Thursday, February 04, 2021

Traipsing Through The Arts-All 20th Century Art Is About Sex-The “King Of The Mopes” Edward Hopper Unchained- In The Midnight Hour Gliding Through “Nighthawks” (1942) Without Wings

Traipsing Through The Arts-All 20th Century Art Is About Sex-The “King Of The Mopes” Edward Hopper Unchained- In The Midnight Hour Gliding Through “Nighthawks” (1942) Without Wings

By Laura Perkins

Sometimes you just can’t talk to Sam Lowell about art. Sam is my longtime companion meaning for those who feel they need to know that as one wag put the situation in the case of Whistler and one of his mistresses we are living together “without benefit of clergy.”  Meaning as well that after five, three him, two her, collective failed marriages we decided to cut out the middleman. Result: we have been together longer than any of the five, three he, two she failed marriages and a lot longer than a couple of them combined. That does not mean that Sam cannot get ornery, can’t be a pain in the ass especially about art. See he never really got over the idea that he should have followed his youthful instincts and gone to art school which his high school art teacher had paved the way for him as an alumnus of Massachusetts School of Art with a scholarship. Sam’s mother, an old Irish Catholic cross to bear whom I never met, wanted him to move up in the world by being the first in the family to go to college and to get a nice white-collar civil servant job that would have satisfied her own youthful busted dreams. Sam finally bought into her argument that life in a cold-water garret as a struggling artist would actually be a step down from the utter poverty they had already lived in the Acre section of North Adamsville.

But Sam never as long as I have known him fully accepted his path, his fate and as he has reached retirement age it has only galled him more. That said, as is well known, or should be, Sam didn’t do that civil servant bit but became over the years starting at the now defunct East Bay Other (California) and going through American Film Gazette and now American Left History and associated publications become an award-winning film critic. What is less well known is that along the way he would write, sometimes under his own name, sometimes under the name Charles Skyler, for Art Today and Art News especially if a film had an art theme like say The Thomas Crowne Affair or more famously The Girl With The Pearl Earring. Which sets up why Sam is sometimes hard to talk to about art and can get ornery about his takes on various pieces of art like the one to be discussed today Edward Hopper’s iconic if somewhat overblown Nighthawks from 1942.

By rights this assignment to traipse through the arts, art museums to select some works for commentary should be Sam’s providence. Unfortunately when site manager Greg Green originally approached him he turned down the assignment since Sam wanted to play out his hand, his term, and track down the reasons a famous California private investigator Lew Archer whom he had known, had interviewed a couple of times before he passed away had never made the P.I. Hall of Fame. Sam had chalked it up to sexual impotence which left Lew less than eager to bed whatever femme was around at a time when guys like Phil Larkin, Sam Spade, and Phil Marlowe were setting the standard for hard-boiled detectives taking a walk on the wild side while solving some bang-bang case. Sometimes Sam can stubbornly go after every possible lead and he did in the Archer case so with some decent results but to my mind not enough to not have taken his natural choice reviewing art works, especially American art works.

Sam’s pass on the assignment was my good fortune although it was Leslie Dumont not Sam who suggested to Greg when he was looking in-house for somebody to take the on-going art work assignment who clued him in that I had taken some art classes and at least had gone to an art museum once in the last fifty years. The bar thus was pretty low, and I almost did not take the assignment either except I got assurances from Greg that he would have my back if I decided to go off on a few tangents. Which I have and he has backed me up despite the hellfire and damnation from a bunch of troll evangelicals who have objected to my talking about sex and sensuality in regard to some pretty hot 19th century art like Sargent’s Madame X and Whistler’s The White Girl. As it turned out, although they are still claiming me as Keil the devil’s servant and bound for the lake of fires, they don’t really give a damn about art one way or another but about talking about sex and art together just in case their young folk decide they want to look at some on the Internet. Yeah, as Sam, and half the guys here would be quick to say, WTF.

Sam Lowell does care about art and that is where this whole thing is heading now. Two things have come together, have collided really. Sam has basically exhausted the Lew Archer impotency bit thus having some time to think about art and when I took on the assignment I knew that I would be consulting him as I went through my paces. He would not be so foolish as to try to usurp the assignment (nor would Greg let him since he is happy to have a quirky look at the arts by me where Sam would go chapter and verse). But he has definite opinions which he thinks I should incorporate int my pieces (what he forever had called “sketches” even that 10, 000-word Archer medical report, or what amounted to a medical report). That came up a bit in Sargent, Alexander and Whistler pieces but hit hard when we discussed Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks where we have two very different takes on what was going on in that midnight hour at that funky New York diner. (By the way Sam insists on calling him Eddie this, Eddie that but I have never seen even the most democratic reference ever call him anything but Edward and so Edward it is.)     
Here’s the general framework Sam and I have total agreement on-all serious 20th century art (and now reaching into the 21st century) is about sex, erotism, sensuality. Period. The jury may still be out on the Minimalists although there are some pieces by Matty Gove that reek to high heaven of sex, rough sex too. You can’t think of a school post-Impressionist, Ashcan, Realist, Regionalist, Abstract Expressionist without being overwhelmed by the Freudian deluge. Don’t even mentioned about Action painting, Pop and Op-Art schools which are drenched with primal sexual urges and dreams. (Only some silly school boy or girl would for example fail to see the mix of sperm and womanly fluids in the drippings of Max Daddy Jackson Pollack.) Where Sam and I differed or have a difference now with Hopper’s masterpiece is interpreting the narrative. I will get to that in a minute but let me tell of a couple of controversies we had on the earlier works I have presented to set up the battle lines.

When we discussed Sargent’s Madame X Sam wanted to go knee-deep into Madame reputation as a professional beauty and as an up and coming new age courtesan where I wanted to deal with the ideal of beauty then with that hideous birdlike nose of hers which by today’s standards would place her in the wallflower category, except maybe among nerdy guys. (On the side I wanted to discuss Sargent’s devious homosexual urges to make Madame X out as a tramp, a whore I think I called her but we decided to tamp that down since while there is plenty of anecdotal material that he and his dear friend Henry James were bedmates the hard evidence through biographers is not there yet.) We took a stab at both themes since this was my first piece, but unlike Sam I was a little uneasy about casting Madame out of high society once those denizens saw how she was advertising her “wares” via the Sargent portrait.                  

Alexander’s Isabella provided a mutual agreement when two things happened- Sam “sniffed out,” his term, that the jar in which an aroused Isabella kept the severed head of her lover done in by her jealous and grabbing brothers was filled with poppies, with the stuff of opium not silly basil and she was high as a kite when she did her ceremonial caress of her doomed lover. Once Sam showed me the photograph of a poppy crop I was won over. More importantly Sam dragged me, not literally he is not like that at all even when ornery, to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston to see not the Isabella although we did view that fine work of art but the plethora of paintings throughout history going back at least to John the Baptist, maybe before with Mendon the wanderer where some woman is swooning over the severed head in a fit of ecstatic reverie. Very enlightening and also the cause of more random troll activity responses than even poor Madame X faced.  

Whistler’s The White Girl (we both agree that the later Symphony in White designation is malarkey, nothing but show and the work of some two-bit prissy art curator ) put us at some odds since I believed, still believe that Whistler was attempting to show some age of innocence idea so he could sell the damn thing and pay his back rent and have some dough left over for wine and partying. I refused to believe that a friend of the virginal Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood would be surreptitiously advertising his then girlfriend, mistress, whatever arrangement she had while they lived together “without benefit of clergy” was a latter-day Whore of Babylon. Then Sam showed me the scholarship on what that strangely out of place wolf’s head and fur meant going back to ancient times- the age old “open for business.” Damn. I didn’t like it, was furious at Whistler who by all accounts was hard on his mistresses and models but I had to concede the point.

On the Hopper Nighthawks narrative on those denizens of the deep night I think I am right. I’ll give Sam’s take first and then my own. Sam sees Hopper as strictly a voyeur, frankly a dirty old man, literally and this will not be the last time Hopper lets his sexual fantasies and dreams spill out on canvas. The key question for Sam is why he is so interested all of a sudden in the “night people,” deep night when nothing but stuff that had better not see the light of day goes on when most of his stuff is strictly daytime mopery, my expression. Sam has claimed here a certain amount of “nighttime” expertise having ended an evening more than once winding up at Joe and Nemo’s which is really Hopper’s template here. Sam is thinking of the one on Stuart Street in Boston adjacent to the Combat Zone, no further description necessary, but they were all over many Eastern urban cities including New York and he remembers one somewhere Seventh Avenues. Come a certain hour after the bars close and remember they close later in New York City and the night people come up, among them what used to be called “ladies of the evening” according to Sam. What is going on here is nothing but a “hotel, motel, no tell” between the man and the woman we can see. The distance between them tells that they are not lovers and her looking at her fingernails while he decides whether to take a chance with such a brazen hussy. (If not him then the guy with his back to the viewer is the next in line.) The pair are negotiating the fare and the location, that Hotel Deluxe just beyond the shadows on the left to be their resting place after the evening’s exertions. I at least got Sam to back off on the short order cook who is just some rum-dum who couldn’t get a day job as the “pimp” here. He might have been getting a rake-off from her  to use the diner as a business address but that is all. Christ Sam can get weird, would any woman have that jamoka do anything but serve dish-water coffee and grease-laden burgers-at an hour.         

Yes, sure sex is involved in this muted scene although frankly itdoes not depend on Hopper’s being a dirty old man although Sam pointed to a couple of later paintings that might make that argument. My take is that these two are lovers, disenchanted lovers. But lovers, nevertheless. They had been at Club Nana up the street, a hot spot of sorts before the war but now filled with guys either too old for military service or 4-F laggards. The Nana in those days had Earl “Fatha” Hines holding forth (this before he headed to Boston and the High Hat Café) and the evening had started out pretty well before our grumpy Gus laid up too much liquor, too many whiskeys. Got ticked off that some sailor made a pass or two at his woman and now after they closed the joint down they were doing their inevitable stop at the diner to have him sober up a bit before he heads back to his rooming house up the street and she grabs a cab to her place further downtown. Not happy campers, a not usual scene in a Hopper but not the sullen creepiness that a dirty old man like Sam suspects.            

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