Edward Hopper conveyed the disjointed loneliness of modernity more acutely than any other American artist (or novelist or filmmaker) of his time. In these 13 etchings from 1918 to 1923, a number of which have become icons of Yankee existentialism, individuals are surrounded by shadowy force fields that turn viewer into voyeur. These are not portraits of people presenting themselves to us, but glimpsed scenes of enigmatic characters: a woman in a slip sits at a sewing machine, her thoughts somewhere far beyond the open window she faces; a nude woman, hair obscuring her face, climbs into bed while gazing out between fluttering curtains. In 1921’s House Tops, a lass on an elevated train stares wistfully at the metropolis of chimneys, roof hatches, and cornices passing by—the viewer is across the car, noticing, perhaps, that something other than the sights is on the girl’s mind. In Night Shadows, a famous, vertiginous view of a man walking a darkened city street, the broad sidewalk is bisected by the stark shadow of a lamppost that stands outside the frame. All the powerful abstract geometries of Hopper’s later masterpieces are foreshadowed in these small works—the sweeping curves and sharp triangles of his boating scenes, a processional of telegraph poles contrasted against sinuous train tracks. But unlike those magnificent paintings, in which people often act as mere vessels of light and shade, here they are supple human beings. In Night on the El Train (1918), a man and woman huddled in the corner of an otherwise empty car are literally twisted in knots—heads bent toward each other, ankles tightly crossed, her body uncomfortably torqued. Are they planning a wedding or plotting a murder? Perhaps both, though not necessarily in that order.
Photographer Stephen Wilkes says his trips to China feel like “watching a time-lapse movie,” because that country’s gargantuan public-works projects are so quickly altering its landscape. These large color shots include people or objects that provide scale for the surreal vistas: Workers on scaffolds look as tiny as mountain climbers against the windowless concrete towers that will house the Beijing Olympics’ data center; a ladder attached to locks for the Three Gorges Dam reveals the leviathan proportions of the 600-foot-high, one-and-a-half-mile-long structure. Wilkes documents the ongoing construction’s underlying social engineering in a diptych that focuses on an elderly couple outside their small house near a new factory development. When the photographer returned three days later, nothing remained of the house but a heap of bricks and neatly stacked rows of salvaged roof tiles. Clamp Art, 521-531 W 25th, 646-230-0020. Through September 13.
‘Works on Paper’
There are some real gems in this collection of drawings, collages, and paintings on paper. Gabriel Orozco’s repeated, bumpy pencil arcs might be fish bones or seismic waves; Jack Tworkov’s charcoal abstraction could be read as a jagged landscape; a duskily layered ink sketch by Brice Marden is more lively than his often overly precious paintings. But it’s the juxtaposition of a Rauschenberg collage and a sardonic Sigmar Polke graphic that’s worth the trip uptown. In the 1950s, Rauschenberg opened a door into a storehouse of everyday materials and subjects—like the photos of a deserted stretch of blacktop and a country shack included here—that none of his compatriots ever fully explored. But the now-67-year-old German kicked that door down in the mid-’60s, and he’s been ransacking the joint ever since. Polke’s piece begins with a blurry, dark-green photo of regimented foosball figures; in the center of this two-by-three-foot image, a comic-book gunman has been stenciled in dark red. Rows of repeated gauchos, sprayed in misty white, hover around the villain like a squad of avenging angels. This conflation of Old World soccer fanaticism with clichéd visions of the New World’s Old West is one gorgeous sucker punch. Mitchell-Innes & Nash, 1018 Madison, 212-744-7400. Through June 27.
When presidential hopeful Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1968, his body travelled by rail to Virginia’s Arlington Cemetery. Fusco, then a 38-year-old Magnum photographer, was on board the funeral train that sweltering June day and took approximately 2,000 Kodachromes of mourners lining the route. Mostly forgotten in a vast archive when Look magazine folded three years later, these incredibly poignant images have rarely been seen. The vibrant film stock captures fluttering flags in rusting railyards and the overgrown lawns of ramshackle houses on the wrong side of the tracks. Citizens—black and white men and women in shorts and housedresses, nuns and uniformed schoolgirls, cops and bare-chested boys—wave goodbye, salute, and stand at attention. Often blurred at the edges by the train’s motion, the pictures focus on individual grief and shock amid national tragedy, and sometimes frame hand-lettered laments, such as “So-Long Bobby.” Danziger, 521 W 26th, 212-629-6778. Through July 31.