In 1988, Winton Blount gave forty-one paintings from Blount, Inc.’s collection to the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA). Included in Blount’s gift were three Edward Hopper pictures, one of which would soon become the most popular artwork in the museum. This was ‘New York Office’, an oil painted in 1962 and one of Hopper’s last pictures.
Art: Possession of the People
Blount’s gift had strong democratic undertones. ‘It seems to me a work of some worth,’ Blount said, ‘to ensure that in our land, in our own time, at least, art remains the public possession of our people.’
Blount’s other gifts to Montgomery included the Blount Cultural Park, which houses the MMFA, the annual Alabama Shakespeare Festival and a pleasant spread of duck ponds and gardens which break up the suburban sprawl of the city.
Margaret Ausfeld, Senior Curator at the MMFA, meets me on my arrival at the museum to show me around. It is Saturday and Ausfeld is fresh from a tennis game. She didn’t have time to change and is dressed from head to toe in tennis paraphernalia, complete with white mini-skirt, sports top and sweatbands. This creates an amusing juxtaposition to our conversation amongst the pictures in the bright, spacious galleries.
‘New York Office’
‘New York Office’ hangs next to its companions in the Blount Collection. The collection includes pictures by John Sloan, Charles Burchfield and Reginald Marsh. ‘New York Office’ is a stunning picture and what many people would call a typical Hopper painting. Behind a huge, invisible glass window, a young female office worker stares intently at an envelope. The surrounding windows and streets are utterly deserted.
The feeling you get is of joy.
It speaks to many of the descriptions of Hopper’s pictures over the years: ‘voyeuristic’, ‘lonely’, ‘alienated’. The feeling you get when looking at this painting in person, however, is of joy. I was reminded when looking at ‘New York Office’ of what Hopper wrote about ‘Conference at Night’.
‘[The painting] had been suggested by things I had seen on Broadway in walking there at night,’ he wrote. This passage gave me the idea of putting myself in the shoes of the artist, of what he must have seen to give him the idea to paint ‘New York Office’.
Many of us have walked the streets of a city feeling depressed or bored, only to find the sight of one individual so uplifting as to make your day. Hopper depicts just that individual. She is encased in a golden, angelic light that beams down into an otherwise normal office. Of course, that light could be figurative.
‘It’s what I would call pristine in terms of the content,’ says Ausfeld. ‘He had pared his work down so drastically by the end of his life that the content was really about the themes that he approached.’
Hopper alluded to this himself, saying that his paintings had become ‘less literal’ towards the end of his career.
‘It’s what I would call pristine in terms of content.’
What is impressive about ‘New York Office’ is that it is not, in itself, depressing or alienating. It speaks to those feelings while at the same time liberating you from them. In reproduction, the woman, with her blonde hair and porcelain skin, can look severe. Her co-workers are barely noticeable blurs in the background.
In person, though, the woman looks completely content and engrossed in her work and her co-workers are a vital part of the composition. It turns out that this woman is not alone and neither are you.