Edward Hopper’s Western Motel – Walter Wells


Western Motel, featured in the current Edward Hopper exhibit at the Kunsthalle, is one of very few Hopper paintings in which a human subject makes direct eye contact with the viewer.   Indeed, the woman’s gaze here is resolute.


The picture was painted in early 1957 during Hopper’s six-month residency at the Huntington Hartford Foundation in Los Angeles.   Though his invitation came with a thousand-dollar stipend, his wife, Jo, actually painted more regularly during their stay there.   Hopper’s output was limited to a single watercolor, and the slightly unsettling oil painting that portrayed “a haughty blond” (as Jo referred to her) in a red summer dress, sitting on the made-up bed of her motel room.   Alongside the bed are two packed valises with name tags, apparently ready to go. 


Immediately outside we see the front end of what looks to be a 1954 Buick sedan.   In truth, it looks as much like an alien sea creature as a car, positioned in the picture to suggest  a close connection to the woman herself –almost as though it emanates from her body.   Beyond is a barren landscape of browned grass, empty highway, and featureless hills typical of the rural American southwest.


The Buick was, in fact, the Hoppers’ own, a workhorse that had taken them across the continent from their home in New York, and would reliably return them.   It was also, like each of the earlier cars they had owned during their thirty-year marriage, a bitter flash point between them.   Hopper thought women ill-equipped for safe driving, and persistently discouraged Jo’s efforts to drive or even qualify for a license.   She drove without one, and apparently not well; and was in and out of courts over various road violations.   Their quarrels over the car became physical at times.   Jo thought the highway “very therapeutic,” and chafed throughout their marriage at what she felt was her husband’s need to control her “expression thru art, sex, & whatever driving might represent” to him.


For Hopper, Western Motel purposely reflected this contentiousness.   Under the artist’s sardonic eye, woman and car are visibly conjoined.   The Buick’s animate, almost bestial front end (whence its power) seems an alien projection from her ample breast (or, more charitably, her desirous heart).   Still, for all the clarity of that conjunction, the car is safely separated from her by an improbably large motel window.   She is inside the room where she belongs, color-linked to its furniture, packed and waiting.   A close look reveals that her fingers are hopefully crossed.


On the other side of the window, the beat awaits its call to action.   Though Jo, in her written descrption of the picture, calls it “her Buick outside,” the decision will no doubt come from the man whose shorts are tossed on the chair at right, color-linked as they are to the blue sky outside.   While in many of Hopper images, lone women stare out of windows toward the sunlight, this woman looks directly at her husband –in truth, at the man behind the easel.   Her anger comingled with want, she is determined to wrest some small measure of control over that object of power outside.   The picture’s underlying narrative –that of rejection of a wife’s aspiration to domestic equality– is lifted, with very little invention, from the turbulent autobiography of the artist’s marriage.


Western Motel, Edward Hopper and Contemporary Art

Showing at the Kunsthalle Wien, hall 1

Until 15th Feb 2009


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