Fragile Realms of Memory
Edward Hopper and John Marin: Works on Paper at Hirschl Adler

The past whirls by at a dizzying pace and disappears. Who now can imagine turn-of-the-20th-century excitement over technological miracles that gave New York the world’s first skyscraper and suspension bridge? On view at Hirshl & Adler is a haunting and elegiac selection of 51 works that call attention to the exhilaration of the early decades of the last century and the enduring solitude of certain individuals who inhabited them.

John Marin, "Brooklyn Bridge," 1913

The juncture of these twin aspects is the city itself, an active player in the art of both Edward Hopper (1882–1967) and John Marin (1870–1953). Works on paper by these two near-contemporaries provide the keynote for an exhibition that also includes work by major American photographers of the same era: Paul Strand, Walker Evans, Berenice Abbott, Andreas Feininger, and Alfred Stieglitz, among others.

Committed to native subjects, Hopper and Marin were among the first American painters to exploit the pictorial possibilities of the modern city. But they approached their sources in opposite ways. Hopper was a realist with roots in the Ash Can school; Marin was an expressionist with Fauvist, even Cubist, tendencies. So the tempo changes as the viewer moves through the Marins toward the Hoppers.

Marin reveled in large masses. Urban architecture provided analogies to the expanse of natural ones — skies, mountains, plains — that he turned to on occasion to “retrue” himself. He paid homage to urban dynamism with his stroke, an ecstatic linear mark that dances across the page and the canvas. His figures, where they appear — as in “Street Movement, Nassau Street” (1936) — surge like a corps de ballet across the great stage of the city. His “Grain Elevator, Weehauken” (1915) is a breathless image, the fractured spatial axis suggesting a temporal one that vibrates with purpose and speed.

Hopper preferred the chimney tops of his own roof to the glamour of the Woolworth Building (aka the Cathedral of Commerce), a favorite Marin motif. He gravitated toward isolated moments glimpsed through a window or on a street in passing. His metropolis is stilled, a habitat as silent as any small town; his touch is slow and deliberate. He concentrated on building form, not dissolving it. Steadfastness, rather than enthusiasm, was his route to a homely maturity.

“The loneliness thing is overdone,” the painter once complained. Maybe, but it is definitely there. Urban or rural, every locale is east of Eden, set in a land of isolated wanderers; Hopper excelled in the bitter attractions of melancholy. This makes his charcoal drawing of an embracing couple, prefatory to the etching “Les Deux Pigeons” (1920), a delightful find. The couple kiss at a open-air café oblivious to the next table or the onlooking waiter. They leave the solitary nude of “Night Shadows” (1921) looking more forlorn.

Nothing pensive attaches to Marin. He was 13 years old in 1883 when New York shut down to celebrate the opening of the Great East River Bridge, as the Brooklyn Bridge was also named. He carried the wonder of it, which resonated across the country, into his adult art. His bridge etchings from 1913–15 pulse with the glory and the gall of Joseph Roebling’s achievement. Imagine the greatest engineering feat of the age incorporating suspect material — steel — that at the time was illegal for structural purposes in England. What chutzpah! Through Marin’s eyes, we glimpse the bridge as its immigrant creator intended it: a marvel that would “forever testify to the energy, enterprise and wealth” of his adopted country.

Berenice Abbott, "Pike and Henry Streets," 1936

This exhibition’s complementary photography is vital to recovering the sensations of a city inventing itself around the Third Avenue El and soaring icons of corporate culture that rose over horse carts and carriages. Arranged with great sensitivity toward theme and mood, these extend the motifs of the graphic art. Each is a small perfection, formal achievement counting every bit as much as the pleasures of the subject matter.

If blockbusters were measured in quality instead of bulk, this beautiful and intelligent show would rank among the best of them. It animates our patrimony, and thus is a recourse against the erosion of cultural memory. Without that, the present is a weightless thing.


“Edward Hopper & John Marin: Works on Paper” at Hirschl & Adler Galleries (21 E. 70th Street, 212-535-8810).

This review was first published in The New York Sun, November 4, 2004.

Copyright 2004 Maureen Mullarkey

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