Six years ago, in the course of preparing album notes for The Complete Billie Holiday on Verve: 1945-1959, I interviewed pianist Jimmy Rowles, Holiday’s accompanist on her haunting mid-’50s recording sessions. Although generous and perceptive in sharing his memories of the jazz singer, he bristled when I informed him that the 10-CD collection was going to include a 70-minute Holiday-Rowles rehearsal privately taped in August 1955. On it, Holiday, obviously sloshed, profanely relates anecdotes about musicians and employers against whom she bore grudges. Rowles argued that the tape was never intended for public consumption and that releasing it betrayed Holiday’s memory. I countered that it was an invaluable document offering rare insights into the singer’s career and psyche. Our discussion ended in an impasse, and Verve ultimately issued the tapes over Rowles’ objections.
Artists’ control of their works and reputations ends the moment they draw their final breaths. After that, despite the ministrations of their heirs and executors, their lives become public property. The more illustrious and accomplished the artist, the more curious we are to discover each biographical detail and artistic resource.
A blurb on the burgundy paper ribbon that wraps Edward Hopper: A Journal of His Work promises access to the reclusive painter’s private world. “This is a fascinating book—facsimile pages from the work journals of American’s greatest painter, illustrated with his drawings and with commentaries on the paintings and their disposition by Hopper’s wife, Jo, and the artist himself. Here is a seldom-seen facet of a major artist’s life and work.” The ever-increasing legion of Hopper admirers will find it difficult to resist snatching up this volume, but they would be well advised to look before they leap.
The public’s enthusiasm for Hopper’s work requires no explanation. He personifies the ideal of the democratic artist. His paintings, watercolors, etchings, and drawings blend innovation and tradition, an uncompromising personal vision with accessibility to every viewer regardless of age, class or education. Our century has produced only a handful of such egalitarian American geniuses: Buster Keaton, George Gershwin, Fred Astaire, Louis Armstrong, Robert Frost. To be sure, equally gifted artists have emerged from our culture, but none so deeply in touch with our common humanity.
Hopper’s art is filled with teasing paradoxes. His austere canvases are painstakingly organized, but the pigment is freely applied with no attempt to conceal brush strokes. The presence of light is his cardinal concern, yet the shadows in many of his compositions are inconsistent with the light sources, manipulated to yield psychological truth rather than photographic mimesis. The fundamental content of his representational images can be instantly grasped, but prolonged inspection discloses enigmas. What has transpired between the reclining, half-naked woman and the morose fully clad older man in Excursion Into Philosophy? What enmity estranges Four Lane Road’s gas station proprietors? What, if any, is the relationship between the voluptuous secretary and her preoccupied boss in Office By Night? Why is Sunlight in an Empty Room, which seems to be a purely formalist composition, so tinged with indefinable melancholy? Like filmmaker Robert Bresson, Hopper penetrates the mundane to capture ineffable mysteries, revealing everything yet explaining nothing. The longer one contemplates these spare images, the more elusive they become.
Of the publications devoted to Hopper, two books are essential. Lloyd Goodrich’s 1978 Edward Hopper offers the most comprehensive selection of the artist’s work. An unwieldy oblong volume, nearly a yard wide when open and containing foldouts that make perusing it even more cumbersome, it’s a coffee-table book that should have come equipped with legs. The definitive source of information about the artist is Gail Levin’s Edward Hopper: An Intimate Biography (1995), an eloquently written, exhaustively researched year-by-year (and often day-by-day) chronicle. Based largely on his wife Jo’s obsessive diaries, the portrait that emerges is by turns inspiring and unsettling. Hopper’s quest to master and refine his art eclipsed all other concerns, even basic creature comforts. His spartan Washington Square studio/apartment, where he dwelled and worked from 1913 until his death at 85 in 1967, was a 74-step walkup, lacking central heating (coal had to be hauled up to fuel a pot-bellied stove) and a private bathroom; he never owned a new car and, although he enjoyed music, did not acquire a phonograph until 1960.
Hopper’s 1924 marriage to Josephine Nivison raised the curtain on a drama worthy of O’Neill or Albee. Ill-matched temperamentally as well as physically—at 6-foot-5 he towered over his 5-foot mate—the couple sustained a tumultuous love-hate relationship. He was uncommunicative, self-absorbed, misanthropic, misogynistic, and verbally and physically abusive. She nattered endlessly, detested housekeeping, envied his success, blamed him for squelching her own artistic ambitions, shrank from his unconventional erotic impulses, and considered him a sadist. (During a quarrel, she challenged him to list three reasons why he had married her. He dispassionately replied: “You have curly hair. You know some French. And you’re an orphan.”) Nevertheless, the pair remained faithfully devoted to one another for more than four decades, sharing their passions for literature, theater, and movies, and surviving interminable automobile trips to Cape Cod and Mexico in search of subjects to paint. They could not live with or without each other. When her husband died, Jo considered herself an “amputee” and survived him by less than 10 months.
Edward Hopper: A Journal of His Work, edited by Deborah Lyons, promises to offer a further glimpse into the artist’s world, but its title is as slippery as a Clinton denial. This tall, narrow volume (the physical antipode to Goodrich’s book) is not, as one might reasonably assume, a personal record but an account book, a register containing ink sketches, brief descriptions, dates of completion, sale prices, and purchasers of Hopper’s works. Moreover, it is not written by the artist himself but by Jo. The book consists of 59 photographic facsimile ledger pages, including reproductions of the covers of three stationery-store accounting notebooks. In prefatory essays, Lyons and Brian O’Doherty attempt to justify the publication of this memento, but their arguments aren’t terribly persuasive.
Drawn after the completion of the works they document, Hopper’s sketches, some perfunctory, others meticulously detailed, are the book’s sole merit. Like graduation portraits, they are graphic valedictions to “children” departing their creator’s purview. It is mildly interesting to note the elements Hopper chooses to emphasize in these postpartum miniatures, but nowhere near as edifying as the studies, reproduced by Goodrich, made before the paintings and watercolors were executed. Jo’s commentaries, conveyed in rather crabbed longhand, are matter-of-fact descriptions of subjects, compositions, and colors employed. Only a few interpretive details, previously disclosed in Levin’s biography, are presented—Seven A.M.’s bland storefront conceals a “blind pig” or speakeasy; the open book in Excursion Into Philosophy is an edition of Plato—but one can’t ascertain whether these tidbits reflect Hopper’s intentions or Jo’s speculations.
Hopper enthusiasts are likely to snap up this “journal” as eagerly as I did, but I doubt that many will feel satisfied with their purchase. Scholars researching the artist’s career require a complete facsimile of the notebooks rather than this selection of specimen pages. Others will not discover anything of significance that has not been previously revealed by Goodrich or Levin. Unlike the Billie Holiday rehearsal tapes, these ledger extracts add little to our understanding of an artist’s life and work. For completists only, Edward Hopper: A Journal of His Life is a relic, in a class with ticket stubs, celebrity autographs, and dried prom corsages.