Thursday, September 19, 2013

Hopper Drawing Exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art

Perkins Youngboy Dos Passos, 1941, fabricated chalk on paper, 15 x 22", Josephine Hopper Bequest

Had the great pleasure of viewing the pivotal Hopper Drawing exhibition at the Whitney Museum in New York last Friday. Organized from the Whitney's vast holdings of Edward Hopper's work on paper by Carter Foster, the museum's Curator of Drawing, it is nothing less than a godsend to anyone who loves Hopper. The show continues through Oct. 6, 2013 and is well worth the trip. If you can't get there in time, the exhibtion catalogue (which includes a long quote from me in it's notes for Chapter One) is excellent with extremely well done illustrations. 

Hopper was unusual among 20th century American artists for his habit of doing numerous drawings in preparation for most of his major oil paintings. Foster has paired a number of major Hopper oils with some of the drawing studies that led up to them.

But since Hopper was a man who knew how to enjoy his eyes he also drew just to celebrate the act of looking. Above is a drawing of one of his cats, who was affectionately named Perkins Youngboy Dos Passos (the Hopper's neighbor and friend on Cape Cod was the novelist John Dos Passos). It's informal, but still a masterpiece of sharp observation and design. 

Here it is upside down:

Inverted like this it's easier to notice the exquisite care Hopper takes in studying the silhouettes of his cat. Notice how the top and the bottom outer contour lines on each of his poses are different. Hopper is milking the uniqueness out of each of the images for us. Anyone who has ever tried to draw their cat from life (I once did and found myself starting over literally 15 times until I got the sleeping kitty right) can appreciate what a masterpiece of seeing this drawing is.

Jo Hopper Reclining on a Couch, 1925-30, fabricated chalk on paper, 15 9/16 x 18", Josephine Hopper Bequest

Here's Jo Hopper modeling for her husband accompanied by some helpful pillows and blankets. In this detail Hopper does a blissful pairing of Jo's upraised knee with two pillows at the left that create a perfect rhyming shape.

One of the great truths is that life is rarely as random and disconnected as it appears to the casual observer. Artists like Hopper spend their lives searching beneath the surface of things for hidden patterns. Once discovered,  they base their drawings and paintings on them. 

Hopper probably rearranged both Jo's pose and the arrangement of the pillows over and over until through squinted eyes he seized on this intricate overall pattern of figure and her surroundings merging together into an amazing energetic design. 

Here it is upside down, which I always feel makes the abstraction in a drawing easier to see. My own drawings and paintings spend a lot of time on the easel upside down like this when I'm deciding how to make them.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Edward Hopper, Surfer

Edward Hopper, Rooms by the Sea, oil on canvas, Yale University Art Gallery. I came across an image of this painting on Yale Art Gallery's Facebook page this morning.

When I was a kid growing up on Lake Ontario one of our favorite games when the Lake was really rough was to paddle out in canoes and try to "surf" the biggest waves. For a few exhilarating moments they would push us in a rush toward the shore. The feeling of being swept along by just the water's energy was intoxicating. That these trips usually ended with us capsizing and banging our knees on the rocky shore did little to dissuade us. We knew our fun.

Some think of paintings as static things, but anyone who spends more than a moment standing before a painting finds their eyes start moving around the piece. Even its relatively empty areas have a strange power to make your eyes want to sweep across its surface. 

I've written before about this pivotal oil Rooms by the Sea by Hopper- how it was the first painting I ever paid attention to as a teenager, how Hopper totally rearranged where sunlight actually shone into his painting studio, and so on.

This painting uses of one of the most powerful yet simple tools painters have in their bag of tricks: gradation.

Looking into the large highlight on the central wall one is immediately struck by a certain  moving and shimmering quality to the light. I don't think anyone ever painted bright sunlight better than Hopper. Just in the highlighted section of the wall, one sees Hopper first laid down a whole number of off-white coats of paint. Especially at the bottom of the wall. Then he goes back in and adds a series lighter and warmer whites in the upper and rightmost section of the highlight. When one looks at the whole highlight  these subtle shifts in color act like high and low pressure areas on a weather map, pushing one's eyes across its surface.

Looking closely at the floor one sees there too the yellowish colors shift from left to right and from close to far. So too the surface of the water. One is hard pressed actually to find any surface where Hopper hasn't subtly gradated his color. 

Gradations can be harsh and dramatic or as in this painting they are toned down, pushing the "canoe" of our eyes across the painting's surface gently as the little waves seen out Hopper's doorway might. 

Hopper used gradations so much because he knew they worked to make a painting come to life. And because he was someone who took extraordinary delight in looking at the world. He found it pulsing with quiet energy and invented ways to paint for us what he experienced. "This is what the world looks like," he seems to say, and then adds "and this is how it feels."

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Hopper the Activist

Edward Hopper, Bob Slater’s Hill, 1938, watercolor on paper, 13 1/4 x 19 1/2 inches. Huntington Museum of Art, Huntington, West Virginia. 

Great paintings aren't shy. They tell us where to look and how things feel. They may employ a delicate touch, but underneath it all there's no question who's in charge. 

Was just looking at this watercolor by Edward Hopper, a Vermont scene. In it Hopper shows his hand as someone who combined both sensitive looking and decisiveness. 

It's a painting done largely from direct observation. A remarkably steep hillside catches the late afternoon sun (I'm guessing it's late afternoon by the golden color of the sunlight). Hopper loved the feeling of the wooded hillside and invested it with a unique personality. And he wanted to be sure we noticed it.

So he made several adjustments.

Late afternoon is a time of day when every tree and bush starts getting an intensely dark shadow on one side. As Hopper worked each individual tree's shadow on the hillside was plunging down into darker tonalities by the minute. 

But Hopper refuses to follow, instead holding the growing shadows to a minimum. He wants a big, light and warm hillside to contrast the very dark and very cool far distance. Adding the growing shadows beside each tree would have fractured his monolithic hill into too many pieces. It's power lies in his restraint.

One other great move is the way Hopper accents the arcing curve where the top of the hill overlaps the sky. Here he inserts a long, curving line of dark leaves as if to underline the curving form for us. 

Bonnie Clause published a great new book this year on Hopper's little known work from his summers in Vermont.You can learn more about it here.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

New Show at William Baczek Fine Arts

William Baczek Fine Arts in Northampton, Massachusetts opens their Annual Landscape Exhibition tomorrow that includes four of my large oil paintings. I'm delighted with the selection of works William Baczek made for the show. 

Above is my Deep Forest Pool, oil on panel, 32 x 40". It's a painting done entirely from my imagination. 

Like most of my work it draws part of its inspiration from my youth. I spent hours tramping around with my friends in the heavily forested hills surronding my home along the south shore of Lake Ontario outside Rochester, NY. I remember in particular the striking whites of the birch trees and the swampy still ponds that lay in many of the valleys. To a kid it was the perfect invitation to come home with muddy wet shoes.

In this painting one of my challenges was to pull out just a few from the multitude of trees to play a starring role. In turn most of my highlights have had their intensity softly turned down to let the remaining forms play subordinate roles.

Below is The Voyage of Memory, oil on canvas, 38 x 38". While it was inspired partly by the famous 19th century painter Thomas Cole's series The Voyage of Life, my painting is highly autobiographical. 

One of the wonderful things my father did before he died when I was 13 was to buy a small single sailed boat and teach me how to sail. I remember taking the boat out by myself the day he died in dangerously rough weather on Lake Ontario just to prove to myself that I could do it. I needed to reassure myself I was up for whatever lay ahead of me with him gone.

In the painting I've changed the setting, moving the "Voyage" to a narrow and somewhat perilous passage between steep cliffs. Some months after my father died that little sailboat was washed away in one of the heavy storms that would periodically sweep down from Canada. It miss it but remember it like yesterday. Vivid memory can make for great content in art.

Below is my oil The Red Whisper, oil on canvas, 30 x 40", that takes literally the advice the 19th century master artist Winslow Homer gave that "one should never paint a blue sky." He was on to something.

I had had a dream of an impossibly bright moon sending a shaft of light down and illuminating an island covered with sharply needled pines. The dream felt erie and strangely beautiful. The task of a painting is alter the way we feel. I wanted a vivid otherworldly mood and changed the usual indigo color of the night sky to a deep cherry red.

Here below is my largest piece in the Baczek show, The Song of All Days,  oil on panel, 36 x 72". In someways this painting also stems from my old childhood home in the woods along the shore of one of the Great Lakes. It was a dense old growth forest that abruptly gave way to a wide open shoreline on Lake Ontario. 

The two different spaces always seemed me out of balance and I wished there had been a string of islands dotting the waters. In the rough weather we often had up there forested islands would have offered protections from the wild north winds. 

Years later when I discovered the island-dotted Maine coast I felt it was just the landscape I had longed for as a kid. And my painting is informed by my time there as well. To me Song of All Days is a celebration of what might be the perfect landscape. Who wouldn't want to go paddling here?

The show at William Baczek Fine Arts continues through October 5, 2013.

Sunday, September 1, 2013

Smith College Museum of Art

Last week I was in Northampton, MassachusetAts delivering paintings to William Baczek Fine Arts for the gallery's  Annual Landscape Exhibition that runs September 4 - October 5. William Baczek suggested I take the opportunity to revisit Smith College Museum of Art, something I needed no urging to do as I remember from previous visits it's got a powerful Collection.

Here is a painting I studied incredibly closely some years ago when I  first cut my teeth as a landscape painter in the early 1970's. It is Jacob van Ruisdael's oil A Panoramic View of the Church of Beverwijk. Painted 1660-1665.

Ruisdael was one of the very first painters to take the space of the sky seriously as a vehicle for emotion.   Instead of merely a backdrop to the action on the land, the planes of the clouds and the way they overlap each other lend a full blown personality to the top 2/3 of the painting. As a young artist I made a careful copy of it in oil.

Two other favorites: Winslow Homeer's Shipyard at Gloucester   1871.

Rockwell Kent's Dublin Pond from 1903.