NEW YORK — As 1938 came to a close, painter Edward Hopper was a man on a mission.
Again and again, he would pick up his sketchbook and head for a cluster of New York City movie theaters. Sometimes it was the Republic or the Palace, other times the Strand or the Globe, places where he could study the lobby, the auditorium, the curtained area off to the side. Back at home, he'd pose his wife, Josephine, as an usherette and draw her portrait.
By the time he completed his monumental painting "New York Movie" several weeks later, Hopper had drawn 54 studies for it.
Those 54 studies are among the highlights of "Hopper Drawing," which opened last week at the Whitney Museum of American Art. The first major museum exhibition focusing on Hopper's drawings and creative process, the show features many of the famed artist's paintings adjacent to the rarely seen drawings that preceded them.
Carter Foster, the Whitney's curator of drawings, began thinking about such an exhibition soon after arriving at the museum in 2005. Although there are more than 2,500 Hopper drawings in the museum's collection, Foster discovered that little research had been done on them.
"He worked out extensively in drawings," says Foster, formerly a curator of prints and drawings at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. "You could focus on the way he got to his great oil paintings through drawing."
Foster considers the drawings the "connective tissue" between reality, which Hopper called "the fact," and the artist's interpretation or "improvisation" of what he saw. Not only do the drawings connect the real to the imagined, says Foster, but they also connect paintings to one another as he goes back again and again to similar themes.
Few artists have captured the public imagination as Hopper has. For decades, his mysterious narratives of isolated figures and buildings have been continuously exhibited in the U.S. and elsewhere. Earlier this year, Paris' Grand Palais had to extend a Hopper exhibition — it ranked among the museum's most popular shows ever, attracting more than 800,000 visitors.
Born in Nyack, N.Y., in 1882, Hopper made his first drawing when he was 5, and he was already signing his drawings by the time he was 10. Trained initially as a commercial illustrator, then a painter, the artist had his first one-man show in 1920 at the Whitney's precursor, the Whitney Studio Club, and he participated in many Whitney Biennials and one-man shows over the years.
After the deaths of both Hopper in 1967 and his widow, Josephine, in 1968, the works then in her possession were bequeathed to the Whitney. It was a staggering amount of art, including dozens of oil paintings, watercolors and other artistic holdings, in addition to those 2,500 drawings.
Because he already had the drawings and many of the paintings close at hand, curator Foster went about searching for the lesser-known real-world places that might have inspired Hopper. Although the subjects of many of the artist's paintings are recognizable and have been documented over the years by Hopper biographer Gail Levin and others, such famous subjects as the corner diner in "Nighthawks" or the movie house in "New York Movie" have more complicated origins.
In his quest to link Hopper's reality, drawing and painting, 47-year-old Foster had two advantages. First, he had once worked as a print specialist at the New York Public Library and knew that the institution had commissioned a large amount of documentary photography in the '30s that was now online. Also, Hopper had spent more than 50 years working from a studio in Greenwich Village that was not far from where Foster lived, so the curator began to look more closely at their shared neighborhood.
After a successful trial run linking a few Hopper drawings and paintings in an earlier Whitney exhibition, Foster accelerated his sleuthing. Aware that Hopper's painting "Early Sunday Morning" was originally called "7th Ave. Shops" and inspired by a real building, the curator went block by block through historical photographs until he found the structure. That, he says, "was my 'eureka' moment and spurred on the type of research I did for the rest of the show."
There are 19 extant studies for "Nighthawks," a painting on loan to the Whitney exhibition, which runs through Oct. 6, from the Art Institute of Chicago.
"You do see his artistic process through the drawings," observes Judith Barter, chair and curator of American art at the Art Institute. "For example, in one drawing for 'Nighthawks,' the fellow with his back to us was in a belted policeman's uniform, while in another drawing closer to the final painting, he was in a business suit. He was nondescript and not an authority figure anymore."
Barter and others have written about the cinematic nature of "Nighthawks," a painting known to have inspired Ridley Scott's "Blade Runner" and other films.
"In some of the drawings, you feel like you're moving through a succession of spatial representations that seem like snapshots or film stills," says Foster. "Hopper went to a lot of movies, and I'm sure there was influence both ways. "
The drawings have added significance because Hopper was not a prolific painter. "Hopper spoke about painting as a difficult process for him, and he worked slowly," says Foster. "He'd make these exploratory sketching trips and work six weeks to two months actually painting. When he became successful, which was relatively late in life, he only produced two or three paintings a year."
The artist also worked slowly because he was so precise about what he wanted to do and say, adds Adam D. Weinberg, director of the Whitney and a Hopper scholar. "Hopper starts with fact and uses fact, but his paintings are as important for what they omit as they are for what they include. The drawings were a way to work out compositionally the poses, angles and form but also a way to conceptualize the idea at the same time."
The Whitney has more than 80% of the drawings Hopper kept, estimates Foster, and it appears that the artist kept most of them. He rarely exhibited or sold them, says Foster, and at one point, he turned down a proposed book on his drawings. Hopper had also been quoted as saying that the drawings were simply not of much interest.
Foster, of course, disagrees. As might be expected of so highly regarded an artist, many of Hopper's drawings are today considered artworks in themselves. "They are incredibly facile and virtuosic in terms of what they show about the nature of drawing," Foster says. "He was a great draftsman, and the drawings are as accomplished as his work in any medium."
Drawings are somewhat underplayed generally, and they shouldn't be, says artist Ruth Weisberg, former dean of USC's Roski School of Fine Arts, where she often teaches drawing.
"For many artists, drawing is both a medium in itself and one that allows you to explore and learn what you want to do in another medium," Weisberg said. "They are so direct, revealing the artist's hand, the artist's thinking and the process of developing a work of art."