Seattle Art Museum's intimate show "Edward Hopper's Women" features a handful of the artist's paintings and etchings, centered on the iconic "Chop Suey," a promised gift to SAM from collector Barney Ebsworth.
As a Victorian-era New Yorker with a strict Baptist upbringing, Edward Hopper had issues with women. Even though he stood 6 feet 4 inches tall and was a strapping, handsome fellow, he was “timid as an English school boy,” according to one friend. That same friend confided to his diary that the young Hopper ought to be married “but can’t imagine to what kind of a woman. The hunger of that man.”
The hunger, the reticence, the loneliness, the voyeurism all come into sharp relief in “Edward Hopper’s Women,” a small, delicious show at Seattle Art Museum. Here we find a capsule view of Hopper’s world, a place where desire and vulnerability, sexual bartering and emotional barrenness exist together, never to be resolved.
Assembled by Patti Junker, SAM’s curator of American art, the exhibition has a tight focus that provides an ideal immersion in the work, an antidote to the usual “bigger-is-better” museum mentality. “Hopper’s Women” showcases just 10 paintings, among them a dark early self-portrait and an oddly evasive portrait of Hopper’s wife, Jo. (Tellingly, she hated the portrait — the only one he ever did of her, although she modeled for the female characters in his paintings.)
Three charged etchings supplement the paintings and a selection of photographs by other artists set the scene. The photographs struck me as filler, interesting in themselves and as background to Hopper’s visual world, but in this context more a distraction than an asset. Spend as much time as you can with the paintings: Each makes a powerful statement. With that kind of emotional force, there’s no need for extras.
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“Hopper’s Women” ranges over five decades and is geared to show off Hopper’s emblematic 1929 restaurant scene “Chop Suey,” a promised gift to the museum from collector Barney Ebsworth, and almost as familiar as Hopper’s great diner scene in “Nighthawks.”
The show includes one painting that clearly doesn’t fit the “Women” theme: the 1937 “French Six-Day Bicycle Rider,” with nary a woman in sight. Still, it’s a compelling picture and also part of the Ebsworth collection, so we can assume Junker is doing her curatorial best to let Ebsworth know SAM would be thrilled to receive it as a gift, too.
And in one sense, the imagery in “Bicycle Rider” does support the other work. From the searing 1906 self-portrait to the troubling drama of the 1958 “Sunlight in a Cafeteria,” the paintings resonate with a deep sense of isolation. Hopper’s people always seem to be surrounded by boxes, cut off from each other and the world. In the calculated geometry of a Hopper composition, architectural forms, even beams of sunlight, seem like cages.
There is seldom comfort or security at hand, and certainly no protection from the voyeuristic gaze of the artist, who catches his subjects at moments when they think no one is watching them.
That’s the case with the gorgeous painting “New York Movie,” long one of my favorite Hoppers. Here, in an opulent movie house with its dark plush interior, swirly floral carpet and velvet seats, a lovely young usherette stands alone, absorbed in her own world while some black and white drama unfolds on the screen.
Others in the theater watch the film, but we look on from among the dark seats at the back of the house, unseen observers, watching the woman.
As in all Hopper paintings, the story tales place in our heads. Why is she wearing such impractical, strappy high-heeled shoes to work? Is she waiting for her shift to get over so she can rush off to meet someone? Has something sad happened to her, that she stands with eyes downcast and chin resting in her hand?
The one certainty is that she is an object of desire to someone she doesn’t see. Her blond hair glints in the soft light framing her and a red curtain next to her hangs suggestively parted.
A thick pillar runs smack down the middle of the painting, dividing the composition into two parts. In one half the world goes on as usual: a movie plays and people watch. In the other, a woman stands unaware as someone watches and, we can easily imagine, creates his own fantasy. There’s a hint of creepiness in it, a hint of sadness.
Hopper didn’t like talking about meaning in his paintings. “The whole answer is there on canvas. I don’t know how I could explain it any further,” a catalog essay quotes the artist saying. In her writing about Hopper, Junker delves into the complex sociological trappings of the work, the changing role of women in early-20th-century society — what we can assume about women dining alone or with men in public restaurants — their vulnerability and their influence.
It’s good information and provides insights into the subtle signals we might overlook as 21st-century viewers. Yet in the chapter on “Chop Suey,” it seemed like Junker dwelled longer on the history of the pseudo Chinese dish and the type of restaurants it spawned than she did on the painting itself.
Like the work of Picasso and Frida Kahlo, Hopper’s paintings have been so widely reproduced it might feel easy to shrug them off as too common, almost stereotypical. But get in a room with the real thing and all their clout comes back. “Edward Hopper’s Women” pulls you into a relationship with the artist and his subjects that will haunt you long after you leave.
Sheila Farr: firstname.lastname@example.org