Art: The Silent Witness

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At the ceremony Hopper got the word out all right, but no more. His silences must be heard to be appreciated. Author John Dos Passos, an old friend, recalls that often when they had tea together, he "felt that Hopper was on the verge of saying something, but he never did." Painter Louis Bouche once chatted for a long stretch to Hopper, without getting the least response, and finally blurted: "Oh hell, peekaboo!" Even Mrs. Hopper (who does the family's share of talking) confesses that "sometimes talking with Eddie is just like dropping a stone in a well, except that it doesn't thump when it hits bottom."

More than most artists, and far more than the generality of men, Hopper lives in his eyes. He handles words precisely, but they remain alien to him. He is untroubled by his own monumental reticence. "If you could say it in words," he shrugs, "there'd be no reason to paint."

Puritan into Purist. A painter friend of Hopper's, Guy Pene du Bois, pinpointed his genius way back in 1931: "Hopper denies none of the Anglo-Saxon attributes which are so strongly planted in his character. He has built an esthetic which expresses them directly. He has turned the Puritan in him into a purist, turned moral rigors into stylistic precisions." Du Bois' prophetic conclusion: "He will make many of the 'great' moderns seem like funny little reciters of fairy tales."

Art Historian James Thomas Flexner points out that Hopper is the one painter of his generation who is "in the air" today. Flexner dares hope aloud that "the old gentleman will be a bridge between today's abstractionism and realism, for sooner or later the pendulum's got to swing back. Hopper's compositions are awfully good in the abstract, you know. Abstractionists respect him."

The young realists certainly do. In a forthcoming book (Conversations with Artists, by Selden Rodman) Painters Jack Levine and Andrew Wyeth give professional appraisals. Hopper "does what he sets out to do," Levine says admiringly. "No dreams of the old masters set him off his course . . . Hopper looks inland. He's an American painter all the way." Wyeth goes farther still: "What makes Rembrandt so very great is that his concern for other people and for nature always shows through, giving his paintings a dimension of identification and self-effacement that is almost unique in art. Titian doesn't have it, and certainly Rubens doesn't. Hopper has it."

Terrible Task. Hopper himself is habitually as disappointed in his own work as others are enthusiastic. His latest is.a painting of a gas station on a four-lane highway. "I had the idea for it quite a while," he says. "But not so very long, I guess." (The reverse declarative is a Hopper hallmark.) "I didn't think much of it at the start. Still, if you're a painter you have to do something."

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