Kansas City is full of surprises. The first surprise is that there is life here. On the Missouri side, the city is an inviting sprawl of eclectic neighborhoods.
Kansas City: The Big Smoke
In Kansas City, Westport hosts pub crawls and raucous weekends for Great Plains residents flocking to the big smoke. Nearby Country Club Plaza has glitzy high-end shops, splashing fountains and the beautiful Nelson-Atkins Museum.
Surprises in Kansas City also have a sinister flavor. Just two blocks from these wealthy enclaves, past the open air barbecue restaurants and jazz joints, are entrenched pockets of poverty and crime.
After checking in, I head downstairs for free drinks at the nightly manager’s reception. Seemingly the entire hotel clientele is packed into the windowless basement, knocking back huge plastic cups of Miller Lite.
I grab a beer and exchange stories with a group of Nebraskans. They’re down from Omaha for the weekend. We talk about recent floods in Nebraska and Australia. They invite me to join them for dinner. I’ve had one too many drinks and instead retire to bed with a pizza and the TV tuned to the NBA.
The next day I head to the Nelson-Atkins Museum. The new wing’s glass triangles and large reflecting pool are juxtaposed against the original, grand Greco-Roman building. It’s Monday afternoon and the museum is closed to the public. I get a VIP tour of the museum’s highlights from Randy Griffey, Assistant Curator for American Art.
Our first stop is the marble-walled Italian Renaissance gallery in the old building. The lights are turned off in the gallery. I feel warmly enclosed by art on all sides, the rich scent of oil paint filling the room.
I imagine myself as the owner of these priceless paintings, walking down through the gallery at midnight to grab a snack. Griffey, a tanned, snazzily dressed man in his thirties, turns a few lights on, breaking the illusion. He points me to the museum’s Caravaggio painting, ‘Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness’. In his opinion, it his one of the best in the country.
It is a simple composition. Saint John is wrapped in a fur loin cloth, his head bowed down, his eyes just visible. He stares at me, interrogating my presence in the room. His eyes are mysteriously cast in near pitch black shadow. One contemporary scholar wrote of Hopper, ‘He eschews the diffusion of light or the beauty of color in favor of a sharp, clearly focused heightening of reality, as Caravaggio did in another age and with other means.’
The Dory: A Shocking Cold Blue
We head downstairs in the old building, through a tangle of narrow staircases, locked doors and bared pipes. Hopper’s ‘The Dory’ (1929) waits here for me. It has been rudely pulled from storage for my visit. It has been in storage since its last public showing in 1992.
‘The Dory’ portrays a fisherman in a dory, or small rowing boat. The scene is just off the rocky coastline of Cape Elizabeth, Maine. ‘The Dory’ is reminiscent of Hopper’s famous sailboat painting, ‘Ground Swell’, in Washington’s Corcoran Gallery of Art. Both pictures depict the ocean as a solid substance, an undulating terra firma which one critic described as ‘cast concrete’ in appearance.
Just as in ‘Ground Swell’, the dory’s occupant is staring at the water without apparent emotion or motivation. The overall effect is discomfiting: is this a dream? If so, could it turn into a nightmare?
The most remarkable thing about Kansas City’s ‘The Dory’, though, is Hopper’s use of blue. Griffey refers to it as ‘almost monochromatic.’ The aforementioned critic called it ‘a shocking cold blue.’
‘You can still see Hopper saturating his palette,’ Griffey continues, ‘in response to [The 1913 Armory Show] and a little more interested in abstract form than before.’
Hopper as Abstract
The idea of Hopper being an abstract artist defies most categorizations of him. He is known as the über-realist of his time. He was also one of the only realists to prosper amidst the rise of Abstract Expressionism after World War II.
‘The beginning and end of all literary activity is the reproduction of the world that surrounds me by means of the world that is in me…’
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Gail Anderson, in Norman, Oklahoma, posed the question of why Hopper continued to succeed in an era of abstraction. I was unsure so I ask Randy Griffey for his opinion. ‘One is that Hopper’s work has a degree of ambiguity and subjectivity and openness about it,’ he replies, ‘that can appeal to viewers and critics along a wide range of tastes. He’s not telling you a linear story. There’s not a clear narrative. Which I think keeps his work open to people of wide stripes coming in from different perspectives.’
Hopper cherished the subjectivity in his work. He carried a quote from Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in his wallet. It served as his artistic lodestar. ‘The beginning and end of all literary activity is the reproduction of the world that surrounds me by means of the world that is in me, all things being grasped, related, re-created, molded, and reconstructed in a personal and original manner.’
‘Hopper’s realism was never merely the representation of appearances…’
Hopper represented the world around him. But he did so in an intensely personal manner. This distinguished him from the classic representationalists, like the Regionalists of his time, who relied on factual depictions of the world. Hopper aimed instead at capturing an inner emotional reality, using the world as his medium. As Lloyd Goodrich wrote, ‘His realism was never merely the representation of appearances; it was the transformation of the forms of the real world into the forms of art.’
Another reason for Hopper’s continuing popularity post-World War II was the incorporation of elements of abstraction, and even surrealism, into his pictures.
‘Compositionally,’ Griffey says, ‘there’s an abstract quality of his work generally. He never becomes an abstract painter but he’s so obviously concerned with formal issues of composition and form and that makes his work less dated stylistically.’ Later in Hopper’s career, these elements became more prominent as his scenes became more fictive and contrived.
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