Mark Strand’s “Hopper”

I think one only picks up and art book if you actually like the artist. Or the artist is infamous in some way, so everyone is “interested” in them. So yes, the only reason I picked up this slender volume about Edward Hopper’s work is because I like his paintings (also, it was slender enough that I could finish in the hour I sat at the bookstore. Another plus).

I’ve taken a few art classes, so I know the basics of shape, line, etc., but when presented with an actual painting, all of this knowledge goes straight out that exquisitely rendered window. I stare a bit, move my to one side, try to conjure up intelligent thoughts. Usually I come up with, “Pretty colors!” or nothing at all, which happens when confronted with a monochromatic work.

This book was like having Mark Strand stand beside me in the museum and point out important aspects of the painting. “See that trapezoidal shape there?” he would tell me, “That shape is pulling you in and pushing you back at the same time.” Short of actually calling up Mr. Strand for a tour of the latest Hopper exhibit (“Oh, you’re busy? Writing famous poetry and all that? Oh, well, ok. No, no big deal, next time then!”), this book is like having any artsy friend explaining some of Hopper’s most famous paintings. Strand is obviously a fan and has probably, over years of simply looking and asking questions, gleaned a lot of useful information, which he then applies to his own deeper theories about what Hopper’s painting’s convey in a grander sense.

Going back to our imaginary museum conversation touches on one of Strand’s major visual themes that he picks out of many of the paintings: “[The] two imperatives – the one that urges us to continue and the other that compels us to stay – create a tension that is constant in Hopper’s work.” Yes, I thought, thank you Mark Strand, for putting into words something I most likely would never have quite figured out how to say. When you look at a Hopper painting, this one for example, there is an anxiety, a discomfort that arises. I either want to step further into the painting, to see what’s going on, or step back, get a wider perspective and SEE WHAT’S GOING ON. There’s something slightly menacing about this painting, something I can’t quite see around a corner, though, granted, most of his paintings are much brighter and don’t quite put me so much on edge.

Not only do the paintings look like they’re in some in-between space, but the stories they tell are temporally in the middle as well.  It’s like we just walked into the middle of the story, and now we’re trying to figure out the beginning and the end. Especially when there are people involved, such as this painting, we feel as if we are seeing just a moment, a snapshot of their lives. But what were they doing just before? And where are their lives heading? Strand characterizes the people as “waiting,” “with nothing to do.”

“They are like characters whose parts have deserted them and now, trapped in the space of their waiting, must keep themselves company, with no clear place to go, no future.”

Of course, Hopper’s people are most often alone, or at most an isolated few are featured together. Even when there is more than one person, such as in the famous diner scene, or this one of a couple, the people in it do not really seem together or connected in anyway. Strand touches on this aloneness in Hopper’s work:

“Hopper’s rooms become sad havens of desire. We want to know more about what goes on in them, but of course we cannot. The silence that accompanies our viewing seems to increase. It is unsettling. It weighs on use like solitude.”  detached desolate isolated

Strand, a true poet, leaves us detached, with nothing but his ideas to consider when the book ends, much in the same way Hopper’s paintings leave us with nothing but shapes, lines, and questions.

[If you’re a Hopper fan, which I assume you are, you’ve made it this far, you might enjoy this scrapbook website by the Smithsonian (another quick read, with lots of pics!).]

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