Edward Hopper and the American Hotel

I may not be actively curating shows at the moment, but I still visit art exhibitions, both for the often enjoyable content and to keep up with current installation and scholarly trends. One particularly fine exhibition I recently attended was Edward Hopper and the American Hotel, on view at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts through February 23rd. Today, I’d like to talk about the show and my impressions of it.

First, a little bit about Edward Hopper (1882-1967). He’s probably most famous for the painting Nighthawks, which was featured in the 1986 movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, but his oeuvre encompasses far more than that work. Born and raised in New York, he was a realist artist proficient in a variety of media, including oil painting, watercolors, and intaglio printmaking. His work often explores the loneliness of modernity, with his compositions usually highlighting isolated figures in movie theaters, automats, and other places that really only developed in the 20th century. His paintings, in particular, are often rendered in a tightly-painted, almost clinical style, and there’s definitely the discomfiting presence of the voyeur emanating from them. His work has endured with American audiences not only because of the relevance of his themes, but also because his works explore the tenets of abstraction while remaining grounded in representational painting. When you’re looking at one of his paintings, you’re never in doubt that you’re looking at a person or a house, but he arranges his objects in such a way that you can appreciate his use of line, shape, and color.

Edward Hopper and the American Hotel, as the title suggests, focuses on the role of hotels, and more broadly the travel and hospitality industry, in Hopper’s career. Curated by the VMFA’s chief curator in American art, Leo Mazow (who, incidentally, wrote one of the essays for the Magical and Real catalogue), the exhibition’s main thesis is that hospitality and tourism constitute a significant but overlooked part of Hopper’s oeuvre. To illustrate this argument, the exhibition then not only features works that include depictions of hotels, but documents the significance of travel, and by extension frequenting hotels, to Hopper’s oeuvre. The show then contextualizes Hopper’s travels within ongoing changes in tourism throughout the twentieth century, arguing that Hopper’s preference for the relative comfort and anonymity of hotels reflected broader trends in American travel and vacationing, with the automobile becoming an increasingly significant part of the overall cultural landscape.

The show includes an impressive array of materials dating from the late nineteenth century through the early twenty-first. While most of the materials focus on Hopper, the exhibition also includes work from both his contemporaries and more contemporary artists to situate his work within a broader cultural and aesthetic framework. In going through the exhibition, viewers get the sense that, contrary to his compositions, Hopper is not working in isolation, but rather is responding to ongoing changes in both technology and social norms. Stylistically, his work may not necessarily change all that much over time, but his subject matter does.

In addition to highlighting some fine examples of Hopper’s work, the show also cleverly uses multimedia features to both engage audiences and effectively illustrate how travel fueled his practice. The gallery spaces includes several covers that Hopper created for travel and hotel magazines, for instance, as he was initially trained as a commercial illustrator. The exhibition also includes several flat screens that allow visitors to retrace various road trips Hopper took with his wife, Jo. As they learn about each stop, the screen displays quotes the pair wrote about a place in their respective letters and journals, as well as works that developed out of those road trips. For those who are more analogically inclined, there are also several cases of postcards the Hoppers sent to friends, a feature that helps humanize these artists by showing that they were, in effect, tourists.

While work from other artists is sprinkled throughout the exhibition, a lot of it is concentrated in a gallery dedicated to contemporary work, demonstrating to viewers not only the persistence of travel in American culture, but the influence of Hopper himself on later generations of artists.

Throughout the show, there’s definitely an interactive element. Some of it was quite subtle, as is the case with this vinyl cutout based on one of Hopper’s sketches. The original drawing is only about 18″ x 24″, so seeing it rendered on a human scale gives the work a different kind of presence while also reminding viewers that Hopper’s art was very much based in humanity and modeled on real people (his wife Jo modeled for a lot of his paintings).

By far the most novel interactive aspects though, are the two built hotel environments within the exhibition. The two installations, a lobby and an actual hotel room, respectively, are meticulously based on Hopper’s paintings. Indeed, it was somewhat uncanny to look away from the painting to see its built counterpart nearby, giving you the opportunity to experience the composition in both two and three dimensions. You can even pay to stay overnight in the hotel room, further enabling you to vicariously relive Hopper’s travel experiences (though I’m pretty sure it’s booked solid at this point).

The interactive element of Edward Hopper and the American Hotel is not an isolated phenomenon. Immersive, participatory exhibitions have become increasingly prominent in museums over the last few years, reflecting the influence of theme parks, as well as social media and the ever-present quest for Instagram-worthy images. The most overtly participatory art experience I’ve been to is Meow Wolf’s House of Eternal Return in Santa Fe (though critics debate its actual art status), but more traditional museums like the Dallas Museum of Art have also embraced immersive experiences like Yayoi Kusama’s All the Eternal Love Have for the Pumpkins, on view in 2017 and 2018.

What I appreciate about Edward Hopper and the American Hotel, however, is that its participatory elements don’t feel like a gimmick, but instead provide insight into Hopper’s artistic practice. When you look into that empty hotel room, or presumably stay there, you get a sense of the isolation that he was trying to render in paint. When you look into the hotel lobby and see other visitors interacting with it, you can imagine Hopper doing the same thing, and perhaps envisioning how to best arrange the seemingly random influx of visitors into a meaningful and coherent composition. When you interact with the flat screen, you not only retrace his journeys, but can apply what you’ve learned to the paintings in the show, giving you greater context. The entire exhibition itself constitutes a kind of journey that takes you through Hopper’s career, with the interactive elements complementing and enhancing rather than detracting from the art’s travel-themed focus.

If you can’t tell, this exhibition resonated pretty deeply with me. Part of it was just me reminiscing on the curating experience (and envying the VMFA’s budget. Full-scale replicas of rooms aren’t cheap to make), but like a lot of the people in Hopper’s paintings, traveling and hotels have been an important part of my life. As a curator in New Mexico, I spent a lot of time in hotels due to overnight research trips or conferences, and am familiar with their weirdly generic quality. Hopper also painted a lot of places that I’ve personally visited, like the two scenes of Ogunquit beach above. In a lot of ways, Hopper’s paintings, though done many decades earlier, offer insight into my life, which is the overarching point of the exhibition.

But not everyone’s lives. The traveling America that Hopper paints is a decidedly white one, and the exhibition does address this. The labels for the magazine covers, for instance, discuss the role of black labor in enabling the travel experiences of white America. Some of the catalogue essayists also talk about the racial and class tensions underpinning Hopper’s work, specifically David Brody and Carmenita Higginbotham. A few of the more contemporary works on view also mention the Green Book and other themes specific to the black tourism experience. Yet I would have appreciated it if the exhibition itself had confronted the whiteness of Hopper’s oeuvre more directly, as that’s really the only way to challenge its status as the norm.

Overall though, I really enjoyed the exhibition. Mazow and the VMFA staff have put together a beautiful installation, so much so that I found myself getting a little nostalgic for my days in Roswell. It only seems appropriate then, that the exhibition ends with this painting: an old man looking out at a defunct railroad. As Hopper makes evident throughout his oeuvre, the past is in the past, and we can either grow old longing for it, or we can move forward. After a final look at this painting, I exited the exhibition ready to face whatever comes next.

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