Gail Levin, ‘Edward Hopper’ (12/84)

Gail Levin, Edward Hopper (New York: Crown), 96 pp., 25 black and white illustrations, 50 color illustrations

[pictured above: Edward Hopper, Early Sunday Morning]

The Q.L.P. Series wanted a Hopper book to go with its 60 other titles; thus this respectable survey, which against Gail Levin’s far more inclusive Edward Hopper: The Art and the Artist (1981) and Edward Hopper As Illustrator (1979) is close to mere commodity.

Two distant but related points might be made. The heavily coated paper of The Art and the Artist gives the color reproductions an almost Kodachrome sheen, utterly distorting Hopper’s use of light rather than perspective to catch spatial and emotional depth; the duller paper in the new book preserves the flatness of the pictures. The way the paper shows how Hopper’s light recedes into his scenes also reveals an inescapable affinity between Hopper and Walker Evans—compare Hopper’s 1930 Early Sunday Morning with Evans’ 1936 Main Street ArchitectureSelma, Alabama, or Evans’ 1936 Frame HouseCharleston, South Carolina with Hopper’s 1946 October on Cape Cod. It’s an affinity not only of composition but of social voice: like Evans’ photographs of inhabited but seemingly abandoned buildings and rooms, Hopper’s strongest pictures, whether they include men and women or not, set forth a Depression-era America which has been shocked into silence, where nothing that matters can be said, where talk can produce neither action nor pleasure.

It’s no accident that the 1981 film Pennies from Heaven recreated Evans’ 1936 Billboards and Frame HousesAtlanta, Georgia in its shot of a Carole Lombard billboard, along with, as tableaux vivants, Hopper’s 1932 Room in New York, 1939 New York Movie, and 1942 Nighthawks. But Levin, who has made something of a career of Hopper, does her best to avoid such territory; her “just the facts” approach keeps Hopper happily within the fold of formalism. Early on here, she ventures a dead-end comparison with Courbet, which she takes nowhere; what Hopper and American art criticism as such need are studies on the level of T.J. Clark’s adventurous Image of the People: Gustave Courbet and the 1848 Revolution (1982). The paintings can indeed tell you everything, but not if you only look at pictures.

Artforum, December 1984

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