Interview with Kim Conaty by David Ebony
As resilient as ever, New York City is slowly but surely emerging from the pandemic’s trials and tribulations as a renewed, revitalized, and hyperdynamic metropolis. Problems remain, certainly, but the city streets are thriving once more, visitors have returned, businesses of all kinds have resumed, and construction sites all over Manhattan and other boroughs are again in high gear. In the midst of the city’s latest evolution, the Whitney Museum of American Art presents Edward Hopper’s New York, an exhibition of the celebrated American artist’s views of the city. These images examine the town’s remarkable evolution in the early and mid-twentieth century that resulted in the New York City we know today.
Born in Nyack, New York, Hopper (1882-1967) in his youth often visited New York City with his parents. He worked as an illustrator there, and moved to the city permanently in 1908. Later, he travelled abroad on occasion, and worked in Massachusetts and Maine periodically, but New York City remained his home base, and the most frequent subject in his work throughout his life. His wife, Josephine (Jo) Nivison (1883-1968), an artist and former actress, was his favored model for figures that occupy the hushed and haunted spaces in many of his New York City scenes.
Organized by Kim Conaty, the Whitney’s curator of drawings and prints, with senior curatorial assistant Melinda Lang, Edward Hopper’s New York remains on view at the museum through March 5, 2023. The show features more than 200 paintings, watercolors, prints and drawings including some of Hopper’s most iconic images, such as Early Sunday Morning (1930), and New York Movie (1939). Among the show’s other highlights are rarely exhibited works, including Chair Car (1965), and his last painting, Two Comedians (1966). Also on view is an extensive display of material from the Sanborn Hopper Archive, a collection of fascinating Hopper memorabilia, including notebooks and personal records, donated to the Whitney from the Arthayer R. Sanborn Hopper Collection Trust. Numbering in the thousands, these items were assembled by Reverend Sanborn (1916-2007), a Baptist minister whose friendship with the Hoppers late in their lives has sparked considerable controversy in recent years. The accompanying exhibition catalogue contains essays by Conaty, Kristy Bell, Darby English, and David Hartt, among other pieces, including an in-depth study of the Sanborn Hopper Archive by Farris Wahbeh.
Hopper thrived during a period that saw the ascent of American art to the forefront of the international avant-garde. He managed to remain a greatly admired realist painter throughout the 1950s, while American Abstract Expressionists like Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Mark Rothko took center stage in the art world. Unlike a number of his contemporary realist painter colleagues, Hopper did not vehemently oppose the rise of abstraction, but remained steadfast and true to his own idiosyncratic vision.
Hopper’s late works, including his images of New York City, proved to be a unique hybrid of fact and fantasy. Recently, I spoke with Conaty about the exhibition and Hopper’s singular and sometimes enigmatic views of the city he loved the most.
David Ebony How did Edward Hopper’s New York come about? Why did you decide to focus exclusively on Edward Hopper’s vision of New York? And why now?
Kim Conaty As you may know, the Whitney has an extensive collection of Hopper’s work—more than three thousand pieces, in fact. These works serve as a great opportunity and also a responsibility for the museum to return to public view intermittently over the years some of the most iconic works by this artist and to continue to push scholarship forward. The last major Hopper exhibition that the Whitney organized was almost ten years ago, and that was a drawings show [Hopper Drawing, May 23-Oct. 6, 2013]. Also, there had not yet been a major Hopper exhibition in our new downtown building—we still call it new, although we moved here in 2015. Another inspiration for the show is that the Whitney’s building site is very close to where Hopper’s New York home and studio were located for nearly six decades. The views we see out of some of our gallery windows are similar to those Hopper saw. We started planning the show about four years ago, so it’s not pandemic related.
Ebony The timing seems perfect, though, since the city seems to be going through yet another transition at the moment.
Conaty That’s accidental yet perhaps unsurprising! I think some people will remember the Hopper memes that were being sent around in the early days of the pandemic. We all became figures in Edward Hopper paintings because we were indoors, isolated and looking out at the city from within interiors, homes or apartment windows. We’re no longer in that situation, but yes, the city has changed. It’s interesting then to look again at Hopper who was observing a changing city throughout his life.
Ebony You write about the Washington Square Park apartment, where Hopper lived at a time when the city was expanding and evolving all around him. Gentrification started to appear in the area early on, in the early years of the twentieth century. At one point, he was almost evicted from the apartment. How did that come about?
Conaty It had to do with the expansion of New York University, which, as you know, was based around Washington Square Park. The university wanted to take over 3 Washington Square North, the building Hopper lived in. He and his wife, Jo, won their right to stay, but ultimately, after Edward’s passing in 1967 and Jo’s in 1968, NYU took over the building. The Hopper studio is now under the auspices of NYU, part of the buildings occupied by the Silver School of Social Work.
Ebony Did the Hoppers own the apartment, or were they renters?
Conaty They always rented—true New Yorkers, right!?
Ebony One of the things you discuss in your essay is how Hopper favored building “types” in his work rather than New York’s recognizable, iconic landmarks, using Approaching a City (1946) as your first example. Can you say a little more about that aspect of his work?
Conaty One of things that happens when working on a project like this, with images reflecting the city you’re living in, is that it’s almost impossible to not try to start identifying specific places that inspired certain works. You learn very quickly from Hopper that although he studied the cityscape carefully in drawings that were central to his process, in the end he transforms most every building image into something that is a condensation or an amalgamation of different buildings. This became particularly evident when looking at early photographs of the city. Certain sites, such as that of Approaching a City, could be identified thanks to the many drawing studies in the Whitney’s collection. These often come closer to describing what is actually there, “working from the fact,” as Hopper said. The transformation happens in the final painting. I have to credit former Whitney curator Carter Foster’s Hopper Drawing show, which really laid the groundwork for being able to study Hopper in this way.
Ebony Hopper traveled extensively; he visited Paris a number of times in the early 1900s, and many other places in Europe, and later, Mexico. He attended a major Cézanne exhibition in Paris early on, and saw works by the Fauves; but he was apparently unimpressed by the European avant-garde. What impact, if any, did European painting have on Hopper?
Conaty My sense is that the avant-garde painters didn’t have as big an impact on him as the city itself. The way that the landscape of the city intersected with the architecture of Paris, and the way that certain structures were planned to run along the river in a specific way, for instance. In Paris, he painted outdoors, which he all but gave up when he moved to New York. His time in Paris allowed him to explore light in a way he had not done in New York.
Ebony So he allied himself with the Impressionists in that way?
Conaty Yes, absolutely. You really see the palette brighten. This is clear in the exhibition because we’re showing a large group of his early impressions of New York City [before his time in Paris], most of which he did when he was a student, traveling between his home in Nyack and Manhattan, to take art classes, and when he first moves to New York. The palette in these pieces is much earthier than later paintings, the tones are dark and moody. The paintings he did in Paris, and also some of his reflections on New York cityscapes immediately after Paris, or between trips to Europe, are much more Impressionistic in the brushwork, and in the quality of the light.
Ebony Could you talk about, or give a context for Hopper’s relationship to the Ashcan School?
Conaty Robert Henri [an Ashcan School leader] was a very important teacher of Hopper’s, and someone who encouraged him and his classmates to get to know the city streets. He wanted them to understand the city—to look at shop windows and theaters, and to be an active participant in observing city life. Hopper absorbed that training. But the Ashcan School was very interested in a larger social context, thinking about the realities of how people live in the city, the crowds, the noise, the grit. Hopper was less interested in that, and instead concerned himself more with individual, internal experience and with spaces themselves.
Ebony You mention that unlike the other Ashcan School artists, he was rarely specific about places. For instance, there’s New York Corner (Corner Saloon), from 1919, with blurred lettering and abbreviated details. But in a later painting, The Drug Store (1927), the shopfront lettering is clear, and it does depict a specific place.
Conaty Right, Silber’s Pharmacy—the painting is almost an outlier in that way. And yet there was no “Silber’s Pharmacy” to speak of at that time in the West Village, which otherwise inspired the architecture of the scene.
Ebony Another recurring aspect of Hopper’s work is what you refer to as “urban spectatorship.” Can you elaborate on that a bit?
Conaty I like to think of that in a couple of ways. One thing we were very attentive to when preparing the exhibition was Hopper’s interest in theater. There, we have spectatorship in a perhaps more literal way. He was always an avid theater-goer. Even during his childhood, he would travel to New York City with his parents to see performances. He was also an avid movie-goer. He was taking in not only what was on stage, but everything around him—the people in the audience, and the architectural details of the theater. This is the kind of spectatorship he carries with him on his travels through the city—when he’s riding on the elevated train through the city, or walking through the city streets. He becomes a spectator of the city itself.
Ebony The elevated (El) train’s analogy with movies is so fascinating. You mention the relationship between the sequence of film frames of a movie, and the train’s window frames [as in the 1921 etching, House Tops]. He has a panoramic view from the El into offices and apartments—a mashup of the public and private.
Conaty As the show came together, we thought a lot about what it was like to move around the city during Hopper’s time. We know from his own writings and statements, and as his wife Jo also notes, that Edward loved riding the trains, especially the elevated trains. At that time, New York City had four major elevated train lines that ran north and south up the avenues, and into the outer boroughs. A number of Hopper’s compositions have an elevated view into a window, or down onto a sidewalk. Those particular views seem strange today since the El trains that Hopper rode no longer exist. But they were part of his daily experience.
Ebony Another emphasis in the book, and the exhibition, is this idea of Hopper’s “horizontal” view of the city compared with the “verticality” more typical of city scenes that accentuate the skyscrapers, and the vertical thrust of new construction in the city.
Conaty That occurred to me when I was looking at the museum’s permanent collection display on the seventh-floor, where Hopper’s Early Sunday Morning (1930) is almost always on view. Near that painting hung Apartment Houses, East River (c. 1930), a far less well-known Hopper work. It was startling to see those two canvases together. They are very similar compositions, in exactly the same format and done around the same time. At that moment, I realized that there was something going on here. Consider what Hopper was writing about at that moment—talking about the city in terms of a great lateral extent, and thinking carefully about the dimensions of the canvas—the “frame,” as he called it. His interests were clearly not in the new, shiny and tall skyscrapers, the vertical images; instead, he sought a more human-scale vision of the city.
Ebony With iconic paintings like Early Sunday Morning, there is always some discussion about the “mood” or atmosphere Hopper creates in his work. It was interesting to read Darby English’s rather contrary comments about “mood” in his essay for the book, saying “Mood banalizes, even wastes countless available excitements.” He’s referring to the painting, Drug Store (1927). What is your feeling about the mood or atmosphere in Hopper’s work?
Conaty I think that there is a feeling one has when looking at many of Hopper’s works that we are stepping into a world where something has just happened, or something is just about to happen. We’re at a moment of stillness in between. In the course of his career, he got more and more skillful in touching on those moments, which he captures through the use of space. I think one of the things that Darby’s essay reminds us to do is to imagine what it would be like to inhabit these spaces. And are they even inhabitable? How could you move around in them? Some of the images recall stage sets, or a Hollywood backlot meant to represent downtown New York. And there is the feeling that these vacant spaces are not so hospitable. In the later paintings, especially, he seems to pay more attention to the spaces than he does to the figures.
Ebony Some of the New York places and spaces that inspired the works no longer exist. I once interviewed Richard Estes about his paintings of New York City scenes. He said that he would choose a location to paint for the space, the light, and the building’s reflections in the glass windows and such. But now, some of those works have become archival items of great interest to architecture historians since they are detailed records of vanished sites, and buildings that have been torn down and replaced. There’s a connection to Hopper in that way. There’s also a connection today with the public-private tension in Hopper’s work for artists like Arne Svenson, in his photo series The Neighbors, for instance, with their views through apartment windows, reminiscent of Hopper’s images from the El train. It makes me wonder about the relationships you see between Hopper and other artists, and the relevance of Hopper’s work for or influence on younger generations of artists.
Conaty I have been fascinated for years now, well before I was working this Hopper project, with how often Hopper’s name will come up when speaking to artists—and a great range of artists— about their work. What is exciting for me is that there isn’t just one aspect of Hopper’s work that younger generations of artists are drawn to. It can be that public-private tension you mention, the kind of incidental voyeurism that is so familiar in Hopper’s work. And there are artists, such as Mary Corse, who I worked with on a project a few years ago, who paints white-on-white canvases with reflective surfaces, concerned with issues like “how do you paint light?” She is very interested in Hopper, not only because of his use of light, but because of the abstraction she sees in his paintings. We spoke with a number of artists during the process of preparing this exhibition, and what was fun was to bring their voices into the audio guide selections for this show. You can hear the artist Kambui Olujimi talking about Hopper’s New York bridges; and Jane Dickson, who was just in the Whitney Biennial, talking about the public-private issue that resonates with her own work; David Hartt, who also wrote for the catalogue, is another artist I was surprised to learn had a great interest in Hopper.
Ebony In later years, Hopper started to merge fact and fiction, or fact became fiction—from realism to theatricality, with his composite spaces and images, as in New York Movie (1939). Can you talk a little about that transition?
Conaty Before New York Movie, in a painting like The City from 1927, he is already creating a fiction. He began to improvise. The City is loosely based on Washington Square Park near his home, but in fact he brings various buildings and architectural styles together that were never there. We’ve categorized many works from 1940s on, under the general notion of reality and fantasy, based on a statement we found in one of Hopper’s journals. There, he talks about his interest in creating “a realistic art from which fantasy can grow.” By this time, he had been living in New York for decades, but still experiencing aspects of the city anew. He had many layers of memory—of places and sites and experiences that he could draw upon. It becomes less important for him to go out to a particular location to study the specifics of the place because he has his own visual repertoire. So things get stranger and stranger. It looks like New York City, and he’s still drawing on his experience there, but we can’t quite identify it.
Ebony What was for you the most unexpected or biggest surprise—or surprises—when putting the show together?
Conaty A great question, but hard to say; there were so many along the way. I have to admit, though, that as we were in the midst of installing the show, I was most surprised by the way that even a painting of modest scale by Hopper could hold the room in a very impressive way.
Ebony Finally, what do hope visitors will come away with after seeing the exhibition?
Conaty I hope that visitors will gain a fuller sense of who Hopper was, and also a greater appreciation for their own New York. The title is purposeful. It is not just Edward Hopper and New York, it’s the artist’s vision of New York. Seeing New York through someone else’s eyes can sometimes inspire us to be more aware of our New York. It has had that effect on me; and others working on the project had the same experience. Walking home from the show, through the streets of the city at night, passing by apartments lit from the inside, and having that kind of urban theater feeling, or noticing a bridge or a walkway you hadn’t thought about before. That would be the best outcome—to renew for each of us an individual vision of New York.
Kim Conaty is the Steven and Ann Ames Curator of Drawings and Prints at the Whitney Museum of American Art. She was formerly curator of the Rose Art Museum, Brandeis University, and assistant curator at the Museum of Modern Art, New York.
David Ebony is a contributing editor of Art in America, formerly its managing editor. He is a contributor to several other publications, as well as the author of numerous artist monographs.