“The whole answer is there on the canvas.” – Edward Hopper
“The view of life I communicate in my pictures excludes the sordid and the ugly. I paint life as I would like it to be.” ― Norman Rockwell
During my second semester in a post-grad program at Parsons School of Design in New York City, I enrolled in a Color Theory class. A prerequisite for any Graphic Design student, I was forewarned that it would be nothing less than torture.
My mentor sadistically could not wait to watch me pull all-nighters just to perfect an accurate color wheel (using only a packet of 400 rectangular paper swatches in various hues of the entire spectrum), or to paste together a complete grayscale poster (using only reclaimed newsprint to represent percentages of white and black between 0 and 100).
It’s worth noting that while I attended school in the heyday of Apple’s digitized design reign, the university itself would not permit any student to touch a computer until first mastering the foundational basics. I recall a lecture I attended at the New York chapter of the American Institute of Graphic Arts. Up at the podium, speaking of his life’s work, the great design icon Milton Glaser warned, “The computer is an instrument of the devil. You should be very suspicious of its intentions.” (Naturally, I promptly tweeted that quote from the audience). This was the educational paradigm upon which I embarked to learn the theory of color.
My professor had a particularly challenging, hands-on, semester-long assignment for us. On the very first day of class, before he even knew our names, he pronounced that we were each to choose a fine artist – any painter or illustrator (living or dead) who worked in a static, two-dimensional medium. He would not reveal to us why, nor what we were to do with our visionary masters. But, of the eighteen students in class, we each had to make a unique choice; we could not overlap nor share. He allowed us to take a few silent minutes, jot down a couple of artists, and then he haphazardly circled the room to emblazon our decisions into his notebook.
When the game finally rounded to my drafting table, our professor gestured toward me with the fateful words, “And you, my dear?”
“Edward Hopper,” I answered decisively, glancing at the top of my scribbled list. No one else had uttered his name, even though I was toward the end of the classroom go-round.
“Hopper! Oh, THIS is going to be fun! Are you sure?” he asked, with a subtle smirk.
The class twittered and chuckled. The professor had not editorialized nor questioned anyone else’s choice. Why was Hopper more significant than Rothko (adopted by the J. Crew looking dude next to me), or Matisse (selected by the punk rock chick across from me), or Picasso (chosen by the mid-life careering changing mom who worked in marketing at Sesame Street)?
“Um. Yes. I’m sure. Should I be frightened?” I replied hesitantly.
“We’ll see. In my ten years of teaching this class, no one else has ever chosen Hopper.”
That didn’t surprise me. Whether my high school European History paper on Slavophilism or my college Economics thesis on the American gun industry as a cartel, I unwittingly tended to choose subjects outside the norm… subjects that enthralled my educators, but which nonetheless sent me down an unforged rabbit hole.
Turns out, the point of this assignment was a tedious exercise in how to understand and manipulate color harmonies, to the nth degree. We were asked to choose one work by our artist, and redo it… in complementary colors. Where there was red, we would paint green. Where yellow, purple. And so on, ad infinitum, to the precise opposite shades and tints of each shadow, highlight, and brushstroke. As if repainting Hopper’s classic Nighthawks wouldn’t be challenging enough, to take his mastery of perspective and illumination, and reproduce it in direct reverse, was worthy of a doctorate degree.
Mid-semester, after an excruciating classroom critique of draft #7, my professor asked me, “I’m curious. What made you choose Hopper?”
I answered, “Because I’ve always felt like a character in his paintings.”
Having grown up around the grandest museums in New York City, I spent elementary school field trips ensconced in the greatest art from Egyptian coins to Warhol’s psychedelic Marilyn. On family vacations from DC to Boston to Chicago, I’d hop from Kandinsky to Rodin to van Gogh, in each city’s renowned art institute. Traveling through Europe during college, I looked up to the celestial blue of Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, I looked down into the ruins of Pompeii, and I looked over tourists’ bobbing heads to da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. I saw beauty and style, harmony and discord in it all.
But, Hopper was different. Hopper understood me…. the solitude of self; the quiet resonance of an empty chair in an empty room; the stoic, fatalistic isolation of a transitory moment. I would have been his ideal subject… sitting alone in a Manhattan café as the sky turned to dusk, my pale skin looking paler under a red fedora, the streetlights illuminating my book askew on the table, as my eyes gazed down at a place setting just for one. Had our decades on this earth collided, I could have been Hopper’s muse for his acclaimed Automat.
It’s how he captures the disconnect between the self and the world; the suggested tensions of unoccupied rooms and uneasy encounters. What Hopper evokes is a cinematic vulnerable melancholy, a poetic and voyeuristic vision into a segment of life: a window, a room, a house on a hill. And from rural footpaths to urban centers, this is how I’ve moved through my life; a resignation to the self-contained pain of thinking, being… existing.
I was 11-years-old when my father died. And I was a teenager when my extended relatives decided they’d keep to themselves in Long Island for the holidays, while some of them retired down South. That left me and my mom, in our suburban New York house, wondering what to do over yuletide carols.
My mom’s good friend “L” lived a few blocks away in a beautiful, stately home, with a spiral staircase, a grand piano, a gourmet kitchen, and a receiving room for guests. Visiting her house was like walking into the Neiman Marcus catalog. She was the epitome of style and grace. There was richness without pretension; warmth without affectation. Golden partridges perched on a pear tree in her foyer. Miniature velvet-robed Santas graced every corner with a magical wink and smile. Whimsical elegance abounded in her checkered MacKenzie Childs china; it was like dining with the Royal Cheshire Family of Wonderland.
On any given year, our families merged together to deck the halls under their auspicious boughs of holly. As homage to our shared Italian heritage, their Christmas Eve tables were laden with platters of seven fishes, accompanied by mounds of pasta and white clam sauce in ceramic bowls hand-painted with adorable woodland creatures. The Christmas Day dining room overflowed with crown roast pork, sautéed broccoli rabe, mashed potatoes, steamed string beans, roasted fennel bulbs in Spanish olive oil, rice with peas and onions, honeyed carrots and fresh parsley, and other steaming gourmet concoctions, all in over-sized serving bowls with large sterling silver spoons to pass around in comfort and joy.
An adjacent room doubled as a fine Patisserie, presenting tiered trays of truffles and anisette cookies, chocolate mousse cakes, lemon meringue and coconut cream pies, plates of Italian biscotti from the best bakery in the Bronx, and pyramids of struffoli and Italian wedding cookies. The rooms were adorned with exquisite tablecloths and napkins, spun of silk in the richest red and gold threads; centerpieces of velvet garland and ripened fruit; the yellow glow of candlelight; the clinking of wine glasses; the rumpling of wrapping paper; a brown and white shih-tzu puppy romping under foot; nonstop conversation, movement and laughter; and classic holiday tunes spinning on the CD player, with Bing Crosby and Nat King Cole completing the ambiance of a perfect holiday gathering.
One Christmas night, with open boxes strewn about, emptied wine bottles lining the counter, and powdered sugar marks on the tablecloth, “L” sat at the head of the table and sunk into an unusual silence. As her hands fidgeted with a stray red satin ribbon, she started reminiscing about her childhood growing up in the Bronx… tales of a strained family dynamic, friendships long gone, and a youth that was once without all this splendor, a life before she had this house and home.
“I’ve always loved Norman Rockwell paintings,” she mused. “Happy families gathered together, singing Christmas carols around a tree…. the husband lovingly holding his wife’s hand under the mistletoe…. Joyful kids with their rosy cheeks sledding in the snow.” As she despondently looked around her home, which visually replicated any number of Rockwell’s Christmas illustrations, she said, “I’ve done all of this. I’ve tried so hard. But, I still can’t make my life a Norman Rockwell painting. And that’s all I ever wanted.”
Rockwell’s iconographic small-town life represented an idealized vision that I never personally identified with … enviable snapshots into the virtues of family, friendship, community, and society… the gosh-golly-gee moments with a cherry on top. His subjects were rarely alone, often playing, running, and frolicking. But whether at a soda shop or in a doctor’s office, they all shared one defining characteristic: his subjects were all coexisting in a sense of sublime togetherness. His paintings were inviting and familiar; nostalgic, in a good way. The perfect moments of an otherwise imperfect existence.
But there is a darker context to Rockwell’s narrative. And it’s the one Hopper so viscerally represented — the nostalgia of loss; the regret of disconnection. It’s what happens after Rockwell’s postman leaves the parcels, after the runaway kid finishes his ice cream sundae, after the husband goes to bed and leaves his wife alone in the kitchen.
I’ve often wondered, is it better to see the world through Hopper’s lens? Or through Rockwell’s? Ultimately, who is more disappointed by life? The one who palpably experiences unfulfilled isolation in every window and shop display, or the one who envisions and expects something so much more comforting than that?
My college roommate and I used to jump into posters. Jenny was a fantasist to my realist, a Disney aficionado to my Camus’ existentialist. And she took me on imaginative journeys with her. Like a magical Mary Poppins adventure, we pretended to beam ourselves into other realms through the pictures we hung on our drab concrete dorm room walls. We’d remove ourselves from the banality of the present moment, and adopt an alternate reality… as secret agents in the London underground… as supermodels at the base of the glimmering Eiffel Tower… as wealthy Russian heiresses in St. Petersburg’s Winter Palace.
Our method of jumping into these worlds was simple – we need only throw one of our hundred Beanie Babies (it was the late 90’s…) at the chosen poster, and as soon as the miniature toy went “thwack” into the wall … voila! We’d be instantly transported for hours away from our Midwestern dorm drudgery. (Upon hearing of these expeditions, my Russian Literature professor expressed concern that her assignments on Gogol’s absurdist canon may have permanently ungrounded my cognitive awareness …).
But it was easier to roam the glamorous streets of Paris at night than to write a ten-page paper on the Philosophy of Religion or hit up the Dining Hall for fro-yo and Lucky Charms. And it was far more enlivening to dance with Degas’ ballerinas than to face my grandfather’s decline into dementia, my own faltering health, my grandmother’s recent passing, and all those who had gone before her.
But there was always that option to create a different vision than the world immediately around us. The problem was, invariably we’d be forced back into our reality of Pop-Tarts and deadlines, family phone calls and noisy neighbors. You can’t stay locked in a chalk drawing forever. And no matter how many times you say “Supercalafragilisticexpialidocious,” you cannot actually make a happy painting come to life, even one by the great Norman Rockwell.
A month ago, I drove two hours northwest of my current residence to meet a friend. After dinner, I drove myself two hours back, embarking on my return trip at 9pm. Already enervated from a long day in an unfamiliar location, I contemplated risking the 106 mile ride back without repleting my tank. But a prophetic image of my broken down car on the side of the road propelled me to make a pit stop.
Midway on my journey across dark and desolate rural highways, I pulled into a small country gas station. I was the only customer on site, and judging from the lack of headlights and taillights on the road, I was the only car for miles.
I glanced up to a glowing sign of the unknown petrol company. It’s a symbol of geographical limbo when there is neither Exxon nor Shell as an option. I got out of the car, and without much cash in my wallet, I was relieved to discover the old-school pumps accepted modern credit cards. A friend who writes true crime fiction is often worried I consciously place myself in circumstances that inspire her characters’ perilous plot points. But, that was not the type of predatory disquiet I sensed, standing outside my car, alone and unnerved in the penetrating mid-November night’s atmosphere.
Without external incident, I screwed the gas cap back on tight, and with a full tank, I restarted my engine, and found a circuitous way back onto the highway to continue the residual sixty miles.
With neither lampposts nor stoplights to illuminate the way, I felt an isolating sense of loss that even Google Maps could not resolve. Mere hours prior, I had been talking to my friend in a Rockwellian restaurant … there were bustling tables of families sharing meals and mirth; comrades at the bar toasting cheers over bubbling pale ale brews; waiters with crisp white shirts and straight black pants scurrying to and fro; the entire scene surrounded by pre-Christmas twinkle lights from the window panes to the sidewalks. This formed a stark contrast to the bleakness of a remote gas station, the quietude of a solitary car ride, the dark abyss of an empty road as I drove back restless and alone.
It’s in such moments of withdrawal that internal dialogues emerge out of debilitating discomfort: the house you left that’s no longer your home; the city you once occupied that’s no longer your zip code; the spaces you moved through and quickly abandoned; the places you must get to but still can’t find the way; the ethereal stranger who once halted your tears on a park bench; the people who once mattered now long forgotten; the multitude of times you failed to say “I love you;” and the time you argued and slammed the door instead.
Hopper had a way of capturing these private reflections and intimate longings in his shadows and highlights; in a face turned downward, in a body positioned away; and most particularly in his colors… in his mustard yellows, burnt oranges and subterranean greens, his royal blues and earthy browns. The haunting memories that do not fade. The persistent search for connection in disconnection. The bruised anonymity of illusive comforts. It’s all there. Whether painted in its original or in a complementary palette.
(And yes, I did get an “A” in Color Theory).