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In Edward Hopper’s New York, Ephemerality Is Beautiful and So Is Solitude

Exhibition Review of Whitney Museum of Art's Edward Hopper's New York (Oct 19, 2022 - Mar 5, 2023)

February 13, 2023


The night is young in New York City—the city bustles with new restaurant and gallery openings each week, with people enjoying their weekly weekend rituals of going on dates or bar hopping. Thousands of people are squeezed into the subway each morning with a coffee in one hand and their phones in the other. When one enters New York, the vibrance and intensity of the city overwhelm them—in Hopper’s New York, silence speaks volumes. At the Whitney Museum’s latest exhibition Edward Hopper’s New York, time stands still. The exhibition creates a cinematic experience for visitors to find the beauty in transient, solitary sceneries of early 20th-century New York obscured by the metropolitan’s growth in glamor and rapidity of the era.

Those that ride the elevator to the fifth floor of the museum are welcomed by a pristine white wall with 17 artworks of various sizes and mediums collaged onto it: they are immediately introduced to Hopper’s first impressions of New York as a young artist when he first moved in 1908. Perpendicular to the wall is another white divider with the exhibition title gigantically typed out in black letters, along with the opening blurb for the exhibition which accentuates the idea that Hopper’s depiction of New York is not an “exacting portrait of the 20th-century metropolis,” hence the inclusion of the possessive in the title.

Before the viewers step foot in the first room, “The City in Print,” they are introduced to two artworks: Approaching a City (1946), one of Hopper’s paintings, and New York City (1916), a black-and-white video dropped from the museum’s ceiling which captures the train station that Hopper often used for traveling from the city. Both artworks serve as a preview of the two themes most prevalent in the exhibition as well as the film we are about to watch: solitude and ephemerality. Hopper’s works lack the depiction of tall buildings and the astir crowd symbolic of the urban development in early 20th-century New York and are rather replaced by empty streets or with solitary figures engaging in mundane activities in their quotidian realities, in an effort of capturing the fleeting, reposeful sceneries of the newly modernized 1900s metropolis.

Chronology and theme simultaneously contribute to the curatorial display of over 200 of Hopper’s various media artworks at the museum: whilst the pieces are not fully ordered chronologically—for instance, the very first artwork the viewers encounter, Approaching a City (1946), being one of his latest works created—the works showcase Hopper’s artistic progress in approaching New York as his subject and his process of adjusting to the city. Rather than solely focusing on the timeline of Hopper’s life, the exhibition provides a narrative. The exhibition is skillfully divided into various themes: “The Window,” a series of Hopper’s works where he paints subjects he spotted outside his residence window, “The Horizontal City,” a display of five building landscapes with the same panoramic format, and “Reality and Fantasy,” the works created from Hopper’s imagination rather than careful observation, are placed in the main hallway.

In between these series of thematic works are three small rooms: “The City in Print,” a section that starts the exhibition through the honoring of Hopper’s initial job as a publication cover artist, “Washington Square,” the neighborhood in which Hopper’s art studio was located in, and the last room “Theater,” dedicated to Hopper’s main source of entertainment: cinema. These three rooms are separated from the rest of Hopper’s collection with, not only physical gallery walls but also the subtle change in the color and dimmer lighting, turning the rooms mildly pink, blue, and purple, respectively. While the ambiguous placement of the rooms leads to confusion about the museum’s intended course, it highlights the ephemeral and non-linear nature of each stage in Hopper’s artistic life, essentially providing space for the themes to be explored in a more spacious yet intimate manner. The rooms allow visitors to explore Hopper’s journal entries and videos, offering a glimpse into the innermost aspects of his life.

Each artwork in the exhibition is an individual scene of a film about Hopper’s self-discovery in which images are static and the soundtracks are inaudible. The frequent wall texts and the audio guide provide the details fundamental for the storytelling of Hopper’s transformation in his view of New York in lieu of the soundtrack. Once one enters the fifth floor, they—whether they be the general or the scholarly public—become the film’s audience. The exhibition’s curation further builds on the parallel between cinema and the exhibition: the visitors are guided to enter “Theater” as their last room in the exhibition. “Theater” contains a collection of Hopper’s works with theatre and cinema as subjects as well as his descriptive, personal reflections in his journals about his passion for the performances that he had enjoyed watching. As the visitor leaves the room taking a final glance at the New York Movie (1939), a depiction of an usher standing alone on the side of the theater and dichotomizing the loneliness with the lavishness that exists in the theater back in Hopper’s era, the exhibition—and the film—comes to a close, and the feeling of solitariness radiates greater than ever.

While one enters the exhibition bewildered about Hopper’s depiction of the lack thereof—the lack thereof people, liveliness, or movement—in the thronging city, they come out feeling as if they just swallowed a breath of fresh air. In the span of time in which the viewers venture through the exhibition, they are not in New York—they are in Edward Hopper’s New York, a place that teaches us to take a step back from our restless lives and capture moments in which silence still speaks volumes and a place where beauty can be found in transience and solitary.

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