Edward Hopper: A Sense of Time

October 4, 1995 at 12:00 AM EDT

RICHARD RODRIGUEZ: For the last few months, the Whitney Museumin New York has presented a show grandly titled “Edward Hopper and the American Imagination.” In the museum catalogue, novelists and poets attribute pieces that rhyme with Hopper’s work.

Movies, the film noire sort, like “Rear Window” and “Laura”were shown. Art historians noted the way Hopper’s use of commercial symbols anticipated Andy Warhol’s “Soup Cans.” At the center of all the words remain the enigmatic paintings of Edward Hopper, American.

Edward Hopper is not an American in the way we speak of Mark Twain or George Gerswhin, as being characteristically American. There is something so odd, so incessantly internalized about Hopper’s vision that it defies place.

Behind me here on the sidewalk in San Francisco is the Green Street Market and Deli. In the America of Edward Hopper, all specificity is wiped away. This facade, this grocery store, would become only generic–“Store,””Street.”

What matters to Hopper more powerfully than place is time. So many of the titles of his paintings refer to time, not place–“Morning Sun,” “Early Sunday Morning,7:00 A.M.”. It is as though he senses an America that is not a physical place. His America is a state of mind. He senses the ruthlessness of Americans.

A generation after his death, he happily abandoned any semblance of region or place for McDonald’s and Wal-mart. Hopper, himself, was born in Nyack, New York, in 1882. His family was solidly middleclass. As a boy, he attended a Baptist church that his mother’s grandfather had built.

From that early childhood, he intended to become a painter. Three times he traveled to Paris as a young man. He sought the influence of the European masters, would remain influenced by the Impressionists, but his great life journey would be across America.

When I look at Hopper’s paintings, I think of Vladimir Nabakov’s own vision of America in is great novel Lolita, America as a series of train compartments and hotel lobbies, America, the motel.

For nearly all of his adult life–50 years–Hopper lived at the same address, a walk-up on Washington Square in New York City. He was married to one woman. Despite the conventionality of his domestic life, he is famous for his paintings of hotel lobbies and diners.

In Hopper, people sit alone in places where one would expect crowds. Were we ever in love with this land? Were we ever at ease with the night or the harsh glow of day? The American sky is fast. Huck Finn lies contentedly on his back and considers the stars from his raft.

But nature in Edward Hopper is ominous.Who would dare drive the dark road beyond the Mobil Gas Station? And nature seems unrelated to the narrative of our lives. The sun pours into the bedroom but reveals nothing about the lives within.

What did Edward Hopper know of the condition of our lives? He died in 1964, just about the time when Americans were beginning to abandon the neighborhood diner for McDonald’s, just when we were beginning to abandon Main Street for the suburban mall.

Had he lived a few years longer, how would he have painted the new generic spaces where we now spend our lives wandering and waiting? We have ended up with everyplace to go. We end up alone. We end up people without a clear narrative. Why is that lady waitingat the window? Her nudity reveals no answers.

A year before he died, Edward Hopper was pestered by an interviewer, asked what he was after with his painting called “Sun in an Empty Room.” Hopper replied, “I am after me.”

I’m Richard Rodriguez.