Gail Levin discusses the work of Edward Hopper and the Art Institute of Chicago's Hopper's exhibition
BROADCAST: Oct. 2, 1981 | DURATION: 00:52:41
Discussing the book "Edward Hopper: The Art and the Artist." Includes recordings of Robert Frost reading "The Road Not Taken," Carl Sandburg reading "Gone," and Tom Waits' song "Nighthawks."
Tap within the transcript to jump to that part of the audio.
Studs Terkel I suppose one of the most, you might call the archetypal American artist Edward Hopper who captures America at a certain time but that time is now as well as then. And there's an exhibition a retrospective of Hopper as you probably know at the Art Institute running through November 29th. And among the visitors have been Hopper people: writers of Hopper, art critics. Gail Levin for one, my guest this m--today. And it's a book a very beautiful book of Hopper's--reproductions of Hopper's works and and her reflections and her thoughts. It's a story of Edward Hopper, how he came to be the kind of artist he is and the works themselves. "The Art and The Artist" and WW Norton the publishers. The exhibition through November 29th. We know of course that "Nighthawks" that one that throws me for a loop is there permanently [Art Institute?], but others of his work, scores, hundreds I imagine of his works.
Studs Terkel Three hundred. So in a moment perhaps, not in the moment, not perhaps, definitely Gail Levin, her reflections on Edward Hopper after this message. Gail I thought that before your thoughts and "Hopper: The Art and The Artist." Somehow I always think of Robert Frost saying in words sort of what Hopper did visually on the canvas. Sort of [as though?] a part of that American scene, capturing it. And I'm delighted to see that you make reference to Frost here. Suppose we hear Frost's voice.
Gail Levin Because they had, I suppose you'd say that one had the ear and the other the eye. Yeah, seeing pretty much a certain kind of America, certain kind of time and place. Here's just Frost's voice to set the mood. "The Road Not Taken."
Robert Frost Two roads diverge in a yellow wood,/And sorry I could not travel both/And be one traveler, long I stood/And looked down one as far as I could/To where it bent in the undergrowth;/Then took the other, as just as fair/And having perhaps the better claim,/Because it was grassy and wanted wear;/Though as for that the passing there/Had worn them really about the same,/And both that morning equally lay/In leaves no step had trodden black./Oh, I kept the first for another day!/Yet knowing how way leads on the way,/I doubted if I should ever come back./I shall be telling this with a sigh/Somewhere ages and ages hence:/Two roads diverged in a wood, and I-/I took the one less traveled by/And that has made all the difference.
Gail Levin Yes it is. I'm also struck by you know just the thought of the traveling man, the traveler, which is so important to Hopper's work. You know he, the the whole idea of escape, escape from--We always see these people in his paintings waiting for something to happen. Daydreaming as it were, and when Hopper found himself unable to paint, which is pretty often, especially in during his mature years, if he had painter's block as it were, he'd either go to the movies, and he really became a regular movie addict, or in a longer sense, he'd travel quite a bit around America and also to Mexico with his wife. And along the way rather than just painting tourist sites or whatever, the imagery of travel, the interior of trains, hotel rooms, hotel lobbies, motel rooms, highways, gas stations. This became the imagery of so much of his painting.
Studs Terkel Also I suppose there was sort of a mystery too, it was there. Like the one called "Gas," it's a gas station. It's a number--and you get kind of, we'll come to loneliness in a minute. But the idea that there's a detached quality yet we know he was highly emotional. A detached qual--in the hotel lobby where people are not looking at one another. They're there, interest sitting there. So--
Gail Levin Yes.
Gail Levin Right. There is that sense of mystery about his paintings too and in "Gas" from 1939 that you mention which everyone can see in the exhibition at the Art Institute, there's not only that deserted highway and the solitary gas station attendant but that mysterious woods--
Studs Terkel Yeah.
Gail Levin Yeah--
Gail Levin Not at all. Very much a loner. He really chose to be rather a recluse. He didn't have, he wasn't a gregarious sort. He was a man of very few words. But you know he had a very long marriage to a woman who was also a painter Josephine Nivison Hopper--
Gail Levin Not at all. He didn't want to be a stylistic innovator. On the contrary, you're quite right. He wanted to be a great classical artist a great world painter in the sense of the French impressionist.
Studs Terkel But I'm talking about the idea of him and, yeah the light of Paris and light, light in the United States. Those, they're two kinds of light [with him?] wouldn't it? There's the electricity, the artificial light, and the sun.
Gail Levin Yes you know he said several things. He said what he always wanted to do was paint sunlight on the side of a house. He also said that it was much easier to paint you know electric light and night time scene. He felt that sunlight was much more problematic. It's interesting.
Studs Terkel Yeah.
Studs Terkel But also a funny thing to me and thinking of at the moment "Nighthawks" which is of course there at the Art Institute, part of the retrospective, there permanently, and in your--by the way it's a marvelous reproduction in your book. Gail Levin is my guest. The book is "Edward Hopper: Art and the Artist." That the light in this all night restaurant, course this brings back a memory. Mind if I tell you a story and you can comment on this, okay?
Gail Levin Great.
Studs Terkel Alright. I lived in a little hotel in Chicago. Several formative years of my life in a transient neighborhood, men's hotel. Below was an all-night restaurant. I remember going down there and the excitement, the boy you know is 12, 13, having apple pie a la mode and talk--old timers who lost their teeth and eating graveyard toast. That means warm milk and bread in it because they were beaten up by some vigilantes. These guys were old time labor organizers, you see. And so every time I see Nighthawks and I see this guy bent over [unintelligible] and the man, the woman who hands aren't touching, and the counterman I think of that all-night restaurant, and I think of a 12 year old boy eating apple pie a la mode at two in the morning.
Gail Levin That's fascinating. You know you're a real Chicago person and of course Hopper moved to New York from the time he started art school and he was born just less than 40 miles north in a small town called Nyack. But when he painted the city particularly New York City I think he painted not just New York but the urban American experience. Do you find that's true?
Gail Levin Forty-two.
Gail Levin Yeah.
Studs Terkel Forty-two.
Studs Terkel Yeah, but it was a time '42 still was the time. Was just after the Depression [unintelligible]. A time when the country was primarily rural and now changing. And so city. City more and more. And that which was the country is now moving toward the city. So he caught a movement just as you say movement, traveling. Movement to cities too and here comes the city.
Studs Terkel I didn't know he admired "The Killers" but "The Killers" certainly has it. These two guys in there waiting you know, they got to knock off a guy and they meet at an all-night greasy spoon.
Gail Levin Right. But you know in the in the Hemingway story nothing ever happens, they never make their killing. And in Hopper paintings nothing ever happens either. We're all set up but we never see what happens.
Studs Terkel No, no. But on that, we [say?] "Nighthawks" again for the moment there are lights, it's late at night, and somehow you get a feeling the light outside as though from a lamp from a lamppost, the light is more lonely than the dark. I think some critics said the dark is less lonely.
Gail Levin You know that's really interesting. It's certainly the light that dramatizes that scene so much. Did you ever notice as you look through the glass of that all-night diner, through the second glass, because it's kind of a triangular diner in the middle of the street where several streets meet, the window just beyond has a light in it or some light in it and you can see a cash register through the window. And I always wondered if that was the sort of implication that a robbery was about to take place or something like that.
Studs Terkel There was always some aspect of suspense, something--Nothing is happening seemingly but a great deal is. And the crazy thought occurred to me, talking to you right now. A play, Chekhov, you see, Chekhov has people sitting almost all the time. There's no physical movement tremendous amount of stuff is happening of course psychically. We know of their lives just even though they're not moving, they're just sitting. In a way with Hopper too.
Gail Levin Yes it's extraordinary. You know I think we all bring our own thoughts to Hopper's paintings and sometimes you get just a solitary character. You know one person thinks, Gee he's really lonely and another person thinks, Gee he's really peaceful, you know. Things are quiet and calm. But I think we all bring our own emotions, our own experiences to Hopper's paintings and I think part of their richness is that he allows us to do that. He doesn't tell all; there's some mystery there.
Studs Terkel Yes, so there's the mystery again, as say in Frost stopping by woods and snow, or the road not taken. So it's simple, deceptively simple. And yet while so much happens. Because the the people themselves and we see with a solitary figure or a couple who are looking past one another you know. They're featureless sort of, I mean you don't see the features that vividly. It's an attitude.
Gail Levin Yes. You know you mention the couples particularly in Hopper's paintings and the people that we see, we never see any large groups but you know there's so little communication. They don't look at each other. There seems to be a real sense of alienation. They look away from one another, oh as in "Room in New York."
Gail Levin The couple seem bored you know. He reading a newspaper, she playing a key on the piano. You know the "New Yorker" did a cartoon that had a man and a woman looking away from each other, looking very bored, and the caption was, "Say why don't we go see the Hopper show at the Whitney?" which is of course where this exhibition originated.
Studs Terkel Just here's one called "Excursion Into Philosophy," and there's a window, oh we'll come to the open window, of a window always it seems. And there's a man sitting there, there's a book opened. And at first you don't notice someone behind him but there is. Half clothed and in her slip a woman, we see the back of a woman lying there, and--
Studs Terkel No.
Gail Levin Yes.
Studs Terkel Oh [that's pretty funny?]. You know we talk, so many things came to mind as you were talking about cities. Oh I know, "Nighthawks." He, you say he wanted to be a classic painter so when in Paris and when attending classes he was [technically?], he was taken by Rembrandt's "Night Watch."
Gail Levin That's right. He saw it in Amsterdam in June of 1907 and he thought it was one of the most realistic paintings he'd ever seen. And you know back in those days they thought "The Night Watch" was really a nighttime scene. Now we know that it wasn't really intended as such. But for years art historians wrote about it like that and the idea of painting not just the way the night looks but the feel of night, that was what excited Hopper. This is something his teacher at the New York School of Art, his favorite teacher Robert Henri talked about; reflecting your own experience in your painting and your own feeling and I think Hopper's paintings are so full of mood. We really have a sense about his feeling, his emotions.
Studs Terkel Witness.
Gail Levin And we see a woman beginning to undress. We, we're often looking through a window into an interior space. You know New York used to have an el like Chicago and Hopper used to ride it. Observe life around him.
Studs Terkel So of course this is easily Chicago. It's any city even though it was New York. But you mentioned his teacher, the one, Henri. And we think of his disciples, Henri's, they were Bellows and Luks, and they became part of what was called the Ashcan School, you know action, stuff. We saw a certain, a certain turbulent tempestuous quality. Hopper was part of that class but not part of that school.
Gail Levin Yes. You could say Hopper's roots were in the Ashcan School, and that was the idea of painting your surroundings and that would be even be life as it really was; the slums, the teeming masses. Of course Hopper empties out. You could see still more crowds in his very early paintings. But then the city scenes began to empty out quite a bit. And you know somebody once asked him in a scene of New York City which has millions of people why there were no people in his city scene, and he, he gave a hearty laugh and he said you know they say I'm lonely; and at another time he said, But the loneliness thing is over done. At any rate he's you know he certainly was influenced by artists like John Sloan for example who one could call part of the Ashcan School who also painted New York and painted the city. And this is the beginning of urban realism.
Studs Terkel Yeah. Funny, funny thought occurs to me. [The Ashcan?] George Bellows, his celebrated painting, one of them is Jack--Firpo knocking Jack Dempsey out of the ring like a--almost like a Hogarth thing. Knocking him out. Now suppose Hopper were at that same prize fight, which I suppose he would not be, but if he were I thought of what he would do with that ring scene. He would have both these guys the big Argentinean Firpo and Jack Dempsey, the young mauler, sitting opposite each other staring away from each other. I'm thinking out loud--
Gail Levin Yes, you know you're right. In fact he did do some athletes, some French six-day bicycle riders at Madison Square Garden in a painting. That's one of the few athletic paintings he did in his maturity. And of course they're sitting there very, the bicycle rider sitting still very contemplative, sort of waiting probably between races. And so of course you're right. You know Bellows and Hopper were exact contemporaries and classmates under Robert Henri, and of course Bellows was a success way before Hopper he even got into the National Academy you know more than 25 years ahead of Hopper, and when the Hopper was finally invited to come in he refused because they rejected his paintings from juried exhibitions for so long. He was, even though we don't think of him as an innovator really ahead of his time in his style.
Studs Terkel I'm after me. You think about this in contrast to the artists down through the years who follow a fashion of the day because it's something something saleable. And he's precisely--So he for a long time then Hopper was just neglected?
Gail Levin Yes. You know he sold his first painting in the New York Armory show of 1913. That show and that painting came on to Chicago. And that was when all of a modernists were the cry of the day when the, I think the Chicago vice squad came in to investigate whether Matisse, the French painter, was pornographic. And he didn't sell another painting until 1923. Ten years later. He had to support himself as an illustrator and through the sale of his etchings.
Studs Terkel There was always this idea of I'm after me and me is this certain kind of introspective guy who is with his thoughts so much, somebody else is around or he is alone but there's no--We hear the phrase the day "alienation" so often used. He captured it way back, didn't he?
Gail Levin That's really true. You know he used to carry around a little quote by Goethe about literature which he said applied to his philosophy of art, which had to do with portraying the world around me by the world that is within me. And Hopper was also very literary. He loved to read. You know he he could read French and German and of course he loved Emerson.
Gail Levin Yes.
Studs Terkel And theater. By the way he captures theaters very well. There again places ordinarily would be crowded like hotel lobbies, theaters, there's only one person sitting there; empty seats or a couple, about to be. I think an Emerson quote somewhere here. Remember the time he cited Emerson regarding an earlier painter: In every work of genius we recognize our own rejected thoughts. They come back to us with a certain alienated majesty. I like that. Alienated majesty. I [unintelligible] this way back for something as it goes for Hopper. And all you ever wanted to do was paint sunlight on the side of a house.
Gail Levin Yes.
Studs Terkel "Rooms by the Sea." That's the one that hit me. "Rooms by the Sea." This is, in the sequence Gail Levin has sunlight. And all of a sudden you see the blue sea, you see the sun reflected in the shape of the door.
Gail Levin You know Hopper spent all summers is in rural New England. This is on Cape Cod and his home in south Truro is on a high bluff overlooking the bay. And when you look at the right angle it looks just like in this painting as if his house drops off directly to the sea. He loved the sea by the way.
Studs Terkel Nyack.
Studs Terkel But in this, in the sequence of the traveling man there's a house along a train along, and the side of a house. You know I thought of not that Hopper reminded me of him but Walker Evans photographs remind me of Hopper at a certain thing. Evans did a lot of depression photographs.
Gail Levin Yes.
Gail Levin Oh so many things. I think the way he really expresses feeling; the paintings are so full of personal emotion, I think. And also the way he's able to express so many of his feelings in so many different ways, whether we see the couple working late in the office, the secretary at the file on this is the painting "Office at Night" from 1940. Hopper really seems to have captured America. I think part of it you know he's been influenced very much by the movies the way the movies captured America. And now there are lots of movie makers influenced by Hopper. It's quite interesting.
Studs Terkel I'm going to ask you about a play [unintelligible] in a moment. But before that, offices. So we have offices, this architecture, skyscrapers you're way up, you know. He also painted at a time when skyscrapers were, they were established by still relatively new.
Gail Levin Yes. You know in the original drawings for that of course his wife was the model and she is rather dumpy looking. And as he works from drawing to drawing and this is something you can see in the current exhibition, and of course in the catalog, as he progresses with his idea she becomes more and more curvaceous and more and more sensual looking as his idea about what he wants to express and the painting crystallizes.
Gail Levin Yeah.
Studs Terkel Or having the tension there. The obvious thing would be you have an, you imagined something may go on between them. It's after hours work, office wife. This, these are the cliches. But now you see, each--She's pulling stuff out of a filing cabinet, he's staring out elsewhere. Again we come to the non-communicative aspect.
Gail Levin [Yes, you know?] It's interesting because in the etchings and the earlier work, those were finished by 1923, and in his work as an illustrator and in the Parisian works they're often couples who do communicate, who are romantic, and those disappear as he gets older. Someone asked him if he was a pessimist and he said, Don't you get to be, you know.
Gail Levin Yeah.
Studs Terkel We're talking to Gail Levin who is here in connection with the Art Institute's retrospective exhibition of the works of Edward Hopper and her own book is called "The Art and The Artist," published by by Norton. W.W. Norton. And it has some beautiful reproductions of the works of Hopper, many of which of course all of which you will see over at the Art Institute through November 29th. And also her own comments and reflections and those of others, some of her colleagues. And we'll resume in a moment, after this message. Resuming the conversation with Gail Levin. The basis is her book, "Edward Hopper: The Art and The Artist" and Norton are the publishers. Reproductions of Hopper's works as well as comments, reflections. And oh, you were saying the sponsors of the--
Gail Levin Yes. You know this is the largest Hopper retrospective ever to take place and it's been made possible by the National Endowment for the Arts and by Philip Morris Incorporated. And it's the first exhibition ever to bring his masterpiece paintings together with their study drawings and all of those were given to the Whitney by the artist's widow at her death. And it's the largest collection probably of any American artist anywhere. It's really quite remarkable. And there's a large selection now here in Chicago.
Studs Terkel Through November 29th it'll be there. So we see really one man's view of America even though it was painted a generation, two, before, whatever a generation might be from the '20s through the '50s, '60s. He painted to the very end.
Studs Terkel You know you say that he was influenced by movies but also I remember seeing this play and it was a play that influenced his one of his most celebrated "Early Sunday Morning," which is the cover of your book--
Gail Levin Yes.
Gail Levin Oh it's it's a wonderful painting. People in New York know it very well because you know it was on the cover of the New York phone book about six years ago. It's a deserted street. It was originally called "7th Avenue Shops" and he changed the name to "Early Sunday Morning." It was painted in 1930. You see two storey buildings with a skyscraper in the, just a touch of it, in the upper right hand corner and shops: a barber shop pole down beneath and a fire hydrant in the shadows. And we have the feeling that we're looking down on the street scene from maybe a second story window across the street and what might have inspired him was in fact he saved his ticket stubs from Elmer Rice's play "Street Scene" that he saw in December 1929. And of course being very frugal, which Hopper and his wife were probably due to their long years of struggle, they sat in the second balcony and they looked down on Joe Mielziner's set for "Street Scene." So maybe that inspired this painting although you know at the Art Institute right now are some of Hopper's childhood drawings and one of them is of a two storey building on a street, and you can almost see the roots--
Studs Terkel Well it was [unintelligible], this "Early Sunday Morning," I think of "Sunday Mornin' Comin' Down," a song by Kris Kristofferson which I should have thought to bring out. Kris Kristofferson describes a Sunday morning in the city but his would be more of an even poor, this is a lower-middle class neighborhood, sort of a neighborhood. Kris Kristofferson has more of an Appalachian transient area but it could have fit, but it occurred to me see, "Street Scene" by Elmer Rice, which has a set by Mielziner, Hopper saw it second balcony you say?
Gail Levin Yes.
Gail Levin No.
Studs Terkel Yeah, and William Collier Jr. was the boy and Beulah Bondi was the gossipy neighbor. Isn't it funny. These are the thoughts come to mind. But Hopper seeing that set got the idea for this celebrated work.
Gail Levin Oh yes and he loved the theater, just loved it. And of course you know his wife was with the province the Washington Square Players, Washington Square Players. Kind of radical, much more avant garde person than Hopper was. But by the time he married her they were both over 40 and she'd calmed down quite a bit. She used to like to tease him a lot. You know people said she stung him to life.
Gail Levin Yeah.
Gail Levin Well you know ironically it wasn't such a depressed time for Hopper because he had had his first one man show in an art gallery in 1924 and he finally was able to give up illustration and live by the sale of his paintings, and by 1933 he had his first retrospective in New York at the Museum of Modern Art and as a matter of fact they bought the painting we were talking about, "House by the Railroad," as their first painting for their permanent collection and that they bought in January of 1930. And the Metropolitan Museum was buying Hopper's paintings. So his paintings have a sense of melancholy that we can associate with the Depression. But by and large the '30s were a better time for Hopper certainly than the teens had been.
Studs Terkel That's ironic, yeah. But it was, but. As Hopper though again he was after me after himself. There's one painting that of course is among his many celebrated ones, "Hotel Room." This again is the traveling man's sequence in your book. And why don't you describe--What's your theory about and I have my--That's so nice about a Hopper, you can draw your own theory. You're aware of a work of art, you're also aware of light and shadow and a certain loneliness, alien--But from then on each carries his own bag of experience. Why don't you describe the scene. You have your theory, I have mine. Describe it first.
Gail Levin Well there's a woman seated on a bed and she is looking, her head is down-- cast downwards, and she's holding a letter. And she looks very somber and about the room she's half, she's in a state of half undressed sort of sitting there in a slip and her suitcases are visible in the room, her hat is on the bureau, it's night time because we can see the window shade partially pulled at the window although some kind of light is coming in from the outside. And her shoes, definitely '30s shoes, are [parked?] near the bureau and her clothes are strewn across the arm of the green armchair. And I tell you I think it's a very melancholy picture. I somehow think by the chaos of her belongings that something in the letter has disappointed her, stunned her, and she's already read the letter, began to undress and she's sitting there contemplating it and it's a heavy message.
Studs Terkel Now my theory. I'm looking at this and I see the bags there. And there's a little satchel and a regular suitcase and her shoes just as though it just knocked, and she's sitting in her slip at the edge of the bed and she is reading that letter I agree with you about that. It's on her knee and her slip. The window's open. It's dark, it's night. It's a seedy kind of hotel, barely furnished. There's a leather arm chair but not too great. But I think she just got in from a small town to the seedy hotel [I'm thinking?] because the bags are unpacked and she's looking at that letter. But I think it's a letter she herself wrote and she's wrote to her folks back home which she [does?] explain why she left home and why she's come to this big city from a small town. And I think of a Sandburg poem though Hopper was closer to Frost, but the Sandburg poem about a girl named Chick Lorimer that is called "Gone." And every time I look at this picture, Hopper, I hear this voice.
Carl Sandburg Everybody loved Chick Lorimer in our town. Far off, everybody loved her. So we all love a wild girl keeping a hold on a dream she wants. Nobody knows now where Chick Lorimer went. Nobody knows why she packed her trunk.. a few old things and is gone, gone with her little chin thrust ahead of her and her soft hair blowing careless from under a wide hat, dancer, singer, a laughing passionate lover.
Studs Terkel Hopper is an artist I think that everyone can identify with. There's there's really something people can relate to very concretely. I think this has to be the reasons for his tremendous popularity today. You know what he said. He was very cynical. He said 90 percent of all artists are forgotten 10 minutes after they're dead. But you know it has, that that hasn't proved true about him at all.
Studs Terkel Yeah.
Gail Levin You know this exhibition is just back from Europe, from London, Amsterdam, and Dusseldorf, where it was, it broke all records in attendance. It's amazing and they haven't heard of Hopper over there.
Studs Terkel Yeah, I'm still looking at that girl sitting at the edge of the bed. You probably are right. You probably are closer to the truth than I am. Just telling you what I imagine because it is a letter she probably has received and is reading it--
Gail Levin You know by the way sometimes in his record books he and his wife made notations about the people in the paintings and sometimes they even gave them names. They saw them like characters in a drama. The painting "Intermission" where the woman is seated alone in the theater. He called her Nora. I can find it for you. He called her Nora and he said, She's a coming egghead.
Studs Terkel But again you see it's a place, this is the section called "Theater" and again theater is a place where hundreds sometimes thousands of people assemble. But we always see one, two, three, four people at most here. The woman is sitting there. She came early to the theater, she's a middle-aged woman. Intermission. She didn't go out, too tired to go out I guess. Yeah. Look at the way she got her feet there. Again we're assuming, see.
Gail Levin Which is painted in 1963, quite late in Hopper's career, just four years before he died. When he painted the two comedians on the stage he told his wife that it represented the two of them bowing out. And somehow I think this painting called "Intermission" reflects his wife left alone after he's gone in an intermission before she kind of joins him. That's just a theory I have but there's something, it seems like much more than just an intermission in a theater.
Studs Terkel Yeah.
Gail Levin This is what got him going, got his reputation going. People, you know, in the teens began to call not only for an American style in art but for an American subject matter. And Hopper really began to paint life around him. He said it was very difficult to give up French subject matter. Said it took him 10 years to get over Europe. You know he loved Paris. It was so elegant and--
Gail Levin It's interesting it's really a painting about Paris intrigue, and you know he did this drawing this preparatory sketch for this figure on the far left, this man in a cap with a, smoking a cigarette, and you notice this is one of his most crowded paintings also one of his largest. Not one figure looks directly at any other.
Studs Terkel No.
Gail Levin So from the very beginning. Now we come to something. This was done way early so in the very beginning Hopper had a theme, an idea, attitude. Attitude hardly changed. That is, I don't mean attitude toward the world about attitude toward [lights? life?] toward the nature of people to one another.
Gail Levin You're quite right. He's one of the most consistent of all artists and even as a boy he had found most of his themes although we were talking about the theme of the office, that didn't come up till he was a commercial illustrator. He was doing illustrations for a magazine called "System" which was a forerunner to "Business Week," and that's when the office theme came up.
Studs Terkel You know, here's one. This is from "Times of the Day," the sequence. "Night Window." Now if that doesn't give you an impression of a ghost story or something mysterious about to--And we see accidentally, as though accidentally, we see the back of a woman in her slip I think. Barely. We don't notice her at first. We don't notice that anybody's in the room at first, course what catches our attention is the open window and that curtain.
Studs Terkel Blowing.
Gail Levin Do you know how often something, a window shade or a curtain, is blowing out the window and Hopper painting. I think that's borrowed from the movies don't you? Doesn't that sometimes indicate something about to happen, the rustling of the wind?
Studs Terkel Not Firpo knocking Dempsey out of the ring. About to happen. And I still got this fantasy of his covering the Dempsey-Firpo fight. The two guys not looking at each other. Dempsey one side of the ring, Firpo the other, and but something is about to happen. So that of course is what makes for the tension of it. Again 7:00 a.m. The times of the day. Since you mentioned traveling person, trains again. So Hopper today wouldn't have been too happy with--
Gail Levin No it's really tragic isn't that what's happening to our trains. Hopper loved the train. He used to go around the country during art exhibitions and he always took the train. He said he was afraid to fly, afraid to die that way. That's exactly what he said.
Studs Terkel "Of Time and the River" and I start thinking well Hopper would like Frost more than--bare, spare writing that is Frost. Whereas Wolfe overwrites and yet somehow I think he like Thomas Wolfe. I don't know.
Gail Levin Oh yeah. As a matter of fact you see that was published in Scribner's and Hopper used to illustrate for Scribner's what he thought were very sentimental stories and he couldn't stand having to draw these people he said gesturing and grimacing. That's when he said he wanted to paint sunlight on the side of the house you see.
Gail Levin But when he read "The Killers" he thought he'd discovered Hemingway. So he wrote into Scribner's to tell him that Hemingway was much above the general syrupy literature that they were publishing--
Gail Levin Yes and you know Hopper's paintings are never sentimental. They are very spare. He knew from being an illustrator, you see, how to reduce detail. Everyone thinks of them so realistic and they are but they're not exactly what he saw except in the watercolors. But the mature oils are made from sketches, just simple black and white sketches, and his imagination went to work and he painted them in the studio.
Studs Terkel Yeah.
Studs Terkel Well we're casually looking at one. This is the from sequence again "Traveling Man," and it's a western motel and he--Fifty-seven. Well the motel's established by then. Motel [threw me?] when I thought of Hopper. But "Western--" Why don't you describe this scene.
Gail Levin Well you know, by the way, he and his wife used to drive around, always in a second hand car, drive around America and that was also for inspiration. And here we have a woman dressed in a kind of burgundy dress and she is one of the few people in any Hopper painting who looks out at the viewer directly. She's seated on the side of a bed in front of a plate glass window. And outside we see a portion of Hopper's green Buick in the window and the hills of California in the background. He had a fellowship out in California at the Huntington Hartford Foundation. And this is probably a result of being out there and seeing that strange landscape which paints a lot like he painted a Cape Cod landscape. But the incredible thing is the light falling on the wall behind the bed and on the floor. And of course that that road outside, and we see the woman's bags packed right up close against the picture plane the front of the painting. And we wonder what she's waiting for.
Studs Terkel That's what I was going to point out, you see. Everything you say [unintelligible]. The bag packed and her jacket thrown against the chair opposite the divan she's sitting on the edge of, the bag packed and that's always the case. And in the "Hotel Lobby," "Hotel Win--"Another older woman is staring out the window with a cape on. Their both about. Something is about to happen. They're about to move. They're not fixed. They're not set. Even though she's sitting this woman, she's not because there's that bag with the tag on it, all set to go. Where, you see. That's the part--
Studs Terkel It's funny, we're talking to Gail Levin and the Hopper exhibition, Edward Hopper's work is now at the Art Institute as you know through November 29th. And her book is "The Art and The Artist." Norton, the publishers, in which we see the works and some of the thoughts of herself and her colleagues. And I was thinking, I come back to "Nighthawks" again. It's all there but there, he influenced, he was influenced by different art forms. He influenced others. A young singer, a guy who acts and sings named Tom Waits who does city scenes. He does guys of the half world, and saloons and taverns, and obviously it's Hopper he was thinking it was because he wrote a song called "Nighthawks," the very name itself. Suppose we hear that.
Gail Levin Great.
[Unintelligible] Tom Waits. See there's a different world here. You see, I have no doubt that Tom Waits saw Hopper's "Nighthawks," why he named it "Nighthawks," and he described a scene [sees?] it now, a lot of it can fit; the coffee and guy sitting there. But I personally think on hearing the song now as against talking about Hopper that a plain old piano blues would have been more like it. Something called "After Midnight"--course the simpler, there was too much in that song I felt. Whereas Hopper is simpl--You were saying something about, we're looking at it now.
Gail Levin I think it's fascinating that Hopper chose to call it "Nighthawks" and not "Night Owls." These are not just people who are you know all night workers just stopping for a cup of coffee or something. But I think there's that predatory aspect. The hawk is a bird that hunts on the wing and I think that there's something very sinister about this painting. I've actually compared it to Van Gogh's "All Night Cafe," which I think Hopper knew. When you look you know I think of those gangster movies from the '30s. When you look at the man with the hat pulled down over his eyes sitting at the counter by himself and there's that light falling on the cash register in the window across the street. There's a sense of intrigue again just like we saw in "Soir Bleu."
Studs Terkel There's that, but there's also the guy's back is bent and so I think it's a guy, like some of the guys I knew. Maybe the guy you're talking about but to me it's a guy who's had a rough time and say he's just having a cup of coffee. His back's bent, and the couple, she might be a hooker or someone who's worked all night and just got off work, and [unintelligible] the other guy, they don't touch, you're just sitting there. And there's the counter man who knows him. See this is funny how you program something. Hopper may have something wholly different in mine, nothing at all in mind like that. But we've come to the light again. That's something outside [is?]--
Studs Terkel Well just see. See Hopper at the Art Institute and see certainly one man's vision. America. And Gail Levin, my guest. Thank you very much. Your book, her book is "The Art and The Artist." Edward Hopper. Norton the publishers, and exhibition is at the Art Institute through November 29.