I folded the corner of a page in the May 21 New Yorker and then lost track of the reason why. It was a short back-of-the-book piece on an Edward Hopper retrospective at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. Reading the story later, there could have been lots of reasons for folding, each paragraph showing something worth relating, but none stood out beyond whatever one struck the first time.
In a different mood today, reading a third time, this one jumped as the culprit.
Hopper’s is an art of illuminated outsides that bespeak important insides. He vivifies impenetrable privacies. Notice how seldom he gives houses visible or, if visible, usable-looking doors; but the windows are alive. His preoccupied people will neither confirm nor deny any fantasy they stir; their intensity of being defeats conjecture. Imputations, to them, of “loneliness” are sentimental projections by viewers who ought to look harder. They may not have lives you envy, but they live them without complaint. Another mistake that some observers make is to quibble with Hopper’s crudeness, notably in his renderings of flesh and foliage. His insults to taste are even instrumental to his art, focussing attention on what matters, which is drama. Clement Greenberg got it right when he remarked that if Hopper “were a better painter, he would, most likely, not be so superior an artist.”
Putting the rejection of loneliness against the thought to neither confirm nor deny, you wonder if loneliness is ever the third answer in the art — after the initial guess, after the antisentimental response. A Times story I knew I bookmarked for a reason hits the spot here, expressing the fullness of a scene, imputations vs. in medias res.
Mr. Mitchell, a professor at the University of Chicago and editor of the journal Critical Inquiry, observes that “modern, rational, secular” people don’t generally treat pictures like persons, yet “we always seem to be willing to make exceptions for special cases.” (Most of us, for instance, would be reluctant to poke out the eyes on a photograph of our mother.) But pictures have desires, too, he argues, and a primary one is the desire to capture our attention — to “transfix the beholder” and gain some measure of mastery or power over us.
“The Happiness of Objects,” organized by Sarina Basta, the SculptureCenter curator, takes Mr. Mitchell’s ideas and tweaks them to fit an exhibition of work by nearly two dozen artists and artist collectives. Visitors receive a handout titled “The Object’s Bill of Rights,” which lays out a series of demands like “The Object has the right to be claimed or forgotten, lost or found,” and “The Object has the right to many lovers.”
Ms. Basta moves beyond the relationship between images and the viewer to consider “what objects want from other objects,” as well as how context, display, space, light and life expectancy, among other things, shape a work’s reception.
You can read the complete “Object’s Bill of Rights” here.
Between rediscovering If I’m a Stranger on Ryan Adams’ Cold Roses last week — the final, awful realization in the album’s break and the bookend to the initial devastation — and seeing this evening’s cloudburst drown what sounded to be cheers from a mini-Rolling Thunder rally in the middle of a neighboring block, entirely boarded up and about to be torn down, what objects want from other objects is a stuck question. You hope the beholder, transfixed as the professor Mitchell says, can take the objects for more than their relations. I close my windows as the storm blows, blocking the rain and the noise, forgetting to turn on music as planned, and I only open them again when the water has stopped blowing in and the lightning is in the distance, in front of my building after sneaking from the back, miles away in the departing storm and more defined than ever.