NEW YORK — You can’t think about Edward Hopper without thinking of mid-20th century New York: its shoulder-to-shoulder tenements, its bridges, its pharmacies, its lunch counters and late-night diners. Hopper grew up in nearby Nyack, flirting with city life on frequent weekend family excursions. In 1899, he started studying art in the city; in 1908, in his mid-20s, he made it official, moving to Manhattan and touching off a connection that would endure well past his death in 1967 at 84.
“Edward Hopper’s New York,” an expansive survey at the Whitney Museum of American Art that opened last month, captures the entwined lives of city and artist with more than 200 paintings and drawings; an array of letters, newspaper articles, and photographs deepen the connection. With his specimen-like renderings of New York every which way, Hopper can come across like a dispassionate observer, which, to be fair, he often was. But he was also devoted to the defense of his beloved city, under constant threat of rampant development.
His zest for civic life adds a wrinkle to the detached voyeurism with which he seemed to view the city most often. Dour and ebullient, anxious and impassioned, “Edward Hopper’s New York” captures a lifelong love that shifted with the city itself, sometimes uncomfortably, but never grew stale.
An atmospheric grid of paintings and drawings the artist made between 1899 and 1915 greets you at the outset, the first chapter of his urban life. You can see him trying different styles on for size: A 1900 portrait of the playwright Henrik Ibsen wedged into a theater seat has the dark and moody imprecision of early Impressionism; it looked to me like a Manet. A dark throng of bodies and instruments in an orchestra pit, from 1904-06, is little more than shadow and light, a looseness alien to what Hopper would become best known for. A 1913 painting of the Queensborough Bridge, veiled in mist à la Monet, feels almost sentimental, a characteristic foreign to the strict, bleak mysteries that make Hopper Hopper.
To that, the show offers a quick snap-to. The big title wall sets the tone. “Approaching a City,” 1946, is a dreary mishmash of architectural types — a tenement, an industrial block, a mansard-roofed rowhouse — cleaved by unrelenting modernity. The scene is painted as viewed from a sunken rail corridor barricaded by gray concrete.
This is the Hopper we know: a visual poet of the profound disconnects of urbanity. The exhibition, smartly curated, moves on to unfurl a gallery of paintings in two plainspoken, complementary parts: “The Window,” a selection of his depictions of the city’s interior lives; and “The Horizontal City,” broad canvases of the bulky jumble of New York’s built environment.
Here you’ll find “Manhattan Bridge Loop,” from 1928, a 19th-century skyline bleached by midday sun and sliced by the concrete guardrail of an aggressively modern overpass; a lone figure all but swallowed by shadow is dwarfed by the scale of it all, to complete the oppressive scene. It pairs perfectly, ominously, with a less-known picture, “Apartment Houses, East River,” c. 1930, of ashen modular mid-rises with grids of tiny, dark windows. It is the city at its most alienating: out of scale with anything human, lifelessly swallowing its vitality whole.
It’s worth noting Hopper pursued his life’s work amid a sea change in American art. European Modernism had announced itself at New York’s Armory Show in 1913, when artists like Picasso and Matisse first broke into the North American mainstream. Downtown, Alfred Stieglitz’s 291 Gallery was cultivating its own brand of Modernism with artists like Georgia O’Keeffe and Arthur Dove. As Hopper reached his peak in the late 1940s, the American revolution of Abstract Expressionism would begin to bloom.
Hopper, of course, would have none of that. His closest allies might have been in the Ashcan School, where the sullen realism of John Sloan and Robert Henri had proposed a different path for American Modernism. Hopper sympathized with the aesthetic, but not the school’s zest for social critique. (George Bellows, a contemporary and classmate of Hopper’s, is known for his visceral paintings of boxing matches and overcrowded tenements teeming with new immigrants.)
Hopper’s city scenes, radically de-peopled, imagine instead how a city imposes itself on the psyche. For him, urbanism was bleak and ambiguous, a forced negotiation of public and private. “The Window” offers snippets of internal worlds like stolen glances: “Room in New York,” 1932, an all-time great, with the sickly glower of overhead light spilling through the frame and revealing a disengaged couple sitting together, alone; or “Automat,” 1927, of a woman shouldered up against the darkness outside at a cafeteria window, its row of light fixtures reflected in the glass as though disappearing into the night.
Not all is so gloomy. The show cannily departs from the main threads of Hopper’s career into discreet galleries where his commercial illustration career is sketched in detail, or where his lifelong love of the theater comes to life. A smart bit of context comes from the side gallery that fleshes out the life Hopper and his wife, the painter Josephine Nivison Hopper, lived for more than five decades on Washington Square in Greenwich Village. Here, Hopper’s cool detachment is replaced with impassioned advocacy: Letters and newspaper articles animate his opposition to a plan by New York University to raze 18th-century rowhouses — theirs included — for campus expansion. For an artist who so often seemed to view the city through the wrong end of a telescope, the episode is satisfyingly intimate.
That space sharpened my understanding of Hopper’s urban acuity; the painter’s frictions with accelerating modernity weren’t clinical, but personal. He lived through the vast slum clearances and freeway initiatives of the longtime head of the New York City Parks Department, Robert Moses — all cloaked in the callous notion of “urban renewal.” Hopper’s New York wasn’t just changing; it was hurtling toward a version of itself that filled him with dread.
The show’s final chapter breaks the gloom with paintings both hyperreal and surreal all at once. Together, they feel like the artist’s paean to a city he loved, all searing daylight and sharp shadows and solitary figures in their embrace. “Morning Sun,” 1952, of a woman sitting alertly on a bed, bathed in sunlight from a big picture window, is compositional elegance at its apex. “Office in a Small City,” 1953, positions a man at his desk in a corner office, the perpendicular windows of a modern concrete building leaving him floating in urban space. “Sunlight in a Cafeteria,” 1958, is as serene a Hopper picture as I’ve seen: With its wall of window streaming an angular bolt of natural light, it envelops a woman in a blue dress in sunny optimism.
No Hopper exhibition leaves you with a vision of a cheery fantasist, and there’s no exception here. But Edward Hopper’s New York is a significant landmark all the same, adding depth and dimension both to the artist as a person and the city that shaped him — and how he, in important ways, shaped it.
EDWARD HOPPER’S NEW YORK
At the Whitney Museum of American Art. 99 Gansevoort St., New York. Through March 5. 212-570-3600, www.whitney.org
Murray Whyte can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @TheMurrayWhyte.