New York Review of Books
June 25, 2015
This essay by Mark Strand was originally written for The New York Review of Books as a review of the exhibition of Edward Hopper’s drawings at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 2013. It was found as a handwritten text in his notebook after he died in November 2014 and transcribed by his literary executor, Mary Jo Salter.
Paints and scrapes, paints and scrapes to get something right, the something that is not there at the outset but reveals itself slowly, and then completely, having traveled an arduous route during which vision and image come together, for a while, until dissatisfaction sets in, and the painting and scraping begin again. But what is it that determines the success of the final work? The coincidence of vision—his idea, vague at first, of what the painting might be—and the brute fact of the subject, its plain obdurate existence, just “out there” with an absolutely insular existence.
Until, that is, Edward Hopper sees something about it as a possible subject for a painting and this image with its possibilities lodges itself in Hopper’s imagination and the formation of the painting’s content begins—content being, of course, what the artist brings to his subject, that quality that makes it unmistakably his, so when we look at the painting of a building or an office or a gas station, we say it’s a Hopper. We don’t say it’s a gas station. By the time the gas station appears on canvas in its final form it has ceased being just a gas station. It has become Hopperized. It possesses something it never had before Hopper saw it as a possible subject for his painting. And for the artist, the painting exists, in part, as a mode of encountering himself. Although the encountered self may not correspond to the vision of possibility that a particular subject seemed to offer up. When Hopper said, in an interview with Brian O’Doherty, “I’m after ME,” this is undoubtedly what he meant.
Hopper’s avowed uncertainty over whether or not he ever succeeded is perhaps what many painters experience. The point of arrival or the point when the painting is done cannot be known beforehand and yet cannot be totally unknown. A sense—it is no more than that, increasingly clearer and more convincing—of what the painting will look like when it is finished is all that guides the painter. And there is rarely any assurance that the painting is finally completed; the possibility always exists that a wrong turn has been taken, that what he ended up with bears little resemblance to that vague suggestion or hope of what the painting might be. And so, the scraping and painting begin yet again. With the uncertainty under which the painter labors, extended periods of doubt, it is a wonder that he can ever be free of anxiety or finish a work. Even the prodigiously talented Picasso needed constant reassurance.