The Whitney Museum of American Art opens its new building to the public on May 1, and I had the good fortune to visit it a week early, in a preview showing to members of the press and others who’ve written about Whitney-associated artists.
In a word, I found the new museum to be spectacular. I think Edward Hopper would have loved it too. The light! I was there on a cloudy day, and nethertheless the whole place was bathed in light, within and without, a clear wash of brightness that’s a function of the building’s glass walls and outdoor terraces, its location on the water, and its height relative to its immediate low-rise neighbors. And the views! On the west is the Hudson, the river that was foreground in the landscape of Hopper’s childhood, and to the north, east, and south lies the cityscape that formed the urban backdrop of Hopper’s mature works, paintings that have become synonymous with the painter as well as emblematic of American art.
Note: Click on the photos to see larger images. All photos here were taken by me on 23 April 2015. To see images of individual artworks, go to the Whitney’s collection database, searchable and online at http://collection.whitney.org/artists/by-letter/A
Of course the Whitney Museum is about much more than Edward Hopper; his name is just one of the hundreds of painters, sculptors, and installation artists whose works are included in the new museum’s inaugural exhibition. It’s entitled “America is Hard to See,” a reference to a poem by Robert Frost (who was, incidentally, Hopper’s favorite poet). Organized chronologically and thematically, the show occupies the galleries on all floors of the museum and tells the story of art in the United States since the founding of the Whitney Studio Club in 1914. Since many of the works on display relate to significant social and political issues and events, the exhibition actually constitutes a kind of visual history of America in the 20th century. For me, this lent a tongue-in-cheek flavor to the show’s thought-provoking title — which, like Frost’s poem and the artworks themselves, can be interpreted variously.
Even as one artist among many, Edward Hopper remains an intrinsic part of the Whitney’s public image and “branding,” and thus he is one of the few artists with multiple pieces on display in this initial exhibition. Hopper’s works are hung in four of the twenty-something thematic galleries, reflecting his versatility, the longevity of his career, his consistent association with the Whitney throughout the institution’s first six decades, and the sheer number of his pieces —in all media — that are in the museum’s collections. Hopper’s presence in this survey of American art is also a tribute to the elasticity of his work with respect to any classificatory scheme or time frame; he might be considered the artistic embodiment of the term “crossover.”
The Whitney Studio Club exhibit — in the museum lobby, and the only gallery that will be open to the public for free — considers the museum’s founding years and includes a wall of Hopper’s early (1920–’25) drawings of nudes, most of which have never been displayed. These figure drawings (left, and in the header photo), done in black charcoal and a rust-colored chalk, are strong and sure, surprisingly fluid and accomplished in comparison with Hopper’s later, rather clunky renderings of nudes in his more well-known oil paintings. That these works on paper are now “out of the closet” is thanks to the work of curator Carter Foster and his staff in completing the cataloging and analysis of the thousands of pieces in the Josephine N. Hopper Bequest, in preparation for last year’s exhibition, Hopper Drawing, at the “old” Whitney. Interspersed among the Hopper studies are two pieces showing the Studio artists in action: a drypoint by Peggy Bacon (The Whitney Studio Club, 1925) and a lithograph by Mabel Dwight, (Life Class, 1931).
The introductory gallery also includes one of Hopper’s Parisian oils, Le Bistro (1909), showing a couple imbibing in an oudoor cafe on the banks of the Seine. It’s a good choice for this gallery; it was exhibited at Whitney Studio Club in 1920, and it’s a scene that will surely be replicated this summer, on the Whitney’s plaza cafes on the banks of the Hudson.
Proceeding chronologically, the exhibition continues at the very top of the museum, on the 8th floor. There — if you can tear yourself away from the floor-to-ceiling windows and comfy leather couches overlooking the Hudson, on the west side of the building, and the cafe with its expansive outside piazzas, on the east — you’ll find two classic Hopper oils, Early Sunday Morning (1930) and Seven A.M. (1948). They share a wall, quietly, in one of the darker interior galleries. Although the overhead lighting is superb in eliminating extraneous reflections, from a certain perspective the new building manages to assert itself by adding another window to brighten up Hopper’s austere facade. To me the reflected intrusion seemed appropriate, as well as rather humorous.
Hopper’s Railroad Sunset (1929) blazes from a wall in the section on “Breaking the Prairie.” This epigraph is a double entendre; it’s both the title of the plowing scene in a Grant Wood triptych, displayed nearby, and a reference to the ground-breaking landscape interpretations of 1920s and ’30s. The inscription in Grant Wood’s study adds yet another layer to the metaphor, quoting Daniel Webster: “When tillage begins, other arts follow.” Hopper’s gorgeous landscape is a departure for him, but a brilliant one, shown to great advantage in this gallery. It was part of the Josephine N. Hopper Bequest to the Whitney, comprising works that remained in the Hoppers’ studio after their deaths. Seeing it here in all its glory, one can only wonder why it was never sold.
Carter Foster’s curatorial work also insured the inclusion in the current show of one of Hopper’s many drawings for Nighthawks (1942), an acknowledgement and a low-key reference to Hopper’s most famous painting—surely to be sought-after by tourists (although the painting’s not owned by the Whitney and thus not on display here).
The Hopper drawing is adjacent to other works from the 1930s by Hopper’s colleagues George Bellows and Reginald Marsh. It’s mounted alongside two delightfully humorous drawings by Mabel Dwight, one of numerous women whose work is receiving long-overdue recognition in the new Whitney.
In a future post I’ll write more about the iterations between the museum, its setting, and the artworks — especially Hopper’s and others from the 1930s and ’40s. Meanwhile, I’ll express the hope that the Whitney will continue to display our old friends among Hopper’s works as well as those that are less well known. I would love to see some of Hopper’s Vermont watercolors (the Whitney owns about eight of them, in addition to a number of drawings of the White River in South Royalton) on display in this wonderful new museum on the Hudson. And of course I’ll be happy to provide information for the wall texts!