Monday, October 21, 2013

Edward Hopper Drawings at the Whitney and Engagement in Museums with Technology

Self-Portrait, 1945
Going to museums to view art is a lot of work these days involving a bevvy of options that are available to anyone with the right tools and a minimal understanding of social media. Which is why I was thinking about a post I had read in Daydream Tourist, "Why you can't take photos in museums?", while I was walking around the Hopper Drawing Exhibit at the Whitney Museum of Art two weeks ago. I was looking, thinking, tweeting and taking pictures... as well as remembering a time when all I had to be concerned with while visiting a museum was the audio-guide - if they had one available or not. Granted we didn't have user-friendly smartphones nor any kind of social media to post those photographs on back then, I couldn't help but be aware of all that I allowed to intrude into my private time with art today. What did I think of all of this at the end of the day is something we'll find out together by the end of this post...

Jo Hopper, 1945-50
My Mother, c. 1920

I have always found Hopper's work speaks to me like no other artist's, leaving me with an impression of familiarity where I could read into his works a story similar to my own on some level. So, I was really excited about viewing his drawings, hoping to get a glimpse into his creative process... and maybe even glean some insight into what made him tick?

Hopper's Hat on his Etching Press, 1924 

At the outset, my plan was to see how using technology affected my art-viewing experience since this is the hot debate everyone has an opinion on. As an avid art-lover who uses her iPad to take pictures at museums and even had to buy extra storage for those pictures, I take all the discussions about this issue personally. But at the same time, this was Hopper! one of my favourite artists whose work I responded to emotionally. Setting a deliberate agenda for something you do just for the love of it might turn it into homework. As ambitious as my goals may seem, I still wanted to have an unadulterated experience solely engaging with the art and the mindset of the artist, an experience which can only be facilitated by physically being in front of the work of art. So, I set out for the third floor of the Whitney, armed with my iPad.

Looking at an artist's drawings, especially preparatory drawings almost feels as if one is intruding into his private space. Although Hopper's intent seems to be a little ambiguous, since he signed and dated his drawings, (I think there were a few he may have given as gifts too) and kept meticulous records, it is assumed he must have meant for them to be known and displayed at some point.

Woman with Gloves
Viewing Painting, 

    Three Men at Exhibition,
    c. 1900-03
    Standing Female Nude
    with Arm Behind Back,
    Rear View,

Reclining Female Nude, Rear View, 1900-06

Two Self-Portraits from 1945, Hopper's Hat on his Etching Press (1924) and a Self-Portrait and Hands (c. 1900) met the visitors at the entrance of the central room dedicated to an overview of his drawing practice. This space provided a great overview of the different range of subjects Hopper worked on from portraiture to landscapes to compositional studies. Also included was a small enclosed area displaying the artist's early works from his time as a student at the New York School of Art. I particularly enjoyed contemplating the act of looking in art - drawings and watercolours depicting figures engaged in looking at the art displayed next to figure studies from studio sessions provided a nice juxtaposition on one wall.

Salem, 1929

Being a huge fan of Hopper's work, I was really delighted to see that the sound of silence one can hear blaring, the sensation of stillness one can feel directly and the interiority of his figures one can see repeatedly throughout his work were all strikingly present in his drawings as well.  Although I had seen some of his drawings previously, in this context, seeing them next to the works they preceded or inspired, in some instances revealing the whole creative process was an invaluable experience in itself.

Stairway, 1949 (Oil on Wood)          Study for Stairway, 1949
After the initial gallery, there were seven galleries devoted to the drawings leading to some of his best-known oil on canvas paintings. This was a truly remarkable exhibition in the amount of work that was on display and after spending four hours immersed in Hopper's world when I came out for breath, I realized that I had not been able to tweet as much as I had intended but had garnered a deeper understanding of Hopper's oeuvre and quite a bit of visual material from the experience. Since the whole point of this post is to share what I had seen and garnered from the exhibit for those who were not able to attend and hopefully be a point of reference for anyone interested, I wanted to find a way to present what I had experienced in a unique way that encompassed the whole of the exhibition; being able to take photographs became vital at this point. The iconic paintings exhibited were a point of reference as opposed to the main attraction, which of course were the preliminary studies and I tried to capture a brief essence of all that I had seen (utilizing available technology) by making Vine videos.

Hopper in Paris and Soir Bleu

Soir Bleu, 1914
(Whitney Museum of American Art)

Whitney Museum had a great Edward Hopper exhibit in 2011 that I had written a detailed post on, which included Soir Bleu inspired by his trips to Paris 1907 and 1910. The pen-and-ink sketches and watercolour caricatures Hopper made of the people of Parisian society which were on show at this exhibit were really revelatory in their unique character yet after viewing them, Soir Bleu, which is so different than Hopper's mature style of American Realism made more sense somehow. 

I got into interesting conversations with other museum-goers during my visit to this exhibit. One of these was a gentleman who started telling me how contrived the painting Soir Bleu was as opposed to the illustration Waiter and Diners; we ended up discussing the obvious Japanese influence in the two illustrations on display. The two illustrations in this room Boy and Moon and Waiter and Diners surprised me not only for their style but also how different in emotion they were compared to his other works.  Another gentleman seeing me take photographs with my Ipad gave me technical suggestions and we discussed the merits of being able to capture the correct colours when taking photographs yourself as opposed to buying the postcards. (In all honesty, I don't think it is possible to capture the correct colours when taking photographs with smartphones or tablets- I haven't been successful anyway, but the photographs are priceless to have as reference)

Boy and Moon, c. 1906-10
Waiter and Diners, 1906-07

Even though his quickly executed sketches of Parisians were from life, I could find only one or two familiar figures in Soir Bleu (audio-guide) that related directly to his character studies, the rest of the protagonists seem to be composite types, contrived in his New York studio, as the elderly gentleman had suggested.

Manhattan Bridge Loop and From Williamsburg Bridge

From Williamsburg Bridge, 1928 
Upper Stories of 82 Washington Square East, c. 1928
Study for From Williamsburg Bridge, 1928

In the gallery where Manhattan Bridge Loop and From Williamsburg Bridge were displayed, photography was not allowed of the two main paintings(the one above courtesy of and the charcoal drawings which according to the art critic Deborah Solomon is a possession and ownership issue. These two paintings are pointed out as the first examples of Hopper's famous voyeuristic point of view. Seeing the drawings leading up to a work of art is like getting a chance to walk through the creative process with the artist; notice how the single man in the window of the upper story apartment in From Williamsburg Bridge is not in the drawing of the upper stories of 82 Washington Square East and how this changes the whole feel of the work.

Early Sunday Morning, 1930

Early Sunday Morning, 1930

There was one study for Early Sunday Morning, a lone fire-hydrant but the Whitney has two audio-guides for this particular painting - one about the composition, light and urbanization, and a second part about its relation to Nighthawks, the other painting in this gallery. The easel Hopper had built himself in 1924 and used in his Greenwich Village studio was also on display which was very appropriate in the context of an artist's working process. The added dimension to this exhibition was the video of the curator showing and talking about the actual sites depicted which he was able to find from old photographs.  I felt it was really beneficial to have seen this before coming to the show.

Nighthawks, 1942
This must be Hopper's most famous painting so I will only include the link to the audio-guide here as well as the one detail I was proud to have picked out which is the different jacket of the man seen from the back.
Study for Nighthawks, 1941 or 1942

(Last?) Study for Nighthawks, 1941 or 1942

New York Movie, 1939

New York Movie, 1939

The preparatory sketches of this painting were very comprehensive including all the different details of all of the elements in the work Hopper worked on at different times, building the idea of the painting almost as if he was building an actual structure. (Audio-guide 

Office at Night, 1940

One gallery was devoted to Office at Night and Conference at Night, painted nine years apart. Seeing these works next to each other demonstrated how Hopper revisited the same themes and his changing perspective on the same theme.

"The picture was probably first suggested by many rides on the 'L' train in New York City after dark, and glimpses of office interiors that were so fleeting as to leave fresh and vivid impressions on my mind."  - Edward Hopper
Office at Night, 1940
Conference at Night, 1949

"The idea of a loft of (a) business building with the artificial light of the street coming into the room at night had been in my mind for some years before I attempted it. And had been suggested by things I had seen on Broadway in walking there at night." - Edward Hopper
Conference at Night, 1949

Gas, 1940 

Gas, 1940 (MOMA)

Rooms for Tourists, 1945

The studies for Rooms for Tourists are another great opportunity to see Hopper's meticulous working style, attention to detail and how/what he edited. As can be seen from the drawings Hopper studied this portrait of an inn at night a long time, by daylight and at night; according to Whitney curator Lloyd Goedrich, "he used to go almost every night in his car and park near the house and study it." Hopper was concerned with capturing what someone passing by this Provincetown boarding house in a car would see in an instant. After the long hours he spent sitting in his car across from this house, Hopper finally seems to have decided where to crop the view in the study below. The actual painting with the varying degrees of light, warm and yellow shining from the interior of the house and a brighter white over the sign is truly spectacular. It makes one feel like the out-of-town visitor captivated by the sight of an unfamiliar house that gives one a peek at the warmth to be found within it. 

Study for Rooms for Toursits, 1945
(Note the faint line where he cropped the painting)

Rooms for Tourists, 1945
On the wall across from the Studies for Rooms for Tourists were hanging the most hauntingly poignant (for me anyway) Studies for Solitude #56, making me feel as if I knew that road, I had either been there or seen it in my dreams.

Two Studies for Solitude #56, 1944
The Bedroom

I was already familiar with A Woman in the Sun, from the previous exhibit I had seen at the Whitney but the rest of the drawings and his earlier work, Morning in a City were totally new to me. If I had thought the image of the lone figure of a female in a room looking out towards the sun, trying to feel it's warmth was a powerful image before, I was totally blown away by the studies of females by a window. Especially the two, Seated and Standing Female Nude sketches for etching from 1915-18 felt like my own portraits somehow.

Seated Female Nude by Window
(Sketch for Etching)1915-18
Standing Female Nude by Window(Sketch for Etching) 1915-18

A Woman in the Sun, 1961
Morning in a City, 1944

Studies for Morning in the Sun, 1952

Hopper captures the essence of being the outsider, looking towards something that is other than one's own reality with an ambiguous attitude that leaves room for the viewer to interpret as they wish. I tend to think of Hopper as the Painter of American Loneliness since he seems to bring to life the kind of alienation that is so predominant in our society which is why the empty room filled with sunshine was the perfect ending to this wonderful show.

Sun in an Empty Room, 1963
Whitney has a collection of Hopper paintings that they are displaying on the fifth floor and after finishing the exhibition I went up there to take a look at those paintings. Deciding what to leave out must be one of the hardest decisions for a curator but I was glad they did not decide to include these paintings, even his Self-portrait; the drawings of his Self-portrait felt more intimate that the colourful painting.

Although I started with a little trepidation at first, this experiment turned out to be really enlightening. I deliberately watched my own actions along with my reactions to the art for the sake of formulating an idea as to the effects of using technology in museums. One of the primary differences I noticed was how the use of technology allowed me to interact with the other visitors, not a very likely occurrence for me since I am usually so absorbed I do not notice who or what is going on around me. The experiment reminded me that museums originally were a place for social interaction. Among the several total strangers, I talked to one was an art teacher who wanted advice on how to share the photographs taken on an iPad in her classroom. There were only one or two others who were just as intent as I in trying to capture just the right shot which brings me to the other point about taking pictures. If these photographs are to be used in something other than Facebook posts they need to be taken carefully and repeatedly (my inability to capture the works exactly as they are is the reason I had to resort to manipulating them and making them into something else here in this post) The two individuals who were taking numerous shots did so by stepping aside for other visitors to see and then going back and taking their pictures again. Some might question if all of this 'work' took away from my concentration on the art - in my case, I think I spent enough time there to make up for the interruptions.

There were volunteers for the museum conducting a survey about taking photographs in museums and the strangest question posed was if I would go to a museum which didn't allow for photography leaving me baffled as to who would consider a museum visit as merely a photo-opportunity. My experience at the Whitney with its free wi-fi and free photo policy was wonderful. I fell in love with Hopper's work all over again and decided to make a pilgrimage to his childhood home in Nyack, New York.

The recent op-ed piece by Deborah Solomon in the New York Times about the use of technology in museums and a survey of sorts related to Ms. Solomon's piece in NPR prompted me to write this really long post. As of yesterday, in a post for her blog the Classicist Dr Mary Beard also joined the conversation, asking the question "Do computers belong in museum galleries?"

While we are discussing the changing technology and museum policies about photography we seem to be overlooking the changing image of museums and the demographic of museum-goers. We are not talking about a homogeneous crowd of art lovers who visit museums to seek knowledge anymore and thank God for that! It may be naive but I really believe that just getting people in through the doors of such institutions is the most important part of the battle, then the content will enchant them. Imposing strict rules and prohibitions, demanding a certain type of engagement are unrealistic from the fast-paced, instant gratification seeking masses of our society. It is not wise to alienate them and say art is only for the knowledgeable, those who know how to behave in a certain manner. Museums are filled with magnificent expressions of the human experience and no one has ownership of that, it belongs to all humanity. We need to find creative ways to meet each other halfway and stop resisting change if we want museums to survive into the next century.


  1. Dear Sedef,

    100% agreed. Get people in the door. If technology helps with that, so be it. I love taking photos in museums, because I usually end up frustrated that I can't get postcard of my favorite works I've seen that day. I would go to a museum that didn't allow photography, of course, but I think that I might approach the experience differently.

    I'm not sure that I love the Vine videos - too many images flashing by that I want to see! But at least it's a glimpse - I'm sure you couldn't show all of those images individually in your post.

    Thanks for sharing this exhibition with us - I almost feel like I saw it in person!

    Take care - -

  2. Thanks for the feedback Karen, I really appreciate your input on Vine videos. It is a really fun tool but I guess it might be better suited for focusing on one work of art. Maybe we can even take this as a good analogy of our fast revolving world and changing attitudes, perspectives and how we process information.


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