Does Edward Hopper Really Epitomise American Culture? to Sheila Johnston He's Rather European

Article excerpt

The adjective Hopperesque has not passed into the language, but it must be only a matter of time. Contemporary American artists in every medium have - supposedly - been inspired by Edward Hopper's work. In the book published to accompany "Edward Hopper and the American Experience", the current show of his work at New York's Whitney Museum, Tess Gallagher, Norman Mailer and other writers pay homage to him. The art historian Gail Levin tracks down his manifold influences on later generations of artists. And an accompanying film season traces his imprint on the cinema from King Vidor's The Crowd (1928) to Terrence Malick's Days of Heaven (1978).

The show's organisers make some sweeping claims. "His archetypal views of America have assumed an unrivalled place in our collective consciousness," asserts a big panel at the entrance. "Perhaps no other painter has touched us so deeply or provided a more compelling model for other artists, film- makers and writers seeking to interpret the experience of American life in the 20th century."

The show sets out the main evidence for its claim in a multimedia exhibit planted squarely in the middle of the exhibition space. A half- hour presentation compares Hopper's work with film stills and clips, photographs and canvasses by other painters. Audiences gasp at some of the juxtapositions - for example, Nighthawks with Boulevard of Broken Dreams, Gottfried Helnwein's popular spoof poster, and the diner scene in Herbert Ross's Hollywood version of Pennies from Heaven. The visual rhymes are unmistakable.

Hopper himself was typically much more modest and doubting. "Who is to say from where influence comes?" he once said. "It's probably a reflection of my own loneliness. It could be, I don't know, a reflection of the human condition."

And only a few moments' reflection leaves you, too, wondering whether many of these echoes are more than superficial. Boulevard of Broken Dreams is a case in point: the composition is formally identical, of course, but the conception of the scene is all wrong, replacing Hopper's morose, silent nonentities with a clutch of glamorous (albeit doomed) celebrities. …