Sunday, March 13, 2011

The Whitney’s “Edward Hopper And His Time”: Less Context And More Hopper, Please

Is it possible for an art exhibition to offer too much context? Yes, judging by “Modern Life: Edward Hopper and His Time” at New York’s Whitney Museum. The exhibit lives up to its title in presenting Hopper’s times, with commentary on early twentieth century American art movements: the Ashcan School, social realism, precisionism. In particular, it explores how this country’s artists tossed aside the high society themes favored by a conservative art establishment in favor of realistic subject matter from modern urban life. The exhibit shows contemporaries Reginald Marsh, Paul Cadmus, George Bellows and more, to the point that slightly more than half of the works are not by Hopper.

It’s fine to place Hopper in the context of his influences–but fewer paintings by others still could have made these influences clear. Just as we start to immerse ourselves in Hopper’s urban and rural scenes, his remarkable interplay of light and shadow, his focus on the isolated individual in a setting pervaded by silence (as in Gas, 1940, above), we’re interrupted by a row of paintings by Hopper’s peers. The Whitney, which has 2,500 Hoppers in its collection–the most in the world–could have been more generous with his work.

“Modern Life: Edward Hopper and His Time” runs through April 10 at the Whitney Museum of American Art, 945 Madison Avenue, at 75th Street, NYC; (212) 570-3600;

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