Nighthawks

Why should we care about rough drafts of art?

I’ll admit I did not have the personal connection to Edward Hopper that Becky wrote so well of in her post last week. In fact, I was not really looking forward to the exhibit at the Walker.

I think it started with the advent of the DVD. At least that was where I place the boom of the phenomenon. There are other instances of the fascination of the work behind the work before that. Metafiction may be to blame a bit, but since so few people read I don’t think that can be more than an opening thread. Inside the Actor’s Studio helped things along as well.

But it’s DVD commentaries that take the brunt of my ire/grumpy-pantsness. I used to listen to them with every rental, sometimes several commentaries on one movie – like the Lord of the Rings trilogy. That’s more than 6 hours of watching a movie while listening to other people talk about making the movie. And that’s not even covering the hours of behind the scenes footage and featurettes. All the time spent learning nothing.

It’s not really important in the end to know what scene was filmed first, a fact that is pointed out in EVERY commentary. What actors were a delight to work with. Whether or not they had “fun” while making it. Or my favorite question to hate these days – how much was improvised. Knowing the answers to any of this does not, in the end, have an affect on the work itself. All it seems to say is look at how we worked on this.

And it’s taken me a long time, years, to learn that I don’t care, but it seems that for certain types of art, lots of people do. Hence, DVD commentaries, interviews with actors about craft, interviews with directors about creating movies, interviews with musicians about, well, their lives mostly, because talking about where a song came from is pretty much always inversely as boring as the song is awesome.  There’s a fascination with artforms.

So when presented with an exhibit on Hopper, with the focus on his many sketches that led up to his paintings, you can maybe understand my hesitation.

For the first few rooms, I felt much that way. The sketches of people, rather illustrative in nature, from his time in Paris, seemed like character sketches from animated features. I wondered why I should care. You don’t read the early drafts of books unless your profession makes you, why should we want to see the early drafts of paintings? (pics are thumbnails, for a better look, click on them)

Conference at night sketches
Conference at night sketches
Conference at Night
Conference at Night

Then after about four rooms, it begins to change. Here’s a guy who spent up to 25 sketches of the most ordinary of subjects, like three people in a conference room at night. There’s little about the finished works to me that says this was a scene worth devoting so much time toward. Many of these scenes were composites of bits and pieces from various life experiences, which makes them even more strange in a way. If one is going to spend weeks on sketches and painting a piece, why make up such a bland space?

Rooms for Tourists Sketches
Rooms for Tourists Sketches
Rooms for Tourists
Rooms for Tourists

The Room for Tourists painting shows sketch after sketch of what was a real location, a bed and breakfast type place that Hopper apparently sat outside of in his car sketching for days and days. It makes me wonder what I would do if I saw someone looking at my place for so long and why I wouldn’t have called the police.

But then Becky says that this is the point. He wasn’t painting blandness, he was painting distance between people in the city. He was painting a sterile life from the point of view of someone who was always looking in from the outside. Suddenly all the paintings and sketches become a portrait of Hopper – a man who was obsessed with the cold relations in the city, who was perhaps one of the first to paint rural highways and gas stations as a burgeoning American symbol of leisure, mobility and freedom. It’s a bit weird that these offices and dark theaters fascinated Hopper so much, but that’s what’s so cool about him.  And the sketches actually help the paintings make more sense to me – that they are Hopper’s cry to the universe about the distances between us all, how he felt it, deeply, to the point he had to keep on drawing it, over and over again. Capturing in paintings the fleeting moments where a community can be formed, tenuously, but oh so necessary, against an uncaring and unsympathetic national backdrop. Or in the case of Nighthawks, during a world war.

Nighthawks Sketches
Nighthawks Sketches
Nighthawks
Nighthawks

You won me over, Walker Art Center. Once again.

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