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ART REVIEW

New exhibit places Hopper in the context of ‘His Time’

Whitney takes a fresh look at the artist of isolation

NEW YORK — Edward Hopper’s imagery is so deeply ingrained in the American imagination that the impulse to associate it with hackneyed states of alienation is by now difficult to undo. And yet, just as Ingmar Bergman was more than a tormented Swede shaking his fist at God — he was also a filmmaker of surpassing gentleness and sensual, mischievous humor — Hopper was much more than a poet of depression and loneliness. You simply have to look at his work to realize how various his moods are and how capacious, how richly ambivalent his images.

He is an artist who can douse you with spiritual desolation one moment and evoke the caressing loveliness of night or the excitement of erotic possibility the next.

His paintings toy with storytelling but come to us, finally, like smoke signals blown asunder in a clear blue sky. Yet they have inspired a veritable Decameron of narrative elaboration, in the form of half a century of movies, short stories, and novels, all of them competing in bleakness and spelling out much more than Hopper was ever prepared to.

Right now, Hopper is the subject of a concise but revealing show at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. He’s not, however, the only subject, and that’s a good thing. There have been numerous Hopper retrospectives of late, including at the Museum of Fine Arts in 2007, at Tate Modern in 2004, and at the Whitney itself in 1995. The chance to see him in the context of his peers, as the Whitney now offers in “Modern Life: Edward Hopper and His Time,’’ is salutary: It relieves Hopper from his “lonely,’’ iconic status, clarifying his indebtedness to his time and honing our understanding of his originality.

The result, adapted from a show the Whitney recently sent to Germany, is enlightening — not the fullest but the freshest view of Hopper I’ve seen.

The show opens with the projection of a freshly scrubbed black-and-white film by Paul Strand and Charles Sheeler. Called “Manhatta’’ (after Walt Whitman’s poem, “Mannahatta’’), it was made in 1921, and shows a series of lyrical, Olympian views — plumes of smoke, glistening harbors, chugging boats, soaring bridge cables — of the city that Hopper and his fellow artists were showing from street-level in gritty, tightly framed close-ups.

Near the projection hang two early Hoppers showing motifs that relate to the film: “Tugboat With Black Smokestack’’ (1908) and “Queensborough Bridge’’ (1913). The suggestion is that the possibilities inherent in urban, almost documentary-style realism loomed large in Hopper’s formative years.

And they certainly did. The show’s first large gallery places early Hoppers among works by his Ashcan school peers: John Sloan, William Glackens, and Everett Shinn, and their mentor Robert Henri, who also taught Hopper. The Ashcan painters were Philadelphia newspaper illustrators molded by Henri into urban realists. Inspired by Manet, Degas, and more directly by the exploding populations and teeming sociability of American cities, they rejected Gilded Age gentility and sought to get to grips with the realities of class, construction, and commerce.

Hopper, who went to Europe three times between 1906 and 1910, was watching all this and interested in getting it down. And early works, such as the 1906 crayon drawing “Untitled (The Railroad),’’ and the 1906 painting “Untitled (Woman Walking),’’ do give a sense of an artist intrigued by the urban melee.

But Hopper seemed to have an inbuilt resistance to anecdote and crowded pictorial fields, and would never have painted a picture like Glackens’s “Hammerstein’s Roof Garden’’ — a hectic nighttime entertainment — or Sloan’s “Backyards, Greenwich Village.’’

Looking at the Sloan, especially — a wonderful, lushly painted image of a leaping cat, two long rows of drying clothes like bunting, and two boys playing with a snowman — this can seem like Hopper’s loss. Rebecca Zurier, writing in the catalog, notes that, while the Ashcan painters “fail to ask . . . existential questions about the possibility of communication between people in a city,’’ Hopper’s own vision is, in a different way, “somewhat limited. It fails to consider the ways in which cities have brought people together’’ and to address complexities of class and race.

Was this a failure? Let’s just say it’s something Hopper was, for his own reasons, uninterested in doing. To criticize, for instance, Hopper’s “New York Interior’’ (c. 1921) — a woman, sewing, seen from behind, her long hair parted at the back to reveal the nape of her neck, her shoulders pale and muscular, her two needle-holding fingers grotesquely tensed, her petticoat vivaciously white against an interior in which every individual item is cut off or partially occluded — to criticize it for failing to consider the ways in which cities bring people together . . . well, why not blame Vermeer for not getting out more?

The most surprising of these early Hoppers is a superb painting that anticipates with uncanny precision his later concerns. It shows from behind a solitary figure in a theater, the dark blob of his or her head intersecting the vast frame of the stage but making no real incursion into the huge gray vacancy it frames.

Dated between 1902 and 1904, when Hopper was only just out of his teens, this small, penumbral painting rather complicates the myth that he was a slow starter, who didn’t really get going until his 40s. In spirit, it feels remarkably close to the work of his older contemporary, the Danish painter Vilhelm Hammershoi, a poet of empty interiors, unpopulated city architecture, and solitary women, often seen from behind.

Subsequent rooms combine masterpieces and lesser-known works by Hopper — from the incomparable “Early Sunday Morning’’ and “Night Windows’’ to the marvelous etching “Night Shadows’’ — with examples of urban realism that, under the influence of avant-garde trends, was becoming increasingly stylized and abstracted.

George Bellows’s “Dempsey and Firpo,’’ for instance, introduces unexpected concordances of dynamic line and shape into that artist’s earlier, grittier approach to the boxing ring, while Guy Pène du Bois’s “Opera Box’’ shows a tall and effulgently lit flapper leaning out of her dark opera box. She has a stillness and serenity about her that are vaguely Hopperesque; but she is monumental, stylized, and attuned to the theater of being watched in a way that Hopper preferred to suppress.

The show’s next room is given over to pairing Hopper with the Precisionists — artists like Charles Demuth, Stuart Davis, Sheeler, and Ralston Crawford — who took urban and rural structures as inspiration for abstracted, hard-edged images that celebrated industrial and agricultural architecture and machinery as something uniquely American.

Given Hopper’s own love of geometry, architecture, and pictorial reduction, the comparison makes brilliant sense; it’s very revealing. But one of the things it reveals is Hopper’s sensitivity to the atmosphere of the real world. Yes, he loved geometry and strove for simplicity. But his lines tremble, his touch is humanly imperfect, his brushstrokes breathe. (The fact that most of the works in this room are watercolors tends to emphasize the point.)

We’re reminded in the next gallery that Hopper’s vision of America was by no means restricted to cities and industry. In 1930, he and his wife, Jo, started spending summers on Cape Cod. There he painted some of his best known works, such as “Gas,’’ “Seven A.M.,’’ and “Cape Cod Sunset,’’ all included here alongside works by his friend and fellow “American Scene’’ painter, Charles Burchfield.

Burchfield’s “Ice Glare,’’ a masterpiece in watercolor from 1933, reminds us of Hopper’s limitations. As hauntingly empty and eerily humdrum as any Hopper, it also has a compositional jauntiness and an optical intensity that were beyond Hopper, just as limber, properly weighted figures often eluded him (especially in paint).

The final room returns us to the city. Hopper’s “Barber Shop,’’ a stiff and somewhat over-cooked study in diagonals, and “The Sheridan Theater,’’ a marvelous study of silent intimacy in a setting of shabby grandeur, are seen alongside a honky-tonk parade of illicit entertainments by his peers. Thomas Hart Benton depicts a poker game (illustrating a scene from “A Streetcar Named Desire’’); Paul Cadmus, sailors with whores; and Demuth, in a hilarious watercolor I had not seen, a homosexual couple in an art gallery admiring a conspicuously phallic sculpture by Brancusi.

None of these images could ever be mistaken for a Hopper. But they were made at a time when the question of what constituted true American art was intensely alive, and very much up for grabs.

Hopper, like Hammershoi, is one of those singular artists we are always wanting to lift out of history. He seems more pure, more porous for our imaginations that way. But he was not himself a recluse. He was engaged with the art and life of his time, and his painting can’t hide that.

The impulse to dissociate Hopper from his time and associate him instead with timeless, existential states depletes his art’s power, and draws perilously close to kitsch. But of course, it’s hard to avoid: Hopper’s figures really are isolated — in space, and from one another.

His manner of painting evokes reality, but with an uncanny degree of stillness, an unnerving detachment. It can conjure shivers of agoraphobia or a stalled-dream, De Chirico-like dread.

But light comes into his pictures like a beneficent hand, warming its strong local colors, and making tangible and specific what might otherwise seem general and abstracted. Again and again, Hopper’s pictures conjure feelings — only some of them dire — that we all recognize, if ever we have gone solo to a movie, traveled through twilit landscapes by train, or let ourselves, unaccompanied, into an empty hotel room, enfolded in silence.

Sebastian Smee can be reached at ssmee@globe.com.  

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