As I take advantage of being in New York this summer, I went back to the Whitney museum. I hadn’t been there since the Georgia O’Keeffe exhibition in 2009! The museum is still in its Madison Ave at 75th st walls and the round-lamp lobby ceiling immediately transports you back to the 1960s. But beyond the lobby I found some amazing exhibitions and works of art.
In this post, I will focus on the Hopper Drawing show. This is one of the rare exhibitions I have seen that gives real insight into how the works of art that we admire are actually created. I found this a lot more interesting and stimulating than only seeing the resulting masterpieces that look deceptively easy for the artist to make. It also gave me a new way to look at the iconic “Nighthawks” painting, which was borrowed from the Chicago Art Institute for the occasion. The exhibition shows the sketches leading into a few major paintings. For example, for Nighthawks, Hopper sketched separately several men and women at bar counters, a corner coffee shop, salt shakers, etc.. Then he put them together into a pencil black and white sketch which composition is almost exactly that of the final painting. Then he goes to the painting as we know it, which is much larger and also includes color. All sketches are black and white, in pencil or chalk, but some include notes of color and shade (e.g. “light green”).
I see this show as a great window into the creative process, in both its continuity – supported by a strong will- and its leaps – supported by the artist’s vision. Continuity is obvious in the way each painting builds on multiple sketches, and works build on each other over time. In Hopper’s case, they also build on observation and deep sensitivity to his environment. However there is also a strong point of view in Hopper’s sensitivity that dictates what parts of this environment he will depict and how. Hopper explains that he wants to convey the feeling he had looking at a scene and simplifies it greatly to capture its essential quality. There is also a leap from even the most complete sketches to the paintings, in both size and color.
So, I will leave you with my take on creation: to anyone who wants to create, whether a piece of art, a business, or a good life for themselves, you will have to work hard, putting effort to mobilize yourself day after day, learn the techniques you need and lay out all the building blocks. But you will also need to take a leap of faith, be open to mystery, and let a process you will never fully understand take you over and unfold through you.
For a few pictures of the show, here is a link to the NYT slide show: