When my mother, my wife Dorothy and I went to the Whitney Museum of American Art this past weekend, the experience reminded us of how the Whitney ably balances constancy and change.
At the coat check, we met Eric and Donald, the two hosts, who have worked together for 23 years. Eric and Donald served a crowd for five floors of exhibit with kindness and Seinfeld flashes of wit. They were helpful and congenial to a person seeking a wheelchair, explaining how to use the chair and chatting up the visitor to provide a welcoming experience.
After Eric and Donald took our coats, we headed upstairs to see Modern Life: Edward Hopper and his Times. As with snow in the North Country, the exhibit looks great but is about to “melt”- - closing on Sunday April 10th.
The exhibit occupies much of the museum’s second floor, with 71 works, nearly all of which are paintings and 32 of which are Hoppers. Most of the Hoppers in the exhibit are from the Whitney’s collection. Hopper’s widow, Josephine, gave the Museum over 2,500 pieces of Hopper’s art after he died in 1967.
From this universe of Hoppers, the curators chose such classics as Gas, the painting of a Cape Cod gas station at dusk, Railroad Sunset, a railroad interlocking tower silhouetted by sunset and A Woman in the Sun, a nude woman in summer light. Because the exhibit draws from the Whitney collection, you will not see classics such as Nighthawks and the sailboat painting, The Long Leg, from, respectively, the Chicago Art Institute and the Huntington in Pasadena.
Throughout the rooms are informative essays on the walls, with biographical and artistic information about Hopper, the America of his times and artistic contemporaries. His contemporaries include George Bellows, represented by his large canvas Dempsey and Firpo, photographer Edward Steichen, Charles Burchfield and Precisionist Charles Sheeler.
The curator cleverly puts familiar and unexpected images together. My parents loved the painting, Gas and it’s great to see it. However, before coming to Gas, is a Hopper picture called Soir Bleu, depicting an outdoor café. All the diners look unremarkable. In a table at the middle of the painting, however, is a clown, fully made up with a white face!
We came mostly to see Hopper. But on leaving, I realized the exhibit is as much - - or more - - about 20th century American painting and the Whitney’s collection as it is about a wonderful artist.