I was intending to major in sociology and imagined a career for myself teaching and writing learned books. Bob's staying in New York this week and went over to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Back in the late '60's I spent two wonderful summers as a student at the Art Students League of New York. I used to go to the Met to study the paintings when they were open in the evenings. I was determined to learn everything I could from that giant museum.
Bob's email sent me back to those years. Bob was one of the earliest collectors of my paintings ( and incidentally owns a large oil I painted in Hopper's kitchen in his Cape Cod studio that I'm really proud of). He also bought my work back in the days when it was really affordable.
Bob's photo of the Hopper lighthouse makes me smile for several reasons. One is that it's a heck of a good painting. But also because it was one of the paintings I used to look at when I was starting out as an artist, full of energy and drive but also full of questions and uncertainty about what it took to make art great. I'd stand and look at this Hopper, squinting my eyes this way and that and wondering if I was missing anything important. Years later I see it far better because my eyes work better now- they've been educated by the thousands of drawings and paintings I've done and the countless other artists whose work I've imbibed.
Paintings are made for our pleasure. They fill the rooms of our houses and our lives and make them larger. They are companions. And they are teachers, slowly nudging our eyes to wake up and take in more of what reality really is.
There's much that could be said about Hopper's lighthouse. One is that he'd come back after painting it one day and revisit it from an altogether different point of view, as he does in the watercolor of the same lighthouse below. Just by example Hopper is telling us that we never understand something fully the first time. He came back and looked again and again, each time discovering something that had been hidden from view in his previous visit. That's a good life lesson right there.
For convenience I'll show you that first painting again to save you having to scroll up and down so much. Let's check out a few of the tricks Hopper has up his sleeve to make this painting spring to life.
First, think of some of the truly dreadful paintings of lighthouses you've seen hanging in seafood restaurants. Inevitably they show the lighthouse surrounded by lots and lots of sky. Hopper instead knew he didn't have that much to say about the sky. So in both of these paintings he zeroed in on the buildings, blowing them up in scale so they run off both the top and one of sides of his painting. Immediately he's broken they sky up into two distinct shapes instead of just one long passive background void. It's his way of forcing the otherwise passive sky to play a more active role in his drama.
In the oil just above Hopper has conceived of the buildings as a long chain of connected geometric shapes, sort of like a necklace made of impossibly large abstract beads all strung together. Such a necklace would be painful to wear but it's great to look at as it breaks up the big rectangle of Hopper's composition.
Looking further into Hopper's envisioning of the building, squint your eyes a bit and notice how he's conceived of the structure in two parts- there's the sunlit part and the shadowed part intersecting each other like a giant "X". He wants your awareness to center on these expressive big silhouettes, so other than breaking the building up with his bold shadows, he tones down all the other extraneous detail. The windows seem to be melting away into the surfaces of the white walls.
Compare these barely stated windows to the dramatic punctuation provided by Hopper's highly contrasting darks of the windows in the other watercolor lighthouse. In your mind's eye try an little experiment- imagine the watercolor with all the accents of the seven dark windows removed. As they disappear the watercolor wilts away into a too-middle-toned puddle. In that painting the windows are one of the engines that drive the painting forward.
Hopper had trained his eye to such a point that he had a sixth sense as he was working about which way to go with details like his windows. Sometimes they have to be stressed, other times he had to turn their volume way down. Like all artists who've worked and looked hard at reality and at art, Hopper had carefully nurtured his best instincts. Like a well trained athlete who just lets their body take over and perform at their peak, Hopper reach the point where his hand often made the right choices for him without his having to think about what he was doing.
Did Hopper's instincts sometimes fails him? Sure, it happened plenty. Probably most of his failures ended up disappearing into his trash can or were painted over. You will see sometimes work by the guy that's not up to his usual standards. Hey everybody stumbles.
But what we can learn from Hopper is that we can all develop our ability to see more and to sense reality more deeply. It's part of the job of being alive, to make the experience the fullest and most meaningful journey we can. Our success and our happiness depend on it.
Anyway, thanks Bob for sending the photo of lighthouse and thanks Ed for painting it.