Hopper Hits Boston

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Room in New York,1932 /Edward Hopper — Sheldon Memorial Art Gallery and Sculpture Garden, University of Nebraska-Lincoln UNL-F.M. Hall Collection

I headed up to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts last week to catch an early look at the Edward Hopper retrospective that opens there on May 6. ( I’ll have more to say about it in an upcoming issue of Time.) While I was there I grabbed lunch with one of the show’s organizers, Carol Troyen, curator of American painting at the MFA. Here’s a bit of what we talked about:

LACAYO: Hopper produced so many memorable paintings, you tend to forget that he wasn’t actualy all that productive.

TROYEN: The catalog raisonne lists about 350 to 400 oils over 60 years. That averages out to about six or seven a year, and in some years there were just one or two. I think Hopper regarded painting almost as a process of deterioration. He had an idea in his mind and every stroke on the canvas took him further from that vision. He made lots of preliminary studies, and the studies are almost a form of procrastination. So long as he was sketching he didn’t have to face the canvas.

LACAYO: For a long time Hopper was grouped with the American Scene painters of the 1930s like Grant Wood and Thomas Hart Benton. He eventually became uncomfortable with the limitations of that association. It confined the understanding of his work to an almost folkloric context. He certainly looks to us now to be operating in much darker psychological territory than Benton or Wood.

TROYEN: Well, the critics give you an identity and sometimes you give it a little push yourself. Hopper became an American Scene painter when people were looking for one. You might say that our isolationism and his “American-ness” were there at the same time. So he was described for a while in those terms and for a while he let it happen. Then the “existential” interpretation of his work comes along in the 1940s.

LACAYO: There’s actually a note of dread in some Hopper paintings.

TROYEN: Alfred Hitchcock did more to condition our view of Hopper than anyone else. Rear Window and Psycho, the voyeurism, the isolated old house, put a different twist on Hopper’s material.

Captain Upton’s House, 1927/Edward Hopper — Collection of Steve Martin

The Hopper show will be on the walls in Boston through August 19. It moves from there to the National Gallery of Art in Washington and then to the Art Institute of Chicago. Hopper never disappears from the collective memory but this is actually the first full scale retrospective since 1980. Highly recommended.