Monday, October 09, 2006

Hopper, Picasso and the Americans at the Whitney

The Whitney devotes the entire fifth floor to Hopper’s paintings and drawings, as a part of its “Full House” anniversary exhibition. The first room looks at Hopper’s Paris apprenticeship. In choosing river and bridges for his subjects, Hopper was clearly influenced by the Impressionists’ emphasis on outdoor light. The paintings, however, do not display the textured brushstrokes that aim to capture the phenomenology of light; they consist of regular shapes colored in with brushstrokes that efface themselves.

Hopper’s preoccupation with light is seen in the titles of some of his more famous paintings. “South Carolina Morning” depicts a black woman dressed sexily in red, standing in a doorway, and looking out at bright fields and sky.

In “Cape Cod Evening,” an elderly couple, in front of their house, watches their dog play in their long-grass lawn. The grass is light golden, echoed and enriched in the golden brown fur of the dog. Next to, and behind the house, stand dark blue trees. Light in this painting assumes symbolic significance, commenting on the lives of its human inhabitants.

Hopper seems to be more interested in these effects of light than its play on surfaces. The night in “Nighthawks” is psychological and moral rather than phenomenological. Hopper turns his early influence into a personal account of the universe as he sees it, what a major artist must do.

Influence is the topic of another Whitney exhibition. “Picasso and American Art” looks at the Spanish master’s influence on Roy Lichtenstein, Ashile Gorky, Lee Krasner, Willem de Kooning, Jasper Johns, and Jackson Pollock. Was it the Times reviewer who commented on the textbook feel of the exhibition, with its didactic groupings of American paintings around the Picasso that inspired them? The organization did cramp my appreciation of individual paintings. Or was the appreciation clamped?

It seemed to me that the only paintings there that stood against the Picassos were by an artist I did not know before: Arshile Gorky. His “Organization” does not merely reproduce the geometry and bright colors of Picasso’s “The Studio.” It understands its forerunner; more, it personalizes, and deepens, the other’s questions. I really like the figurative “The Artist and His Mother” as well as the abstract “Enigmatic Combat.” Painted in opposite styles, the two are similar in their questioning of subject and method. Perhaps I am impressed by Gorky’s lack of complacency. One pays tribute to one’s artistic forebears by arguing with them.

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