Space & Place: Edward Hopper and the Intersection of Hotels and Art | cA Weekly 02/20 - Full Transcript
The following is a transcript of an episode of the commARCH Weekly Podcast Series.The full episode is available in video format on the commARCH site or in audio format on all major podcast platforms.
In this episode, commARCH has a dialogue with Dr. Leo Mazow, curator of American art at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, to discuss the work of Edward Hopper in the context of a VMFA Hopper exhibition. Areas covered include: an overview of the history of Edward Hopper's works with a focus on their intersection with hotels; exploring and outlining core philosophical concepts of Place and Space; and the complex interplay of art, history, and culture.
Dr. Leo Mazow, Louise B, and the J Harwood Cochran Curator of American Art, has been at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts since 2016. A specialist in 19th- and 20th-century American painting and cultural history, he received his PhD at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. From 2010 through 2016 he was an associate professor of art history at the University of Arkansas Fayetteville. From 2002 to 2010, he was curator of American art at the Palmer Museum of Art at Penn State University.
Thank you for joining us this week. Let's hop into the podcast.
commARCH: So, curating this exhibit - fascinating.
Dr. Leo Mazow: It's been a lot of fun.
CA: As an architect, walking through, it's very interesting to see the relationship between the physical human and the physical space. Can you talk a little bit about that?
LM: I can. I think it's easy to talk about that because I think it's something that Hopper very much thought about. He thinks about figure-ground relationships.
To be more specific, Hopper is very interested in how people at once engage and disengage from their architectural settings. Art historians often use the word "interiority" to talk about the personality, the relationship of the built environment to those people enclosed in the environment. This is something that Hopper thought about a lot.
CA: In what language besides the visual, would he describe it?
LM: I think that Hopper, he is an artist, he's commercial. He gets his start - for over two decades, he's a commercial illustrator and he never loses the vocabulary of commercial illustration. And although there was a time in his life where it was to his benefit to talk down somewhat, play down his role as an illustrator, it's very clear that he never leaves behind and, in fact, remains comfortable with the commercial setting. Remember though in the most obvious sense, many of the spaces you're looking at are commercial properties in the first place. These are hotels, motels, tourist homes - you know, Airbnbs - there are motor courts, motor camps, and apartment hotels, which are apartments - you pay a lease for them - but they have the amenities of a hotel.
He understands how these work, because among the many trade magazines and commerical periodicals he illustrated for, were two of the best known trade publications - hotel trade publications - of the day. First was a magazine called Tavern Topics.
CA: Tavern Topics? (Whispered)
LM: Tavern Topics. You love the alliteration. Tavern Topics he did illustrations for - it's published by the Waldorf Astoria Corporation, and it was distributed in many properties that they owned, such as the McAlpin, the Annex, and of course the Waldorf Astoria itself, and many others. He did five covers and several line drawings and [inaudible] works for them. From 1924 to 1925 Edward Hopper produced 18 full-color, brilliant, prismatic, engaging covers for Hotel Management which is still very much in operation to this day - it's owned by the Questex Media Group.
And, uh, the reason why there are so many of these in the publication - Edward Hopper and the American Hotel - and the exhibition itself, is because they provided a storehouse of images and ideas to which Hopper would refer in his many hospitality services - hotels, restaurants and hotels, things like that - but even works that have nothing to do with hotel or restaurant management. He spoke the language of commercial illustration throughout his life, but it's also something that he also spoke the language of - he had the vantage point in the vocabulary as a tourist. He had the tourist's gaze, he stayed in hotels - when others were paying the bill, certainly - he was on the road for many months out of any given year, and he stays in motels and motor courts and tourist homes.
CA: Do you think that the publication in that experience informed him to be more critical in his view of a hotel as well as seeing nuances others wouldn't?
LM: I would say critical in the sense of seeing nuances, not necessarily critical in the critique, let me make value judgments sense. I think he has a certain visual acuity. I think that he paints and lines his drawings with a degree of architectural precision seen in the works of some but not too many other contemporaries.
CA: Nice - a niche that not many were able to to hit.
LM: There are others who have their moments. Charles Burchfield, Reginald Marsh, Georgia O'Keefe, to be sure. However, I think that architecture is always foregrounded in both a literal and metaphorical sense with Hopper.
CA: So let's talk about Space and Place.
LM: Yeah. Without getting too jargon-y, as we were discussing earlier, the cultural geographer - taught at University of Wisconsin for many years -Yi-Fu Tuan, in some of his volumes, made a distinction between Space and Place that I think is helpful for understanding a lot of the paintings we see in this show - in the works of many artists and authors who take us through built landscapes. In Tuan's estimation, a Place and a Space are two different things.
A Space is a physical entity, to be sure, it's often something you go through. But it's something that one does not necessarily have an intimate engagement with. The intimate engagement with that he thinks about is "pause." He writes, "if space is motion, place is pause." What does he mean by this? There's certain things that, because of how visually beguiling they are - and because of our relationships, our human relationships to those things - maybe there's a historical memory. Oh, maybe Washington crossed the Delaware, this is Ellis Island, this is where your great-great-grandparents came to the United States. Or, this is the San Andreas Fault line, let us stop and look at this.
So because of things in the natural landscape or the baggage we bring, they get us to literally pause. And so we bring an understanding to it, and it becomes a Place. For Hopper - and I don't think Hopper would have ever put it in these words. To put it mildly, he'd probably find this whole conversation unnecessarily pedantic - I feel sure of that - but I do think that he draws a distinction and he in fact blurs the definitions of both of these perhaps obvious sensibilities. Because in Hopper's work, and the work of others - including poets and authors like Sinclair Lewis and Willa Catherine and John Dos Passos, poets and writers - we see our share in Hemingway. In A Farewell to Arms, much of A Farewell to Arms takes place in hotels. Frederick and Catherine, in Hemingway's Farewell to Arms, they are in hotels a lot.
But in Hopper, we see a lot of transportation. We see marine craft, we see automotives - cars (laughing) - we see trains. But we also see roads, things that get us there. We see motels and hotels and diners. We see the places that give us a breath, allow to come up for air as we go through the American space. And the beauty and the genius of Hopper's hotels, motels, apartments, and apartments hotels is that he reminds us that there are places for pause, these in-between moments called hotels and motels in a landscape full of motion and transience and rushing from one place to another.
CA: It makes total sense. And there's a psychological force in all of this as well.
LM: Oh, absolutely.
CA: So would you talk about that?
LM: I think Hopper understands psychology. He comes of age during the flowering of popular psychology. I don't think he has a superficial, by any means, understanding of psychology, but I do think that there was a time when saying things like, "oh, how Fruedian of you," or "how Jungian of you," and...
T. S. Eliot's grand poem, The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock, the work is not - that poem is not about art history, but we're told in the room, the women come and go, talking of Michaelangelo. Would it be missing the point to think of Michelangelo's David or Pieta when you read T. S. Eliot? Maybe, but that's a good example of how art history entered our vernacular lexicon, it was popularized.
In a similar way Jung and Freud and Lacan, eventually, all become part of our colloquial. I think Hopper understands that. In Hopper, in selected works, absolutely - with his figures of individuals sitting on the edge of the bed, not knowing quite what they've done, the world they've created for themselves. And here they are enclosed in an apartment or a resort room, a hotel, what exactly has transpired? In many ways Hopper does a very good job of responding to the visual culture. of popular psychology.
CA: In his paintings, what is he referencing in popular psychology? Because there's a tension, always.
LM: Popular psychology and professional clinical psychology are quite different beasts. I think he is more - he is better read than the person at a cocktail party saying "Oh, how Freudian," "Let me talk of Michelangelo," in Eliot's poem, which I know you know. These are people who measure out their world in terms of teaspoons and cakes and icings.
Hopper is pretty well-read, to say the least. There's a painting - one of the more famous paintings in the exhibition here at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts - it's called Excursion into Philosophy. And in her notes, in the ledger book that Edward and his artist wife Josephine kept, Jo writes - Jo is her nickname - Jo writes... so there's an open book, perhaps you can show this in the podcast or online. There's an open book next to the bottom-less woman. And Jo writes, "the book is open to Plato, perhaps read too late."
Now, on the one hand, that's kind of funny, and that opens some speculation, like what could that mean? On the other hand, these are people who probably knew Plato's Republic and Plato's Allegory of the Cave. These are people who had a more than ordinary understanding of philosophy. These are individuals who came of age and they understood what anxiety was. And the anxiety that they often register is the understanding of place. Eudora Welty is right, there is a sense of place. Place becomes a plot determinant in a lot of literature. But I think that Welty and Yi-Fu Tuan laid the groundwork upon which we can be even more specific and talk about the psychology of place, and I'm sure many have in fact written about this.
The psychology of place has to do with how comfortable you are or not with your surroundings. How do you respond to it? And as you go through the eve of Edward Hopper, you see people in varying degrees in detachment from their place. They're not sure whether they're in a drive-by Space, or they're in the permanent, the Place that merits pause.
CA: So what are you reading? What's exciting you right now, what you're reading?
LM: What's exciting me? I mean, I think Commercial Architecture is what we're all reading.
CA: Of course. (Laughing)
LM: But what I'm reading these days is - I recently read an autobiography, a memoir, by Jeff Tweedy, the lead singer for Wilco. I'm also very interested in Sinclair Lewis, who has a novel called Work of Art, which is about an individual who has a rough time reconciling himself to the fact that he spent most of his world obsessed with hotels. Sinclair Lewis is better known for Babbitt and Main Street, things like that. I'm a big Sinclair Lewis fan. I haven't made my way entirely through Donna Tartt's book, The Goldfinch, which is apparently being made into a movie so perhaps I don't.
What are you reading these days?
CA: I want to get back into reading. I used to read two books a week - one fiction, one nonfiction. That's who I was. That was my brand. And over this time of internet and everything else, it's been a struggle. You read something, like on Kindle, and then the next thing you know, you're shopping for shoes on Amazon.
So that attention span - the best book I've read that captivated me was Patti Smith's books.
LM: On kids, Just Kids?
CA: Just beautifully written.
LM: A lot of those Mapplethorpes, I think, are hotels and motels, too. She's an interesting person. Patty Smith is... did you know the musician, Richard Hell?
CA: Of course. Yeah.
LM: There are moments that I fear that my son will not get, and I fear that others will not understand. It's CBGBs, it's studio 54, but it's also homophobia. It's also racism. It's also a New York city and Times Square, but it looks so different than what it does now. And I worry that, I wonder if Hopper and John Updike and Upton Sinclair and Elvis Presley are the primary sources of Hopper's mid century modern world, what are the primary sources of right here and now? And I think that the punk world of the Ramones and CBGBs is not that different from the role that David Wojnarowicz, Marina Abramovich...
CA: So you see some matches?
LM: I absolutely do.
CA: I really like the sneaker culture, that's going on, between hip hop and NBA obsession.
LM: I do too. Have you been to many sneaker shops?
LM: There's a fantastic one in New York, Los Angeles, and right here called Round Two.
CA: I gotta go check it out.
LM: Jane, have you been to Round Two on Broad? It's literally across the street from Quirk. I only know this because on a Black Friday morning, much colder than this, I sat and I camped outside with my son, and it was awful.
CA: Because he wanted special sneakers?
LM: No, he just - they had deals. It's its own culture, and anyway I - (Overlapping)
CA: Well, there're websites (Overlapping) where you can actually - you know it's genuine, and there's trading going on.
LM: Yeah. There are a lot of fakes, but a lot of websites - sneaker culture, which I did not - if my son were to hear me refer to him as a sneakerhead, I would be reprimanded. He would say, "Dad you're not in that pay grade." And by the way, you know what the king of sneaker culture remains? Yeezys.
LM: And Yeezys, you know who Yeezys are the brainchild of?
CA: Kanye West.
LM: And so I have to tell you that used Yeezys cost a lot more that new ones, often. And it's just, it's interesting, but I would like to steer the conversation back to a little bit about hospitality services and what we are and are not comfortable with.
And it's my hope that people will come to the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts between now and February 23rd (2020). It's also my hope that people will see the second incarnation of this project from June 7th to September 13th (2020) at the Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields.
One of the things that the exhibition argues is that a hotel is a lot like a painting. And that's a weird thing to say, but before solving that equation - maybe that's a good note on which to conclude this - I want people to come here and see the ways in which, although he would not in a million years have said it quite like that, but Hopper makes a very strong case for a hotel being a lot like a painting.
CA: It is a fantastic exhibit.
LM: Thank you so much.
CA: Thank you for doing this.
CA: The commARCH team thanks you as always for joining us for this week's podcast. Please remember to subscribe to the commARCH YouTube channel, follow us on your favorite podcast platform, and take advantage of the commARCH website, where you can access all these platforms and associated podcast transcripts. Until next time.
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