An acquaintance of mine teaches at New York University’s School of Social Work. Not long ago, while I was visiting her in the department’s Greek Revival mansion at 1 Washington Square North, she led me upstairs to the fourth floor with the promise of showing me something that would interest any trafficker in the visual arts. Because we were deep in Henry James country, a 19th-century neighborhood loaded with crown moldings and carved mantels, I expected, maybe, a Tiffany chandelier. Instead, my friend opened the door to a minimally furnished skylit room. It had a pot-bellied stove, a painter’s easel, and photos framed on the wall of a grim man with long legs.
The man was Edward Hopper, and he had lived and worked in this place for half a century.
A time capsule embedded in its institutional setting, the Edward Hopper Studio has been visited on rare occasions, and only recently, by Greenwich Village Historical Society tour groups and BBC camera crews; but mostly it serves as a seminar room for NYU students and faculty, or it just sits there, steeping in its historical juices. Hopper moved to the building in 1913, when he was a 31-year-old bachelor and late-blooming artist earning his living as a commercial illustrator. (His art-school friend Rockwell Kent was a neighbor.) Eventually, he acquired a wife, Josephine Nivison, and celebrity, and leased rooms down the hall. But success didn’t drive out the Spartan in him. One biographer notes that he insisted on hauling coal up to the apartment, even when he could afford a less burdensome heating source. Jo, a painter of inferior talent yet unquenchable ambition, took the inner studio, which still has the rack the couple used for drying canvases; Edward worked in the space with a model’s stand, etching press, and view of Washington Square Park. During the climate-uncontrolled New York summers, the couple escaped to Maine or Cape Cod; at other times they went on odysseys through America or Mexico. This was more or less the drill until the day Hopper died in these rooms in May of 1967. Jo, who had given her spouse both emotional support and a heap of trouble over the course of their difficult marriage, passed away 10 months later.
Looking out from his windows to the landmarks on the square’s south side — the Renaissance tower of Stanford White’s Judson Memorial Church, the beefy red stone of Philip Johnson’s Bobst Library — I was moved by the incongruity of Hopper here, then, now. He painted doggedly in the Greenwich Village of Emma Goldman and Edna St. Vincent Millay and was still painting when the neighborhood’s heroes were Bob Dylan and Jane Jacobs. In 1946, NYU took over the building and began the long, futile process of pressuring him to leave. Mark Callahan, associate dean of finance and administration at NYU’s Ehrenkranz School of Social Work, knew people who remember bumping into Hopper on the stairs.
And yet, try looking for this milieu in his paintings: you’ll have trouble finding it. The Manhattan that Hopper pinned down like a narcotized specimen is not a village with friendly dogs and children, and certainly not the Village. It’s a city that is paved over, glassed in, and swimming in heat—the lonely dive in Nighthawks, the erotically charged workplace in Office at Night, and even the generic brickscape of chimney rows and skylights painted from the top of his building in Roofs of Washington Square.
Hopper admitted the southern light from his studio windows but ignored the pleasant scene, instead consulting the anomie behind his eyelids. He paid as much attention to inert design details, such as the Ionic columns carved into the wood of the reception desk in Hotel Lobby, as he did to representing the quivering detachment of actors in his dramas of solitary lives. In that same lobby, an elderly couple converse while a young woman quietly reads on the opposite side of a border marked by the carpet’s pattern. Both matron and ingenue are seated next to vacant chairs, a correspondence that signals that they are not just disconnected strangers but also occupants of parallel universes defined by waiting. One of the women is distinguished by effortless radiance; the other by mature composure; and tension comes from the hint that at any moment the man, who is positioned between them and looking distracted, may shift his attention to the blonde, thus violating boundaries of space and vows.
Or maybe he won’t. Hopper typically painted from the vantage points of thresholds and exteriors, pausing at the scene of narrative only long enough to present it, so that his lonely figures float in obscurity. It’s as if the artist cracked open a door and witnessed private moments so intense that they got mixed up with his own sense of furtiveness. What came before or after these scenes we can only imagine. And imagine we do: Despite the quiet attitudes of self-absorption common to his people, whole Hollywood screenplays could be based on Hoppers. The critic Robert Hughes credits him with establishing not just the shadowy visual style but also the private investigator trope of film noir. “It was Hopper,” Hughes writes, “a man of extreme inhibitions who had no interest in communicating with the world at large except through his art, and then only obliquely, who saw that the old frontier had moved inward and now lay within the self, so that the man of action, extroverted and self-naming, was replaced by the solitary watcher.”
I imagine that Hopper would have hated my intrusion into his quarters, though he might have been bemused that NYU deigned to preserve them. (Callahan confides that the space narrowly missed being converted into a faculty meeting room.) Yet, though the University has dutifully put a plaque on the door and hung reproductions of the Hoppers’ artworks, it appears no more inclined to turn over the rooms to the couple after death than it was to guarantee them comfortable occupancy in their lifetimes. As preservation efforts go, this one is ghastly; an old York cooking stove sits in pieces between the two studios, water damage creeps along the remodeled ceiling, a cheap laminate desk—collegiate issue—has been shoved into a corner as somebody’s workspace, a room the couple used for their residence is now a faculty office, and a quick scan of the artist portraits by Arnold Newman and Berenice Abbott, which dot the walls, reveal that Hopper’s beloved coal stove has lost its chimney. “People didn’t know it was here,” Callahan says of the space, adding that, now that it has finally attracted historians’ interest, it will soon be put off limits to students and administrators.
And yet, despite the adulterations, the studio remains locked out of time, a window onto a man who was indifferent to the changing world around him. Hopper was a poet of the abyss, a chronicler of discontinuity and disruption, who seemed to need a static environment from which he could take inventory of what was emotionally solid and measure the distance to the nearest patch of null. Whether he represented the void with naked space, naked light, or naked flesh, it never lay far away. In fact, it was right in the neighborhood.
Julie Lasky is deputy editor of the Home section of The New York Times. She was previously editor-in-chief of I.D. and Interiors, editor of Change Observer, and managing editor of Print. Lasky has contributed to The New York Times, Metropolis, Dwell, Eye, Slate, and NPR. Duane Michals’ photographs arise from his longstanding interest in documenting the studios of fellow artists.
Reprinted with permission, this essay first appeared on Design Observer on January 5, 2006, accompanied by a slideshow of Michals’ photos.