Art Talk: Edward Hopper's Drawings Are... Boring

Friday, June 07, 2013

Edward Hopper painted things like lonely souls in late-night bars and couples in New York restaurants, and became one of the most popular American painters of the 20th century. And while he's mostly known for his oil paintings, a new exhibit at the Whitney Museum is the first to highlight his drawings. In the meantime, a new book by a previously unknown girlfriend offers a new look at the man.

Art critic Deborah Solomon says they both reveal new things about Hopper, whom she considers one of the top five American artists. The Whitney exhibit shows he was not a great draftsman, explained Solomon. And that, she said, is a good thing. "If all you do is draw a figure realistically, we can get the same experience looking at a photograph," she said. "We want something more. We want the artist to create a parallel universe, Hopper certainly did that."

Do you agree with Solomon? Or do you think it's important that an artist be able to draw realistically? Leave a comment below, and click on the link above to listen to WNYC's Soterios Johnson's whole interview with Solomon.

The Art Institute of Chicago; Friends of American Art Collection 1942.51
Nighthawks, 1942. Oil on canvas, 33 1/8 x 60 in. (84.1 x 152.4 cm)
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
Study for Nighthawks, 1941 or 1942
The Museum of Modern Art, New York
New York Movie, 1939
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
Study for New York Movie, 1938 or 1939

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Comments [32]

Robert Cronin from Falls Village, Ct.

Funny about the word "draftsmanship" in our time. We easily could include Michelangelo, Larry Rivers, and Clause Oldenburg's erotic drawings. Drawings that may be a bit showy? In this context I don't think/feel draftsmanship with Hopper..... or van Gogh or John Graham or Balthus. I prefer just drawing.

Jul. 31 2013 02:07 PM

When examining an artist’s sketchbook to judge its technical value, all one can express is conjecture. It would be like judging a writer’s value based on their journals. For me, Hopper’s sketches reveal the artist working out that blurry vision that may or may not evolve into a painting. Sketches are not always done in a studio with unlimited time. Sometimes it is in a subway car, a diner at 3 AM or on a roadside. Inspiration doesn’t always allow for the draftsman to be present. Many of Hopper’s painting reveal a sense of his voyeurism. The Whitney gives the patron a chance to be a voyeur into Hopper’s own process as an artist.

Jun. 28 2013 02:48 PM
Deborah Solomon

Thanks, all, for your thoughtful comments. A dear friend told me last night that Eric Fischl always said that Hopper is a great artist -- and a terrible painter.

Jun. 10 2013 10:17 AM

A postscript to my previous comment: While Hopper claimed that he did not make finished drawings to sell, his words were belied by his actions. For example, in 1957 Jo Hopper listed ten of Edward's drawings were released for sale. The titles show that a number of these had been done two decades earlier and remained in Hopper's studio--but nevertheless, at some point Hopper reversed himself and put these finished and signed drawings out for collectors to purchase. Perhaps his own reassessment convinced him that they were good enough to release after all.

Jun. 10 2013 09:38 AM
Bonnie Tocher Clause from South Royalton, Vermont

Deborah Solomon's comments are interesting, but they don't take into account the range of Hopper's drawings, done over many decades and for a multitude of purposes. I haven't yet seen the exhibit at the Whitney, but I do have the catalog, and it's fascinating. Some of Hopper's early work as a student, as well as his illustrations (work that he detested, but which sustained him until his paintings began to sell) show that he was indeed a talented draftsman. Some of his later drawings--the ones that were finished, signed, and sometimes sold--are beautifully executed. One, "Vermont Trees," that's in the current show at the Middlebury College Museum of Art, "Edward Hopper in Vermont," is strikingly lovely, evoking echoes of lines from Robert Frost's poetry. And while this drawing is clearly associated with some of Hopper's Vermont watercolors, it's a lovely work in its own right. Drawings like these, which record Hopper's process in developing compositions as well as his handling media other than paint (Conté crayon and pencil), are a whole different genre than, say, the dozens of rough sketches that he did for "New York Movie" and other major oils. Thus the Whitney's exigesis, which takes the full range of Hopper's drawing (generically speaking) into account. I can't wait to see it.

Jun. 10 2013 09:22 AM
Zane from Dobbs Ferry, NY

To pose a discussion with a byline, "Edward Hopper's Drawings Are… Boring," is merely a cheap trick for a journalist to foster an article-discussion on an artist.

First of all, it's not clear who, if anyone is actually making this comment (though I suspect it's actually the writer of the article, who may actually believe it). In second place, as many have already commented, drawings are primarily studies painters use to work toward the painting forming in their head’s. It doesn't matter whether or not they are perfectly drawn. It's ridiculous to even bring up such an ignorant… comment (with no actual ownership). Needles to say Hopper certainly may be as brilliant at drawing and sketching, as he is at painting, but doesn't feel the need for it as a prequel to a painting he's putting together in his mind's eye. Even critic, Deborah Solomon may be making a big assumption. Just because the Whitney decides to present the sketches along with the finished work, doesn’t necessarily mean they want to make such an unfounded statement.

Why not use more integrity and perhaps imagination to discuss a painter's process (which these drawings clearly are), and present them in that way — properly and respectfully. Ms. Regatao should stick to her executive-ness and leave the cultural articles to the ‘actual’ journalists.

Jun. 09 2013 01:36 PM
rj from LI

I found the interview very interesting and it has inspired me to see the exhibit. However, the question of whether or not it matters if an artist is a good draftsperson - does it matter? If I receive pleasure from looking at an artist's work, then their work matters to me. If I find his or her drawings less satisfying in the same way, but have viewed them in the context of the complete exhibit and find some curiosity satisfied, then on the whole my experience has been positive.
I would also suggest that even if you view an exhibit and find it less than satisfying, that time is not wasted. In short, you don't know unless you try and their is pleasure in trying.

Jun. 09 2013 11:32 AM
Lisa Goebel from NYC

I enjoyed Deborah Solomon's discerning comments. She recognized Hopper as a great American artistt but also honestly spoke her views of his drawings. It is always refreshing when a commentator or critic gives their informed and full view of a subject.
Lisa from NYC

Jun. 08 2013 01:20 PM
Art gunther from Nyack ny

The new book on Edward Hopper is NOT by "a previously unknown girlfrined," but is "My Dear Mr. Hopper," by Elizabeth Thompson Colleary, a Hopper scholar. It is a collection of letters sent over 10 years to the artist by Alta Hilsdale when Hopper was in his 20s and early 30s. They are significant because they reveal Hilsdale as seeing a plantonic relationship and Hopper otherwse. I think he carried the loss into the best of his art. She was his leitmotif. As for the "drawings" mentioned, they are not to be compared to his oils or watercolors. They are merely working sketches, sometimes scribbled on envelopes.

-- Art Gunther, trustee, Edward Hopper Art Center and birthplace, Nyack, N.Y.

Jun. 07 2013 08:28 PM
ee from new york

If you are saying that your experience of a photograph is not as rich as it is of painting, I suggest you learn something about photography.

Jun. 07 2013 08:23 PM

excellent painter and excellent draughtsmen. you can't have one without the other I'm sorry to say. you like his paintings better than his drawings, thats ok and its a matter of opinion, i actually agree with you because he is a wizard with color, but his colors wouldn't work without his mastery of value, which comes from a deep understanding and mastery of black and white drawing. sorry i just couldn't have the last comment end on he was an 'okay' draughtsman. it just doesn't make sense. anyway, thanks for the spirited discussion. great to hear the passion for one of my all time favorite artists!

Jun. 07 2013 05:38 PM
Deborah Solomon

Thank you, Richard Sica, for your scholarly comments. You point out that Hopper wasn't interested in making "finished drawings." Indeed, he was obsessed with painting, with all that implies about picture construction, the architecture of the city and masses of darkness and light. He was an okay draftsman but a genius as a painter -- can we agree on that?

Jun. 07 2013 02:56 PM
Richard Sica from Brooklyn, NY

As the registrar of Hirschl & Adler Galleries for over 30 years, I have handled and catalogued 100’s of Hopper drawings, watercolors, etchings and paintings.
For the most part, Hopper did very few of what would be considered “finished drawings.” This may lead to the wrong conclusion about his skill with pencil or conte crayon.
Most of the drawings were preparatory studies for his paintings and watercolors.
However, Hopper was a fine draughtsman. The evidence for this is clear if one studies his early etchings. They are executed with great realism and emotional breath. He did this work as a way to earn money during his early career but as he became more successful he concentrated on painting.

Jun. 07 2013 02:25 PM
larryangelo from Philadelphia

What a gigantic subject. About Edward Hopper, it seems his drawing was a kind of pre-painting.
Why concern himself with a realistic representation when the painting was his goal? Hopper's prints are not mentioned in the brief discussion, but they might be seen as a mid-way point between his drawing and painting. Don't the prints have some of the emotional power of the paintings?
Now, to say that Cezanne, Matisse, Van Gogh had limited representational skills is absurd. I'm not sure if this discussion should be taking place in 1950 or 1850. These artists and others enlarged the very meaning of drawing. To be able to render the human form is an exacting task. But, someone once did a demonstration of "corrected" Matisse drawings, i.e., more accurate representational renderings of his work. They were correct, they expressed nothing.
A couple of quotes, as I remember them: Matisse, "If you wish to paint, you must cut out your tongue." Not so much talking, more striving!
Ben Shahn, when asked how do you learn to draw, to paint?: "Draw and draw and paint and paint."
It is nothing new to say that some kind of disability, physical, mental, emotional, is part of the makeup of all artists. "Divine discontent" is mentioned by both Wagner and Martha Graham.
Edward Hopper's difficulty in verbal expression was transmuted by his art, his work, into powerful evocations of loneliness and longing, quiet desolations of a particularly American kind. At least, that's how his works have affected me.

Jun. 07 2013 01:48 PM
Deborah Solomon

Lafou -- exactly. Some artists never sell their drawings, and Hopper was one of them. But if a museum organizes a show called "Hopper Drawing," it is fair for critics to ask: What are we looking at? Are they master drawings? Or are they mainly for reference?

Jun. 07 2013 01:26 PM
lafou from nyc

Sometimes drawing ARE jotted notes for future implementation. Maybe he did not expect them to be critqued at the Whitney.

Jun. 07 2013 01:14 PM
Deborah Solomon

Thanks Nathan. I feel misunderstood! I love the Whitney show but tried to make the point that the drawings are rough sketches rather than autonomous master drawings. For the most part, they are interesting in relation to the paintings, as opposed to being the sort of drawings (think Egon Schiele or Degas) that can hold the wall on their own.

Jun. 07 2013 01:13 PM

i would love to see your example of an artist who can draw well. sorry, but the idea that Hopper couldn't draw well is just ridiculous. Not to mention they are studies for paintings, notes for his paintings. i guess you are saying the Whitney should just stick to the paintings? seems a bit better of a thing to say than just dismissing Hoppers excellent draughtsmanship.

Jun. 07 2013 12:35 PM

Thanks Deborah! It might be a good idea if your criticism is of painting or drawing. Knowing how to draw (somewhat, I am still learning) certainly helps me in understanding what might be going on with someone's work. I can tell e.g. if someone sketched from life or from a photo, or if they projected the image and traced it.

Jun. 07 2013 12:25 PM
Deborah Solomon

Thank you Bruno Gordon and Paul Jeffries for your smart comments. Do you think art critics should be required to take at least one drawing class? I've often wanted to. Just bought one of those unisex mannequins but it might be too late for me. Be well, D.

Jun. 07 2013 12:03 PM
Bruno Gordon from Newburgh, NY

I want to able to draw something realistically so I can paint the way I see it and create this "parallel universe" explicitly. Without this ability my painting becomes an expression of a lack of skill rather than of my personal view of something. For me in other words, an ability to draw is a very important feature of a good artist (by good artist I mean one that I love to look at).

Jun. 07 2013 11:41 AM
paul jeffries

Technique (good draughtsmenship) is not an end in itself. It must be competent enough to enable the work to possess the expressive/interpretive dynamics to be fulfilling to the artist and the viewer. Academic drawing technique is only one kind of approach. The human spirit cannot and will not be confined to only one kind of thing. Dont take my word for it, just open your eyes and look arround!

Jun. 07 2013 11:38 AM
deborah Solomon

P.S. I agree with you that Roberta Smith's review of the Hopper show is superb.

Jun. 07 2013 10:35 AM
deborah Solomon

Hi David, Did you listen to my review, or are you reacting to the headline (which I did not write). I love Hopper and explain that the drawings do shed light on his creative process. However, taken one by one, they're more like jotted notes than finished works of art. I think the drawings lack the visual oomph of the paintings, and I don't think it diminishes Hopper to say so. Is this the David Ross who used to be director of the Whitney? I always thought of you as inexplicably resentful so I am not taking your criticism too seriously.

Jun. 07 2013 10:28 AM
David Ross from Beacon

Glad to see attention to Hopper's drawings, but Solomon gets it all wrong. Hopper drawings open up his creative process in a way that is absolutely critical to understanding this complex artist and his oeuvre. Over 200 drawings and 25 major paintings (not 10 as she stated) create a real dialog between his work on paper and his finished paintings. The curator has actually managed to break new ground in a subject (Hopper) that some may feel they already know quite well. For a real critical insight into thi show read the 6/7 Roberta Smith review in the NYT. Why not interview the curator if possible, and give voice to complex ideas rather than simplifying "good show/bad show" level criticism, WNYC listeners deserve better criticism and more informed cultural reporting.

Jun. 07 2013 10:18 AM
Rachel Lussier from Stamford, CT

Everyone has a certain level of ability, it simply requires cultivation. I am an artist and if I can teach my corporate lawyer husband to access those resources, all things are possible.

PS) Hopper is not boring, his work requires the viewer to be receptive to his quiet moments of observation. We all need more moments of quiet observation these days...

Jun. 07 2013 09:39 AM
deborah Solomon

Thank you Rachel Lussier! I wish I could draw.

Jun. 07 2013 09:21 AM
Rachel Lussier from Stamford, CT

Before the pencil hits the paper, the artist goes through a visual analysis of the subject. The act of drawing is a direct reflection of that analysis. So a high level of competency in drawing is the direct documented evidence that the artist has a complete understanding of his/her subject matter.

While it is not absolutely necessary to be a good draftsman to be a great artist, the skill set distinguishes an artist from his or her less facile counterparts. Even if the end work (paintings) show few specifics, the underpinnings of good draftsmanship is apparent.

In the age of so many tools (crutches), fakery and slick presentation, an honest and well developed ability to draw resonates.

Jun. 07 2013 08:57 AM
deborah Solomon

Thanks for your comments, JSilbert and Denise Shaw. When I look at "Nighthawks" I am always struck at how crazily green it is. Green is the color of nature and French landscape painting, but Hopper imported it to New York. I think he is undervalued as a colorist.

Jun. 07 2013 08:35 AM
Denise Shaw from New York City

I have been painting and drawing all my life (I am 60)--painting realistically and non-objectively. I am passionate about both.

Having said that, drawings can be conceptual and an emotional and psychological component can surface through them. For one example and in my opinion, one can look at the Dutch School and see that most of it is formula except for Rembrandt's drawings-- an artist who brings a certain life and pathos to them.

Jun. 07 2013 08:08 AM

I enjoyed Deborah Solomon's comments greatly, and agree wholeheartedly with her views on draftsmanship and rendering ability. She mentioned Van Gogh, Cezanne and Pollack as artists whose limited ability to draw was negated by the power of their paintings; the list could be expanded indefinitely. I would add Matisse, Rousseau, Magritte, Klee, Caspar David Friedrich, etc., etc.

Thanks for a great discussion.


Jun. 07 2013 07:57 AM
Rob Schoenbaum from Stockholm, Sweden

Is it important that an artist draw realistically? Seriously?Are we now saying that photography is art while painting is not?

Jun. 07 2013 07:41 AM

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