On the walls of a Manhattan gallery last week hung some of the best paintings recently produced in the U.S. In the center of the room towered a high-domed, uncomfortable-looking gentleman, who questionably pointed out first one of his pictures and then another to a small cluster of admirers. He heard their praises in silence, with an expression of kindly gloom. When the chatter died away, Edward Hopper's paintings spoke for him, and spoke with concentrated force.
Manhattan's classy, glassy Museum of Modern Art owns seven of his pictures, but except for his preoccupation with subject matter that is not conventionally beautiful, there was never anything "modern" about Hopper.
For Hopper, "nature" is largely manmade (the glare of electricity and the harsh jumble of U. S. cities and towns fascinates him) and it consists more of what he remembers than of what he sees. His big, cleanly painted canvases look like windows on simplified reality.
No Waiting. Rooms for Tourists was a literal portrait of a house in Provincetown near where he spends his summers. He had parked in front of the house evening after evening, making sketches by the dome light in his car. "Mrs. Hopper thought I should let the landlady know what I was doing out there," he says, "but I didn't want to intrude."
Rooms for Tourists, like most of Hopper's work, has the strange clarity of something seen once for an instant by a passing driver. It is a familiar vision without any of the dullness familiarity brings. The house looms sharply in the long darkness of the night, and the light shining from its windows is warm as bed. The impression, and the invitation, are instantaneous; the road leads on past.
A road cuts across the foreground of most of Hopper's paintings. Sometimes it becomes a city street, or a railroad embankment, or a porch step, but it is therea constant reminder of transience.
Born 65 years ago in Nyack, N.Y., Hopper has been following the painter's road for nearly half a century. He was lucky enough to study with Robert Henri, whose " Ashcan School" of urban realism neatly fitted his own natural bent, and he later made three trips to Paris (where he imitated the impressionists but made no contact with young moderns like Picasso). For a long time Hopper's road was a rocky one. He sold only two paintings in 23 years, supported himself by doing commercial illustrations, which he hated. Says Hopper; "I was a rotten illustratoror mediocre, anyway."
No Impulse. Hopper did not hit his stride until middle age, when the sudden fame as an interpreter of the American scenea sort of Theodore Dreiser in artfreed him. Nowadays, Hopper and his wife, who keeps her own painting studiously in the background, can afford a house on Cape Cod as well as their Manhattan studio apartment over looking Washington Square.
"I wish I could paint more," Hopper says. "I get sick of reading and going to the movies. I'd much rather be painting all the time, but I don't have the impulse. Of course I do dozens of sketches for oilsjust a few lines on yellow typewriter paperand then I almost always burn them. If I do one that interests me, I go on and make a painting, but that happens only two or three times a year "
Hopper's Summer Evening, a young couple talking in the harsh light of a cottage porch, is inescapably romantic, but Hopper was hurt by one critic's suggestion that it would do for an illustration in "any woman's magazine." Hopper had the painting in the back of his head "for 20 years and I never thought of putting the figures in until I actually started last summer. Why any art director would tear the picture apart. The figures were not what interested me; it was the light streaming down, and the night all around."
" To me, the important thing is the sense of going on. You know how beautiful things are when you're traveling."