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That Strange, Sad Light : 'Maybe I'm not very human,' Edward Hopper said. 'What I wanted to do was to paint sunlight on the side of a house' : EDWARD HOPPER: An Intimate Biography, By Gail Levin (Alfred A. Knopf: $35; 678 pp.)

November 05, 1995|Fred Schruers | Fred Schruers is a contributing editor to Rolling Stone

Lovers of Edward Hopper's austere, epochal art almost certainly stand to lose a hero in reading Gail Levin's weighty, frustrating but stalwart biography. It's weighty for its relative inclusiveness (Hopper was anything but prolific, and virtually every painting he sold is enumerated); frustrating for the reticence of its subject (the painter, who died in 1967, left little record of his thoughts), and stalwart for the amount of digging and cogitating Levin has done to fortify her key asset--the voluminous and generally piquant observations of Hopper's tormented spouse, Jo.

Levin earns the right to her subtitle, "An Intimate Biography," for Jo Hopper's suffering is conveyed in scores of angry, unflinching observations from her letters and journal. "Swatting isn't as bad as meanness," she notes after one of their cuffing, scratching, biting set-tos. ". . . His rule of reason always has a quality of tyranny in it."

Hopper, during the months of brooding interludes between creative spasms, Hopper preferred reading and crossword puzzles to conversation: "Any talk with me sends his eye to the clock. It's like taking the attention of an expensive specialist." Jo's wifely frustration was compounded by her husband's mockery of her painting.

Hopper's fellow sacred monster, George Bernard Shaw, said of biographies that "the truth is never fit for publication," but Levin hasn't shrunk from the details of a private existence that was in patches both sordid and mean. We become schooled in the couple's medical maladies as well as in Edward's abusive and self-centered sexuality. Jo, past 40 and a virgin when she married Edward, was appalled that "the whole thing was entirely for him. . . . I'd not consent to be hurt too much." Brusque, unheeding and rough, Edward shed his stern Puritanism in episodes that improved only decades later, after she forced a marriage manual upon him.

What surely began as a full-blown critical biography from the art historian who's created a nine-book shelf of treatises on Edward Hopper half-grudgingly distracts itself (and the reader) with a catalogue of his personality defects. To Hopper's brutal aloofness and sexual callousness, one can add stinginess, casual cruelty, self-absorption and fang-toothed egotism. It's no surprise then, to find a usually forgotten clause--"Maybe I'm not very human"--preceding one of Hopper's much-quoted observations: "What I wanted to do was to paint sunlight on the side of a house."

The statement comes from his depiction of his long years of struggle as an illustrator, doing work he describes as "pot-boiling," in which his talent was nonetheless evident. "I was always interested in architecture," he says, "But the editors wanted people waving their arms." The indomitability of this aesthetic is one of the things we have to admire Hopper for, notably in one of his latest major works, 1963's "Sun in an Empty Room." After years of including figures--cryptically staring, lonely or conflicted; people we want to outfit with stories over Hopper's unfailing, firmly stated objections--he was back down to essentials, painting what Levin calls "the sunlight he associated with life itself." Asked by a sympathetic interviewer what he was after in this starkest of pictures, Hopper simply said, "I'm after me ."

Poet Mark Strand, in his beautifully observant 1994 study "Hopper," calls "Sun" "Hopper's last great painting, a vision of the world without us; not merely a place that excludes us but a place emptied of us." There's no questioning the man's radical solitariness, which one would simply call misanthropy if his work didn't speak so eloquently of the tender and ineffable mysteries of the human condition.

Hopper's life was one long philosophical malaise. Levin, plain-spoken in her well-considered insights, has a sharp ear for prescient lines on her subject and quotes critic Jacob Getlar Smith's singling out of what he saw in Hopper's work as "a somberness, a realization that existence is serious and at times desolate--that despite rigid demands, out of every day percolates a radiancy, the haunting spell of life itself."

It's that haunting element, arising partly out of the spareness of his craft, that has preserved not only Hopper's popularity--is there a more telling snapshot of the dark night of the American soul than "Nighthawks"?--but also his critical esteem. Clement Greenberg was the champion of Jackson Pollock and other Abstract Expressionists, Hopper's usurpers, when he ventured in 1947 that Hopper's "insight in itself is literary . . . but if he were a better painter, he would, most likely, not be so superior an artist."

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