Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Sketching Edward Hopper

Peter Schjeldahl wrote something in his New Yorker review of the Edward Hopper retrospective at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts that struck me:
A good way to grasp Hopper paintings is to sketch them—never mind if, like me, you can’t draw. Just get the main shapes, including those of empty space, and how they nest together in the pictorial rectangle. Hopper bets everything on composition, which, in his work, is almost as tautly considered as in a Mondrian. (He didn’t so much hold back from modernism, from which he took what he needed, as see beyond it. He objected to abstraction only as Picasso did, for its limits on emotional engagement.) Hopper’s means are light and shadow, which establish the masses and the relative locations of forms. Raking light is the active element in static situations, as a stand-in for the artist, who inhabits his works everywhere and nowhere, like God. The light’s authority overrules worries about clotted textures and gawky contours. A wall or an arm is exactly as it is because the light, hitting it, says so.
The part that interested me most was the part about sketching an artist's painting. This isn't something the typical art appreciater might think of, but it's one of the surest ways to engage with a work of art. In an era when a simple stripey Rothko painting can fetch $72.8 million at auction, confounding all the parents who have toddlers they may regard as more talented than the late Mr. Rothko, we need all the engagement we can get.

And this can apply to all the arts. I'm not saying we all need to sing karaoke and start tribute bands, but that might help. It's a shame, in a way, that the days when people bought sheet music to bring home and play for the family are over. My parents' generation were forced to memorize poetry in school. Mine wasn't, and I think we're suffering for it -- both in the sense that we don't have the words of the wiser to call upon in times of trial and in that we simply don't have the discipline that memorization creates.

Try transcribing a great poem. Or sketching a great building, as students of architecture do. It's the only way to truly understand the way words and spaces relate to each other. It's a more active way of observing, a way of seeing the things right in front of you that never showed up before.

The painting above is Hopper's "Second Story Sunlight", 1960, from the Whitney Museum's collection.

See also Richard Lacayo's review of the Hopper retrospective in Time.

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