Vol. 12. No. 4
Spring 2003



by Linda Marion

Two exhibits at the UMFA reveal the urban and earthly realities of Edward Hopper
and Emmet Gowin.

John Sloan (1871-1951)
Sixth Avenue at 3rd Street, 1928 Oil on Canvas

Emmet Gowin, Changing the Earth

The snow melts, the Earth is revealed, and new colors emerge. And inside the Utah Museum of Fine Arts, spring and summer also bring a change of landscape: two exhibits, one of the paintings of Edward Hopper and his modern American contemporaries in the “Ashcan School,” and the other of the aerial photographs of Emmet Gowin. While completed more than half a century apart, the works in the two shows may have more in common than is apparent at first glance.

Both deal with the environment and the uneasy relationship human beings have with it. While Hopper depicts urban realities, populating his famously lonely landscapes with isolated individuals, Gowin looks at the landscape from above, cataloging humanity’s alteration-desecration of the earth with starkly beautiful images—eerie earthworks viewed from 30,000 miles up.


Edward Hopper (1882-1967)
Queensborough Bridge, 1913 Oil on Canvas

Edward Hopper:
Capturing the American Scene

Edward Hopper is one of America’s most popular and well-known realist painters, instantly recognizable for his reductionist compositions and solitary figures.

Hopper sprang from the turn-of-thecentury period that saw America undergo a profound transformation from an agrarian to an urban society in the wake of the Industrial Revolution. The result of this transformation was pictorialized by a group of avant-garde painters who had come under the influence of Robert Henri, the leading artistic figure of the early 20th century.

Head of the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Henri was a realist in the tradition of Thomas Eakins, whose controversial renderings of anatomical dissections and nude figures had rattled society’s 19th century Victorian sensibilities. After traveling to France, Henri came under the influence of
the French Impressionists, whose brash depiction of contemporary life and “plein air” style offended traditionalist academicians, yet ultimately led to the modernist movements that flowered in the 20th century.

William J. Glackens (1870-1938)
Parade, Washington Square, 1912 Oil on Canvas

After returning to America, Henri advised his protégés—including Hopper, George Bellows, George Luks, Everett Shinn, and John Sloan—to take their inspiration from the streets. Rejecting traditional pastoral landscapes for the grit and grind of the city, the group became known as the “Ashcan School.” The urban realists were initially reviled but ultimately embraced as painters with the keenest eye — the first truly American artists.

Hopper was the most atypical of the urban realists. He started his career as an illustrator and printmaker, and his work demonstrates his strong compositional style and emphasis on form. His canvases gained attention when he began focusing on American themes — cityscapes and urban interiors presenting a new and poignantly melancholy view of urban life that became known as “American scene” paintings. Ever the individualist, Hopper worked in a flat, straightforward style, attempting to capture an America tinged with melancholy while living through the Great Depression.

According to Mary Francey BFA’71 MA’74 PhD’83, professor of art history, the urban realists haven’t always been given their due. “American modernism is defined by the often paradoxical efforts to fuse art and life, culture and experience in a society still struggling with issues of national identity,” she says. “Hosting an exhibition that encompasses the multiple styles of modernist artists responding to the effects of migration, immigration, urbanization, and communication is an important opportunity for the UMFA to call attention to an under-recognized period in the history of American art.”

Edward Hopper (1882-1967)
The El Station, 1908
Oil on Canvas
Edward Hopper (1882-1967)
Yonkers, 1916
Oil on Canvas

“Edward Hopper and Urban Realism”
May 16 to August 24

This exhibition was organized by the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. It includes various artists working in New York at the turn of the 20th century who were originally associated with the influences of Robert Henri and the Ashcan School—George Bellows, William Glackens, Edward Hopper, George Luks, Everett Shinn, and John Sloan. On display are samples of Hopper’s early work against a general overview of the realist tradition that culminated with the establishment of the American Scene movement in the 1930s. The exhibition includes approximately 50 paintings drawn from the Whitney’s permanent collection.

Emmet Gowin: Changing the Earth

A half century later, photographer Emmet Gowin has also brought a new and disquieting view of life on planet Earth, albeit from the height of a satellite.

Currently a professor of photography in the Council of the Humanities, Princeton University, Gowin has taught in the Visual Arts Program since 1973.

Gowin is a “landscape” photographer, but not in the traditional sense. He photographs military test sites, missile silos, mining and off-road vehicle scarification, gravel pits, pivot irrigation, and ammunition storage and disposal facilities. The images he creates are abstractions patched together from patterns etched on the Earth’s surface —giant earthworks created by humans and their technological tools.

A self-proclaimed environmentalist, Gowin refers to the alterations of the Earth’s “face” as disfigurements and brutalizations. In fact, his photographs can provoke a conflicting response of appreciation for the beautiful, ethereal images and revulsion for what they represent.

Gowin’s interest in nature came from a childhood spent in rural Virginia, where he lived close to the land. After making his way through the Richmond Institute and the Rhode Island School of Design, he turned to photography, focusing first on portraits of his wife, children, and extended family. He became interested in aerial photography in 1996 when Mount St. Helens erupted and he flew over the devastation in an airplane. “Seeing that landscape for the first time from the air was a revelation,” he says.

David M. Carroll, collections manager and chief registrar at the UMFA, comments, “I find the images compelling because, through a change in physical orientation, Gowin has turned some of the most devastating examples of postindustrial landscape into arresting compositions. Somehow seeing these landscapes from above makes it possible to briefly forget the human failings represented in their creation.”

“Emmet Gowin: Changing the Earth, Aerial Photographs” -
April 18 to July 13

Emmet Gowin has been taking aerial photographs of the landscape in the United States, Mexico, Czechoslovakia, Asia, and the Middle East for over 20 years. His most compelling photographs illustrate how man’s footprint has visually scarred and altered the earth’s surface. The exhibit comprises 90 photographs, capturing scenes ranging from ICBM missile sites to strip mines to pivot irrigation farming. The exhibit will be accompanied by a book, Emmet Gowin: Changing the Earth, written by curator Jock Reynolds, with essays by Philip Brookman and Terry Tempest Williams BS’79 MS’84, published by Yale University Press (2002). This exhibition was organized by the Yale University Art Gallery in association with the Corcoran Gallery of Art.

—Linda Marion BFA’67 MFA’71 is managing editor of Continuum.

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