Edward Hopper knew why we are all on our phones

A few months ago, I had the opportunity to see several works by Edward Hopper at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts at their show, "Edward Hopper and the American Hotel." The best part of this experience was spending time up close with Hopper’s paintings, to study his colors, the pallid flesh, the treatment of different surfaces from fabrics to carpet and wall paper, and to observe his subjects, familiar yet distant in their huit clos. We feel an intimacy with these individuals, becoming spectators of private moments in their lives.

As the exhibition title suggests, many of these scenes take place in hotels, adding to the awkward frankness of the pictures, as if we were looking at surveillance footage. These people are not just between destinations, they are between moments when anything is actually happening, the moments that are spaces between the ones we consider important in our lives - what happens when nothing is happening. These are the moments when we are forced to confront ourselves, bared to our thoughts without distraction, like Hopper's hotel rooms devoid of decoration. For someone to repeatedly paint this sort isolation is to raise it to a kind of poetry.


What would these moments look like today, now that we are never without distraction and to endure even seconds of boredom is unthinkable? When we look at these paintings now, we immediately see what's missing - a cell phone. If you take each of Hopper's subjects and imagine a phone in their hand, the picture suddenly makes sense in our world. The emptiness is the same, but these people are forced to sit with it in a way we no longer have to. For the modern viewer, what Hopper is really painting is the reason we most often reach for our phones.


I remember seeing a painting by Sam McKinnis, Night Texter (Violet Oliver), 2015 in Mass MOCA's "Lure of the Dark" exhibition. I was struck by how inseparable we are now, culturally and historically, from our devices. They have become part of who we are, heads down, faces bathed in artificial light. The light of our phones has replaced the natural light streaming through Hopper's windows or the divine light illuminating the heroes of classical works. If Blaise Pascal is correct and "all of humanity's problems stem from man's inability to sit quietly in a room alone," then all we have to do is check our screen time to know how much trouble we are in. As we recognize our humanity and vulnerability in these private moments painted by Hopper, perhaps we can also rethink how we decide to spend those moments. Which light will we seek?

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