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A Maturing Artist, A Maturing Nation

REALIST artist Edward Hopper lived from 1882 to 1967, and as those dates suggest, his life and artistic career spanned and poignantly captured America's precipitous rise from maverick frontier to industrial giant. Hopper's ubiquitous images have imprinted themselves in our collective consciousness as icons of Americana via famous works such as "Night Hawks" (1940) or "Early Sunday Morning" (1930). Of all the luminary American realists - John Sloan, Thomas Hart Benton, Andrew Wyeth - Hooper's art has had the most enduring and pervasive impact perhaps because of its ability to parallel in subtle and rich ways each of the transitions and signposts in the life of an enigmatic nation.

By one of those rare serendipities, the personal and artistic timbre of Edward Hopper was neatly linked to the maturing spirit of America. Like the country he chronicled, he was a frugal, clear-spoken man who lived a staid, middle-class life; like the nation he captured on canvas, he had a lively intelligence that allowed him to be a passive observer yet penetrate with great spareness of intent and execution the very core of an era, a location, a human heart.

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Hopper's work and times are brought into better focus in a traveling show organized by New York's Whitney Museum and titled, "Edward Hopper: Selections From the Permanent Collection of the Whitney Museum." The show opened at the Whitney in 1989 and moved to Tokyo last year. It has resumed its United States tour and will open in Seattle on April 25.

Like many budding American artists, Edward Hopper enjoyed the long-time support of Gertrude Vanderbilt Whitney, sculptor, collector, and heiress to the staggering Vanderbilt fortune. From 1904 through the 1940s, Gertrude Whitney carried on an energetic program of patronage to young American artists through personal loans, exhibitions, grants, and workshops, one of which - the Whitney Studio on 8th Street in the heart of Manhattan - became the world-renowned Museum of American Art.

Following Hopper's death and the death of his wife Jo, the Whitney was bequeathed nearly 2,500 works of Hopper art and archival materials. Many of these works are part of the show, which provides an intimate and unusually warm look at this cautious, publicity shy artist via lovingly rendered nudes of his wife and glimpses into their daily life.

The show includes quiet, sublime scenes like "Railroad Sunset" (1929), where newly built railways slice dark swaths across honeyed farmlands. In images like this we can trace the trajectory of America's transition from precocious rural infant in the early 1900s to awkward 1920s adolescent reeling on new-found legs of technological prowess, credit buying, and the advent of the automobile.

In Hopper's images of mute storefronts of the 1930s, or his lonely fast-food counters of the 1940s, we find an America caught in the throes of those growing pains we've come to call the Great Depression and the Great War.

Finally, in mature works of the 1950s and '60s, such as "Girl in Sunshine" (1961), we can find tucked quietly inside these spare, light-drenched scenes of repose and recreation a vision of a country in full adulthood, its mettle tested by want and war, its comfort index raised to the point where the hushed ennui of consumerism, existential Angst, and fear of intimacy had come to replace loss of innocence as the maladies of the day.

Edward Hopper has been called the quintessential American realist, a no-nonsense Yankee who would paint only what he could see. Indeed, he was in Paris in 1906 at the very moment when Picasso and Matisse were germinating the seeds that became the revolution of abstract art, yet Hopper remained committed to recognizable subjects drawn from life. This won him a rather pat place in the long American realist tradition that included the Hudson River artists with their grand landscapes and Robert Henri's Ash Can school which insisted on capturing New York's grimy city scenes. (Henri was Hopper's teacher at the New York School of Art.)

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As for labels, this recent look at Hopper does what every good exhibition should: It dusts the cobwebs off clich 142>s. Judging from the works on view, Hopper was a realist but a fully modern one. Hopper's paintings often came to him full-blown in his head and he proceeded to find or set up, as a director might, the object or scene so that he could render it in paint. His realism was prefabricated, more Yankee ingenuity than Yankee parochialism, built from impressions and memories with the intent of creating a specific mood and nurturing a symbolic current.

If we could sum up that current, it might be described as the fragile truce between nature and pre-industrial man on the one hand, and civilization, technology, and sophisticated man on the other. As the paintings show, Hopper always orchestrated a tension between an accoutrement of the past - a solitary lighthouse, a glimpse at unspoiled flora, a soporific farmhouse porch - and an accoutrement of the present (or future) - railroad tracks, telephone wires, autos, newfangled fashion, or modern commerce. Neither sentimentalist nor blow-by-blow reporter, Hopper related to the past and the present with equal, distanced ambivalence. In his works we find the exhilarating inevitably of progress and a reminder to us that as progress pleases and lulls, it also isolates and anesthetizes.

The mood so often noted in Hopper's works is a more nuanced, and contemporary concept than loneliness. In his fascination for the commonplace, his ability to both celebrate and dissect popular culture in one fell swoop via slice-of-life vignettes that remind us of a mysterious snapshot or a single motion picture frame taken out of context, Hopper may well be America's first pop artist. Like so much pop art that developed on the heels of Hopper's death, Hopper's dramas of estrangement remind us of the di fference between hiking to the crest of a virgin Pikes Peak and driving your car to the top so that you can buy a postcard souvenir of the experience.

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