At the Whitney, Edward Hopper’s ‘Sunday Morning’ and the Politics of Culture

THE DAILY PIC: An American masterpiece raises doubts about American mastery.


THE DAILY PIC (#1302, Whitney edition): Another image from the rehung holdings of the Whitney Museum of American Art, which will be the subject of all this week’s Pics.

This, of course, is Edward Hopper’s famous Early Sunday Morning (1930), one of the Whitney’s official treasures, pulled from its very deep Hopper holdings. Last year, I spent a full, fantastic hour contemplating it with a professor friend, noting all the subtleties in its light and surface and subject matter. But there’s something else that’s as important as all of those virtues, but isn’t always brought up: The painting’s bone-deep conservatism, and its obvious, almost polemical resistance to the most ambitious European art of its day. In the midst of the depression in America, that conservatism is as much a part of the painting’s subject as the closed shops it depicts.

I do worry that, once a piece like this has been declared a “masterpiece” – especially within the context of a nation’s quest for greatness, in a museum linked to that notion – its real nature can get lost among the paeans. When I wrote for The Globe and Mail, in Toronto, I questioned the world-changing status of the Group of Seven, the movement that spawned the certified heroes of art in the True North, Strong and Free (hockey lovers will get the reference). As a new New Yorker, it seems only fair to be as skeptical of Hopper.

If the Whitney’s biggest fans, including me, were to come, cold, across Early Sunday Morning, without having heard of its maker or knowing he was from the U.S., would they really imagine it rivaled the Picassos across town at MoMA – or works by Pollock or Warhol or Defeo, a few floors down from it? If the painting were by some Torontonian, say, would it get the same pride of place?

I’m just sayin’.

(Image © Whitney Museum of American Art)

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