Monday, December 14, 2009

Going Beyond

When you go to an art museum, the standard pose, of course, is the one that has you pondering in front of a particular work, perhaps stepping back, putting one hand under chin, tilting head, moving forward, all in a studious attempt to “get” the painting, photograph, sculpture, woodcut, print, collage, whatever. Some of us do this studiously, some in affectation, some because we are simply joining the crowd. Others don’t have any pose and are just tagging along, with a spouse or friend, even under mild protest.

The point, whether there is a workable pose or not, is that what is in the eye of the beholder is central to the art experience. The person who just tags along but who might take a glance up at, say, Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks,” the well-known film-noir painting of a night diner scene in 1940 lower Manhattan, might in that instant understand more about the work than the fellow who has stood before this wide horizontal piece 20 times with hand under chin.

There is a dialogue going on between artist and viewer, and the language and its comprehension come from that simple but deep-in-subtlety well of “going beyond” understanding that Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote about. In “Nighthawks,” the viewer “transcends” any actual experience in a diner to understand beyond.

Hopper, the famed American realist painter, uses the bright inside light of the corner diner to contrast with night darkness. The light reveals the faces of the four figures - the counterman, the couple (perhaps Edward and his wife, artist Jo Nivison) and a man opposite. This light is transcendental – beyond ordinary perception – a realism that we normally do not notice. Hopper’s paintings are infused with that light. Even the shadows are functions of it, as are the people.

That’s my take on “Nighthawks” and on Hopper, a painter well received in his time but much more so in his revival, which began a decade or so ago. This is the artist most often characterized as the “lonely painter,” whose urban oils are painted with figures who do not look at one another, who instead seem in isolated thought or which have no people in them at all. His Cape Cod summer works – oils and watercolors – are brighter than the city ones, yet are as transcendental in the use of light, a metaphor for revelation and understanding. But you, the viewer, the self-reliant as Hopper would have you be, has to do the work. He will not instruct you.

I do see not loneliness in “Nighthawks” but urban alienation, which is the cityite's cautious way of bonding. Three people sit on diner stools, two may be strangers to the third; they each need some degree of company (because they are human) but cannot speak to one another readily, as is the urbanite's apprehensive, even suspicious way, so they sit in silence, not looking at one another but surely knowing another human being is next to them. That is not loneliness but the gothamite’s survival, his self-reliance.

So, “Nighthawks” becomes Emerson-like, taking the viewer, whether he has the standard pose or not, to the inner, spiritual and/or mental essence of us living creatures. There is also, like Emerson, utter simplicity, so reduced, but yet saying so much. The individual exists even in the big city and the broad summer experience. There is the dignity of each of us, going beyond ordinary description.

There is art everywhere – in old architecture, in sunlight rooms, in a pre-war diner – and to me that is what Hopper is all about. The art museum pose, certainly useful, isn’t necessary to understand that.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Faith renewed in San Antone

SAN ANTONIO, Texas -- So this is Texas, this American city of great Mexican/Spanish/native Texan heritage, surrounded by hill country and covered by a deeply blue sky. This is not the light of an Edward Hopper urban mood piece or New England landscape but a shower of little, exploding stars that make you squint. Not so much, though, that you can't see the Texan character.

And that is utter honesty, and directness and the most sincere politeness I have ever been gifted with in my life. "Howdy, Podnuh" is inimitable here, whether those actual words are used or not. Good manners is inbred. After this, I will have a difficult time back in my native Northeast.

Texas star figures – metal, wood, in print – are everywhere, just like you see in the old Hollywood movies, and there actually are people here like the film characters at “Reata,” the fictional Texas ranch in the fictional movie "Giant." Rock Hudson and James Dean captured the look, strength, independence and sense of right and wrong as well as other deeply set principles of the Texans I've met and watched in my few days' visit here.

San Antonio proper has its beautiful River Walk, with its sensible and useful links to stores, a museum, the botanical gardens. It makes you realize what's lost in the huge American building of the suburbs and one shopping strip after another that must be reached by car.

There are suburbs here, too, and many shopping strips. Pity the poor traveling salesman, in from Iowa, awakening in Motel 75 on Austin Highway, thinking he was in Secaucus, N.J., or outside Pittsburgh. The Great American Lookalike Anonymity, with its chain stores, is present.

When Ernie Pyle, the great American traveling columnist and later war correspondent, trekked across the nation before World War II, he could not complain of such suburban lookalikeness and instead was able to celebrate more of the local character he found everywhere. And which still exists.

But you must go to the haunts in San Antonio – and elsewhere in the nation – to find them. Well worth the search. In just hours I spotted tall drinks of water in cowboy hats that would not fit heads in New York; drivers who yell "Howdy" to one another instead of cutting each other off; simply no litter at all; conservative politics, such as the sign on the lawn next door to my son Andrew's house in Alamo Heights: "No Socialism," set on a pure black (Mussolini's Black Shirts?) background.

Each of the people I met or watched was a truly interesting character, underscoring and renewing my faith in people in general. Each place I visit and the place where I live my life most of my days have individual characters who make emotions rise and fall, who give you hope and sometimes send you off in despair, who remind you that this America of ours, always of diversity, is one thing most of all: fiercely independent, still the pioneer sort.

Would that those who fashion policy in that non-state called Washington, D.C., understood this. Then the health care snafu – and everything else – would be so much easier to work out.