This transcript is the result of a video-recorded interview (44 mins.) with Barbara Novak and Brian O'Doherty on September 8, 2010 at the Clarence Hotel, Dublin. The interview was conducted by Amanda Ralph as research for an artwork. Barbara and Brian very generously agreed despite being given no time for any formal preparation, after I impulsively asked on hearing they had known Edward Hopper (1882-1967).
AR What it is, it's a small clip of a radio play of one of Raymond Chandler's stories. The play is from the 1950's and the audio is cut to an animation I made using two of Edward Hopper images, Office at Night 1940 and Nighthawks 1942.
SFX: SANTA ANA WIND
MARLOWE: (NARRATES) I closed up my office early. I got tired of reading "Philip Marlowe, Private Investigator" backwards on the ground glass of my office door.
BO'D Excellent, Excellent. Have you seen the film1 I made on Hopper, because I take one of those and talk about film noir?
AR No, I haven't.
So I opened the door and closed it from the outside, and locked it, and went out to get a beer before I went up to my apartment.
SFX: THUNDER AND RAIN
BARTENDER: Er, fill 'er up again, Mr. Marlin?
MARLOWE: (CORRECTION) Marlowe.
MARLOWE: Marlin is a fish.
BARTENDER: (CHUCKLES) Yeah, I know.
BALDY: (CALLS DRUNKENLY, FROM OFF) Hey! Hey, you bartender! Gimme another rye!
BARTENDER: (LOW, TO MARLOWE) That drunk again.
MARLOWE: What'd you expect in this business, autograph hounds?
BALDY: (CALLS, FROM OFF) Make it snappy, y'hear?!
BARTENDER: (CALLS, TO BALDY) Be right with you, sport; I gotta draw this man a beer. (LOW, TO MARLOWE) Fer cryin' out loud, these stumblebums who come in here--
SFX: DOOR OPENS
BO'D Where did you get the text?
AR The Smithsonian put out some CD's of the original plays from 1950's that were broadcast on radio2, so I got a copy of the CD and took that snippet...
BO'D That's a good idea, that's a lovely idea. Okay well let's help you here as best we can.
AR It was intuitive that I decided to put together Hopper and Chandler, thinking about the notion of a solitary, alienated individual in Chandler, the gumshoe guy, he's always a solitary figure in that kind of urban alienation and I was wondering if you would talk about whether you think it's a good match to put Hopper and Chandler together and why that would be?
BO'D All those guys, Chandler, who were the others? Those Black Mask writers, I used to be very keen on those, but the guy who I'm trying to think of is the one who was with the playwright...
BN Lillian Hellman.
BO'D Lillian Hellman's boyfriend, what was his name? Let's not torture ourselves with this name business. Anyway a lot of these guy's work was made into film, 'The Maltese Falcon' and 'The Blue Dahlia', all that film noir, Hopper was very much into that in my view. Hopper was a great, and his wife, they were both great filmgoers and we sent them to some theatre, remember we sent them to an Albee play 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?'
BN Right, that was one for them.
BO'D That was one for them. You're gone back the source which is interesting when you're taking the radio plays which he must have listened to, from which eventually films were made in the '30's and '40's. The beginning of 'film noir', which was a phrase invented by the French, was from about the mid-30's up to the early 50's. I did a lot of work on that.
BN Dashiell Hammett
BO'D Dashiell Hammett, well done Barbara. And there's a guy called Thomas quite an inheritor of those guys, who is a very good film noir type, very good detective writer. I've forgotten his first name, I've just been reading him, somebody sent me six of these novels. [Ross Thomas?]
BN But he cared about that kind of thing, it's a good juxtaposition. Brian uses that clip, the one that you just showed us in his film. The alienation thing is a different thing wouldn't you say?
BO'D Well he felt, in his own words that 'the isolation thing is overdone'. But people did get onto that, the lonely figure and all that sort of stuff. Hopper was a very isolated figure in the New York art community, partly because of his wife, wouldn't that be true?
BN Not only because of his wife. I don't think she would have kept him away if he had been more reachable, but I think the thing is, as you well know, there are very few people that he let in. Brian was one of them and he loved talking to you about Emerson. They were wonderful with us but they were reclusive with the rest of the art world and he was somebody who was contained, so contained. It isn't so much that he was isolated as contained. Well he was the one who said to you, after you wrote about him in American Masters3, 'you got me', so you did understand him, and he felt that you understood him. If you were to say to me 'Was he an alienated figure?' I would say 'No, he was a contained figure' and there's a deep difference there. He was an enormously private man and that was why we were so offended when his privacy was invaded in the biography of him.
BO'D There was a biography4 done by a mad feminist who is Gale Levin.
BN I don't mind naming her.
BO'D She damaged poor Edward. But anyway, in terms of that question of decay, now what a fascinating word he used, 'decay', could you read the quote?
AR This was published in 1959 so I don't know if it's the exact one.
BO'D Read it and I'll tell you.
AR "My aim in painting has always been the most exact transcription possible of
BO'D Exact transcription of my most intimate thoughts...
AR "...my most intimate impressions of nature." Then I skip on a bit to
"I find in working always the disturbing intrusion of elements not a part of my most interested vision, and the inevitable obliteration and replacement of this vision by the work itself as it proceeds. The struggle to prevent this decay is, I think, the common lot of all painters to whom the invention of arbitrary forms has lesser interest."5
Maybe that's a comment on abstraction...
BO'D It is. That's the exact quote and it's a wonderful quote. Now I asked him what he meant by 'decay' and of course it was so difficult, because Hopper is a very mysterious painter I think you'll agree, and it was difficult for him to get around that. It's not as simple as 'there's a picture in my mind and I'm trying to put it on the canvas' because that's not psychologically possible. You don't have quite... you have intimations. When I'm making something or when you're making some art, what have we got in our mind? You have a sense of... sometimes I have a quasi image, do you? Do you have something in your mind? There is something there and you try and get it out there. He made me very much aware of process and very much aware of the impediments and obstacles to process. So he felt that in that process of realization which was aided, by the way, with numerous drawings in which the idea was... you can see the idea was aborning. That in that process he was suffering losses as well as gaining something else. So this reciprocal business of externalizing something, loosing something, gaining something. This curious brokerage of an image which eventually appears and then is not quite what he wanted. I thought decay was the word that got me, decay. It's an extremely sophisticated view of the creative process I thought. Very clearly stated. He was always very clear.
BN He was always clear and I'm just thinking to myself that it's never what one has in one's mind, almost never. It's always something else, it's projected from what one has in one's mind. But maybe it's even impossible to get what he's talking about because the decay comes about because of the process and because of the actual object onto which you're projecting your mind. So they're not the same thing, they never will be the same thing.
BO'D It's interesting too though since we're all artists here, don't you feel utterly lost if you don't have that germ. If you don't have that beginning out of which... that gives the thing birth. If you don't have that germ in your mind and you say 'No, there's nothing there, I don't have anything'. It's often my experience, I want to do something but I don't have it.
BN It's a terrible feeling.
BO'D It is, and then when you have the germ you can work with that. I think that's very like what poets describe. Poets describe the thing that arises out silence and isolation and I think Hopper's isolation was that creative isolation we all feel because when we're doing that and that's happening you don't want anyone else around, do you? That reciprocal exchange between what he was after and what he ended up with, which was about forty great paintings was marvelous, because you don't get realist painters with that kind of sophistication.
BN Well he was profound. Actually the gauge of how profound he was, is an indication of... that you can feel from his international status. Everybody, everybody, he's so universal, that everybody, everywhere in whatever country, I mean it isn't just American isolation or anything like that. In whatever country they all respond to Hopper. He has become such an important universal figure.
BN But I don't know that the alienation... I agree with him, I don't think the alienation thing is really what that is about. It's about a kind of innerness that he's expressing. An innerness of being almost, that is important to him. That is why I say he's 'contained'. He is trying to get at that innerness.
AR Is there a question that innerness might be unknowable?
BN Of course, unknowable to him, unknowable to us, but I think perhaps people don't know why they respond to him and they sense that innerness because there isn't any human being who wouldn't feel it.
BO'D That's very well said, both of you, because I always felt Hopper was a mystery to himself.
BN Oh yes, yes, it's mysterious to be alive.
BO'D To get back to your Raymond Chandler et cetera, it's very much the period.
AR I wanted to read you a little bit from
BN Gatsby. What can I call you?
AR Oh sorry. Amanda.
BN Amanda. Thank you.
BO'D [singing] Farewell Amanda6, you know that song? "Farewell Amanda" and if you watch a movie of that period, it is a theme in one of the movies with Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn7.
BN Oh absolutely, and there is a younger figure who drives Spencer Tracy...
BO'D David Wayne
BN David Wayne drives Spencer Tracy...
BO'D You got to see that movie
BN absolutely crazy because he's always singing this and Spencer Tracy can't stand him, he's always getting in the way.
BO'D Because Katherine Hepburn is an Amanda and he's singing this song, you got to see this movie.
AR Just as we were talking there about the time and the period, this is a small piece from The Great Gatsby:
"I wanted to get out and walk eastward toward the park through the soft twilight, but each time I tried to go I became entangled in some wild, strident argument which pulled me back, as if with ropes, into my chair. Yet high over the city our line of yellow windows must have contributed their share of human secrecy to the casual watcher in the darkening streets, and I saw him too, looking up and wondering. I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life."8
BO'D Very good.
BO'D Perfect text. What you're doing is putting texts together with Hopper, is that what you're doing? That's fantastic.
BN You got him.
BO'D You got that, that's great.
AR This would have been about 1926.
BN He was always like that, don't you think, even at the beginning, pretty early.
BO'D He was mysterious.
AR I was wondering that notion of decay, it is almost that technical process but it's also the content of his work? The limits of what is representable, it's both the process but it is also the work, the content of his work.
BN It's an empty containment, in some ways. Or contained emptiness.
BO'D Of the three things you were interested in decay, the Hopper/Chandler comparison and Emerson. Now Barbara is the Emerson expert and Amanda should read your chapter on Emerson and Lane9.
BN Well Emerson runs all through my work. But the thing about Emerson as I started to say to you Amanda last night, is that I think what Hopper shares with him is a kind of pragmatic attitude. Hopper is not transcendental, so I don't think it's the transcendental Emerson that you're looking for, but Emerson as all the scholars have said you can find anything in Emerson. There's nothing you can't find, there's nothing you can't attach to him because there are so many ideas and they are all mixed up together even though transcendental was perhaps at the core of it in a spiritual sense. It raises the question if you're going to look at Hopper and Emerson, which Emerson was he looking at? For example Harold Bloom the great literary critic thinks that Emerson was closer to people like Nietzsche, so that's not a transcendental Emerson there. And I think myself that he was very pragmatic and he was the one who said and I quote him but I don't remember which Emerson essay I got it from 'think what works best and is', I'm not quoting him exactly but it has to do with 'what works'. That becomes William James who bases his whole pragmatic theory on what works. It becomes Jackson Pollock, who says 'what works'. It runs all through American culture really from the very beginning.
BO'D It's interesting that it unites Pollock and Hopper, wouldn't it in the terms of that Emersonian...
BN Yes it does, absolutely and actually Pollock I think is more transcendental at his best ...
BO'D From '48 to '51
BN from '48 to '51 than Hopper is. I don't know that I would talk about Hopper as transcendental but I could certainly talk about Hopper as someone who loved to read Emerson. There's where you come in, your conversations with him, what aspect of Emerson can you think he was emphasizing?
BO'D We talked about Emerson and at that time I didn't know much about Emerson, but he said he was thinking about his end, very quietly, he was a very calm person. He was in his eighties, as we are now, and he was thinking of the end and he said 'Find somebody to console me in my old age'. I said 'Something like Emerson?' and he said 'Well yes, Emerson's a very shrewd New Englander but he's no great help'. It's in that book I wrote 'American Masters: The Voice And the Myth'10, there's a chapter there on Hopper. I then sent him Marcus Aurelius as the stoic, and he wrote back and said 'Mmm, not very consoling'. But as Barbara describes it, and she has opened Emerson to me in many ways, I see from your comments 'the Emersonian', and he was sort of 'New Englandy' wasn't he, even though he was from Nyack, New Jersey?
BN Yes, he was very 'New Englandy' and he has what I have described as an American look, and that look for me, is very simple, very pared down, very contained, tending toward geometries, it has a special quality to it that you don't find in Europe where things open out much more and are more fluid. I find in a lot of American art at different periods, so I can trace it and I can see how Hopper is an end point of it, or almost an end point of it, and it has to do with a kind of mathematical rigour that is in everything he does. Certainly well, his geometries, his containments, geometric containments and so on and Emerson did say 'we want our dreams and our mathematics' and I've always worked out of that as part of this problem. It has to do also with problem solving, with getting at things ad hoc when you confront them rather than anything else, and the way he even refines his paintings is that, as you well now, because Brian has traced it from initial drawings and how he's developing that image that he's trying to get that seems to be 'decaying'. There's a synthesis there where he does the figure one way and then he changes it this way and then changes it this way and then the whole thing is transformed maybe spatially and so on and so forth. So this is very ad hoc and it's very pragmatic as a procedure and this is a kind of problem solving that I find in American culture which is different than Europe which tends to be more traditional, to take from what came before and so on. In America, and this is my thesis in my own work, they always start from the beginning like nothing had ever happened before, and that's basic.
BO'D It's kind of a primitive quality isn't it?
BN It's very primitive and it's always starting from a tabula rasa and working up to a certain point and when you find similarities it's not because they necessarily knew each other or influenced each other, they get to the same place because they start in the same place. This is I think a key to understanding Americans and nobody could be more American than Hopper.
BO'D Whatever an American is.
BN It isn't an American scene thing. It's a mental thing.
AR Just on that point you made, Barbara about pragmatism, I found this quote in your book Voyages that resonated with me:
"Like James' pragmatist, Homer makes experience concrete. For James as for Homer, "the truth of an idea is not a statement property inherent in it. Truth happens to an idea.11"
BN I think this is precisely what I'm talking about. The kind of truth that Hopper ends up with for him is something that happens to him and is again something that works, that works best. I think this whole idea of problem solving is crucial to, I can't stress enough for me at least, crucial to understanding the way the American mind works. He was a problem solver. He had this problem, he had something in his mind as you say that he had to get to, and how did he get to it, how did he finally get as close as he could to it? Remember that he worked very slowly and that he maybe only did two paintings a year. So there was an enormous process going on there till he finished. Brian isn't that true, two paintings a year?
BO'D If that.
BN So that he's thinking for a long time. He's trying to solve the problem for a long time, where is he going to place the figure, what is he going to use, what is his theme in this particular thing, what is his narrative? Because you remember how she made it clear they always named their characters. There's a certain theatrical drama involved here for them.
AR Did Hopper ever say anything about Walker Evans the American photographer (1903-1975)?
BO'D They're often put together. He never mentioned him.
BN I don't even know if he knew him.
BO'D The point is I kick myself for all the things I didn't ask him.
BN Ah well come on, what was beautiful about that, and this might interest you is that we might go several months without seeing the Hoppers and when we did it was like the conversation had been interrupted and we were picking it up where you left off so there was always that wonderful thing and also my memory was how you could sit with him as I did in the hospital when he was very ill at the end. Brian was in Spain, you were in Spain when Mark died, when Rothko died, and Mr. Hopper was in the hospital so I went to see him and I sat with him for about six hours in a completely silent Hopper space. We didn't even talk, I wasn't going to burden him. I just sat here and he was in the bed. It was the most companionable silence. There was nothing awkward about it, there was nothing tense about it. We were just companionably together and that was wonderful.
BO'D What you say is very interesting because Hopper made you aware of the varieties of silence. You're talking about the companionable silence that you had with him. There is also in his work a variety of silences, things are about to happen, things have happened, things are in suspension. Silence in his paintings it seems to me, have different colourations and different psychological valances depending on how he constructs, and he constructed his pictures, he really constructed them, he even took little photographs of details he told me. The silence is, how shall we say, is pursued in terms of context to produce different varieties of silence, lets put it that way. But a companionable silence I'm familiar with. The uncompanionable silence was the interference of his wife.
BN Was Jo. She was a terror. God bless her, we were fond of her.
BO'D She was the kind of wife that you asked the husband a question and she answers. God bless her, we were fond of her but by God she was something, and she was so angry a lot of the time, we won't go into that because she felt that he should have put her into exhibitions when he was on a jury and when her work would come up, he'd say I'd better not comment on this, and she was angry with him but that's another matter. Anyway I think you're onto something, your beautiful quote from Gatsby is right on. There are several things, I'd love you to see the movie which was shown over here I believe, there is a lot that would interest you in it. He was a wonderful writer by the way and he never wasted a word, and when he said something it mattered. He didn't speak very much and he had a great sense of humour and he was a kind and gentle person, and I think he was a shy person. Would you agree with that?
BN Very shy, very shy. I think the isolation had to do with the shyness really and again that's part of containment.
AR This is my last question and probably the wrong note to end on. When I thought about Emerson first, I thought Emerson is too optimistic for Hopper. Is there a kind of maybe its dark but maybe its more realist enquiry into the human condition that's not so optimistic?
BN In Emerson too, according to research I had done and some of the writers that I had read, I think it was Bercovitch...
BO'D Sacvan Bercovitch
BN who makes the point that there are a public and a private Emerson. The public Emerson, and I emphasis this in Voyages, the public Emerson is one who absolutely is leading you as and evangelist, as a guru, was leading the American public only with optimism and that is what they've taken unfortunately in a way that makes them blind to certain evil things that they should notice such as slavery and all those other things at that particular time, and the Indians, I feel they were even worse for me than the slaves almost, the whole Indian genocide which you heard from everybody. Emerson did stick up for the Cherokee when the Trail of Tears came along, Emerson for once spoke out publically, he didn't usually do that but the Trail of Tears was one of the great tragedies because they were farmers, they had already done what the Americans wanted them to do, to become farmers not so called 'savages'. But I feel very strongly about the Indians but that's another chapter in Voyages. As far as Emerson went, that public optimism had its other side and it is something that turns up in his private moments and Bercovitch finds that. He must have found it more in letters perhaps, the public journals that I've looked at don't show it either but he talks about his 'dark night of the soul' and so there was that other side to him. I think Hopper, it isn't quite the pessimism that people like to talk about in him, it's something else, it's there but not in terms of angst, not in terms of German angst, because I don't think Americans show German angst. I think that angst is alien to them which is part of their problem, they hate to admit it when something isn't good and wonderful and happy, and it's a national flaw if you will. They aren't as dark as Europe, so there's something in between there that Emerson does touch on and Hopper too. But you (Brian) said something else about his constructing and you reminded me that the quote you (Amanda) got was from the Homer chapter. Homer was a constructor and Homer would take these big blocks, of geometric blocks, and Homer is the predecessor to Hopper, who loved Homer's work and talked to us, you remember, about Homer's 'weight'. He was an admirer of Homer and even though I say that most of the Americans don't get things from each other, he shared with Homer that sense of 'weight', weightiness. He was a constructor and so was Homer. So there is part of what the American spirit is about, a kind of solution of immediate problems, constructing, trying to find them. Essentially optimistic but certainly in more sensitive people a darker side. Melville has it, Melville has it in spades. I think of Melville as a more European figure. I mean he's not Emerson, he's not Thoreau. He's something much deeper and darker than that. That's the other side of the coin, but I don't think you see it as much as the happy optimistic one.
BO'D I never saw him as pessimistic even though he was not, shall we say, optimistic. Remember when you said to him when he was in the Biennial in São Paulo...
BN was one of the few words that we exchanged when I was with him in the hospital that time, and we had just heard from Bill Seitz who was a good friend and a wonderful curator who had done a show of the Pop artists in São Paulo and used Hopper as a predecessor and so I though this would cheer him up. So I told him about this and he says 'do you think it will matter?' or 'do you think it'll do any good?' I don't remember exactly what his words were, 'Does it matter?'
BO'D You know he said artists are forgotten five minutes after they're dead. But in terms of that neutrality I don't think it was pessimism. There is a kind of neutrality in the work into which you can read a variety of responses.
BN Yes, that's like Emerson.
BO'D So it's multivalent. Sam Hunter said something wonderful, he said Hopper is a kind of representational Rothko.
BN I remember you said that in your film.
BO'D I think that's very deep because I think what Hopper has managed to create is a kind of neutrality that is full of potency.
(1) Hopper's Silence. Dir. Brian O'Doherty. The National Endowment for the Arts, 1980. DVD.
(2) Smithsonian Collection: Old Time Radio Detectives and Crime Fighters, Radio Spirits, Inc., 1995. Box set Audio CD.
(3) O’Doherty, Brian. American Masters: The Voice And the Myth in Modern Art. Random House. 1973.
(4) Levin, Gail. Edward Hopper: An Intimate Biography. University of California Press. 1995.
(5) Hopper, Edward. Oral history interview. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. 17 June 1959.
(6) Cole Porter (lyrics and music). Farewell Amanda. David Wayne. MGM. 1949.
(7) Adam’s Rib. Dir. George Cukor. MGM, 1949. Film.
(8) Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. Charles Scribner's Sons. 1925.
(9) Novak, Barbara. Voyages of the Self. Pairs, Parallels and Patterns in American Art and Literature. Oxford University Press. 2009.
(10) O’Doherty, Brian. American Masters: The Voice And the Myth in Modern Art. Random House. 1973.
(11) Novak, Barbara. Voyages of the Self. Pairs, Parallels and Patterns in American Art and Literature. Oxford University Press. 2009.