Edward Hopper's paintings of ordinary people and incidental gatherings have a strong suggestive power that seems to imply a heftier purpose crouching in the shadows - unspoken words electifying the spaces between speech and silence much like a Raymond Carver short story. One imagines his entire oevre would contain the same intensity as his Nighthawks paintings or Night Watch engraving. A retrospective of his work at the Chicago Institute through May 10 shows this isn't actually the case; that he did work sometimes with a diluted palette to diluted effect.
Watercolors of the Gloucester coastal resort are a particularly telling example of his difficulty at conjuring up vision tension without resort to strong solid colours or sharp cotnrasts in lighting. These paintings, often of buildings, are strangely unarchitectural. They appear static, lacking the drama of his nocturnal oil paintings or etchings. Perhaps it's the medium. or the unwavering daylight, the lack of figures or the fact that there's no sense of voyeuristic intimacy that makes these paintings visually awkward.
Seeing his later work, dating from the late '30s onwards, is particularly gratifying after these somewhat wishy-washy works. You can appreciate anew how a figure slouching against a wall or bending in a lighted window can be so suggestive, entirely inhabiting it's space. What's most interesting is the view within the view they offer, alongside a tantalizing glimpse of the action that takes place within the wings which is only intimated to the viewer. It's most apparent in New York Movie, where a female usher leans against a wall within the shadows of a movie theater. We see the film flickering in teh left corner of the canvas, and the patrons with their heads averted from the viewer of the painting. The usher is the confidant between one intimate experiene of another, connecting two worlds. Similarly in Office at Night the viewer is able to examine the female figure's partly seductive and partly perplexed pose that her male co-worker is oblivious to.
It would be tempting to claim that night was Hopper's element; indeed there are many paintings to substantiate it. However, it might be more accurate to say he revelled in shadows, and in a sense the hard blue sky and bleached white surfaces of a summer day could create even more stark shadows in which his paintbrush could revel. The difference is the uncompromising nature of this light; it's forceful quality which comes to the fore in Morning in the City, a very harsh painting of a raw-looking nude. It's as if Hopper was telling us that the problem with daylight is that it reveals things we'd rather not see; that night suggests profound possibilities that by day harden into flat and unyielding reality.