Art: The Silent Witness

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At a roadside diner in California one day last week, a green and white 1954 three-hole Buick sedan came to a gentle halt and an elderly couple got out. They were tourists, just passing by. The birdlike little woman chattered warmly to the counterman as she ordered weak tea. Her husband, a tall, stooped, somber man in a sports jacket, remained aloof. His heavy, bald dome wrinkled uneasily; his face drooped; his mouth was firmly shut. He folded and unfolded his big hands, cracking a knuckle occasionally and gazing, with utter absorption, at the garish, commonplace surroundings. His blue-grey eyes shone steady and intense as the crack of dawn.

The travelers were Edward Hopper, painter extraordinary, and his wife Jo. Painter Hopper was hard at his usual work: eyewitnessing America. The American scene is not only Edward Hopper's one subject, but his obsession as well. He stares with sober passion at the most ordinary things about the U.S., sights that esthetes turn away from and everyone else takes for granted.

Gas stations, hotel lobbies, rooming houses, side streets, Pullman compartments, lighted windows, underpasses—such are the meager materials Hopper chooses to make immutable and unforgettable on canvas. Their fascination for him lies in the fact they are manmade, and common-man-made. He finds them appropriate for the expression of human striving in all its loneliness and disarray, as well as its hints and spasms of nobility.

In Hopper's quiet canvases, blemishes and blessings balance. He will paint an ugly front stoop and the warmth of sunlight on it, or a sooty curtain stirring with the fragrance of an unexpected breeze. He presents common denominators, taken from everyday experiences, in a formal, somehow final, way. The results can have astonishing poignancy, as if they were familiar scenes solemnly witnessed for the very last time. "To me," says Hopper, "the important thing is the sense of going on. You know how beautiful things are when you're traveling."

The Champion. As Hopper gazed silently and intently at California, a 29-picture exhibition of his work opened with a Hopper-like absence of fanfare at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts. Being staged in one of the nation's richest repositories of native art, the Boston show underlined Hopper's place in a great and continuing tradition.

In the years since World War II, Americans have awakened, as never before, to the world's art heritage, and have discovered the startling truth that a sizable and important part of that heritage exists in their own backyard. U.S. art, as Americans in general are beginning to realize, is neither a series of blurred engravings out of half-forgotten school histories nor a dim reflection of painting abroad. For the past two centuries it has stood on its own feet, comparing favorably with the art of every other nation except France. Drawing depth and drama from the history it helps illustrate, it has reflected not European painting but American life—rough and smooth, tumultuous and diverse. And though it is a great river of many sources and many passing moods, its strongest single current throughout is a searching realism. One measure of Edward Hopper's importance: he is today the revered champion of that tradition.

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