Art News Roundup: Hopper on the Block

I don’t normally tell people what art they ought to buy or not buy, since the “what” of art collecting is really up to personal taste. That being said, it’s just been announced that the greatest painting by the American Modern-Realist painter Edward Hopper (1882-1967) left in private hands is coming up for sale at Christie’s. So if you happen to have $70 million sitting around, you should absolutely attempt to buy it.


“Chop Suey” (1929) is classic, iconic Hopper, full of strong colors, unusual angles, and an air of mystery. You sense that we are in a moment somewhere between inaction and action, where with a single word, everything might change…or not. In fact, you’ve probably seen this image so many times, illustrating the cover of books from the Jazz Age or in retrospectives of Hopper’s work, that you probably didn’t even realize that this piece is privately owned.

This is a deceptively simple painting, until you really start to look at it. There are obvious questions such as, what are the two women talking about, or what are the young couple behind them talking about? But there are also less obvious points of enquiry, which always make trying to interpret a Hopper painting a great deal of fun.

Why, for example, does it appear as if there two light sources in the window above the man’s head, crossing over each other? Why is the fire escape ladder hanging down in front of the window at our right? Why do the couple have the little green-shaded lamp on their table, but the two women have theirs on the windowsill?

The $70 million estimate for this picture strikes me as a bit conservative: I wouldn’t be surprised, particularly in this market and given the Chinese-American thematic material, to see a Chinese collector pay $100 million for this work. The Chinese are primarily interested in brand names, when it comes to consumption, and Hopper is definitely in the upper pantheon of American artists when it comes to Modern Art.

Hopper’s current auction record is $40.5 million, for an interesting but unpopulated urban landscape painting, “East Wind over Weehawken” (1934). It depicts the slightly grim, rocky neighborhood that one drives through on the way to the Lincoln Tunnel into Manhattan from New Jersey. While Hopper’s landscapes and seascapes are nothing to sneeze it, they are more numerous than his figural paintings, which makes me think that “Chop Suey” will do better than its estimate.

And on to some other art news we go…

Beautiful Bath Tiles

The English city of Bath has welcomed visitors to its thermal springs since ancient times, when the Romans started visiting to take the waters. What visitors may not realize however, is that the current Bath Abbey, built in the late 15th-early 16th centuries, stands atop a far larger, demolished Cathedral that was built by the Normans beginning in the 11th century. Now, workers at the Abbey have uncovered some of the original Plantagenet floor tiles from that earlier building, and they are glorious things indeed.


Blunders in Brussels

Pieter Bruegel the Elder (c.1525-1569), one of the most important and highly influential Flemish artists of the 16th century, certainly deserves a stand-alone museum, and the good people of Brussels were about to give him one. It was to be in a Renaissance house located on the same street where Bruegel lived and worked after his marriage in the parish church nearby. Unfortunately, the Bruegel House museum, which was to open next fall, is now on indefinite hold. This is not due to a lack of funds, but rather due to an overabundance of what the Belgians are particularly good at: inventing convoluted bureaucracies with draconian and utterly stupid rules.

Under current guidelines, government agencies must request approval from the federal government before spending more than $65,000, and in this case the federal government turned down the request. Work on the project has been halted indefinitely, even though the agencies involved have more than enough in reserve to pay for the project. A spokesman for the Minister of Budget, Sophie Wilmès, told the press that funding the museum was “not a desirable solution because it contradicted the budgetary objectives for federal agencies.” One is put in mind of Jim Hacker’s “British sausage” speech.


Da Vinci Doodles

Thanks to the latest bit of gee-whiz technology, you can now get closer to looking over the shoulder of a great Old Master painter than ever before. The Victoria and Albert Museum is digitizing its collection of notebooks by Leonardo da Vinci, and has put the first two volumes online for you to virtually thumb through. The remaining two volumes will be released online in 2019 as part of the commemorations surrounding the 500th anniversary of Leonardo’s death. Not too much in the way of high art in this first release, but plenty of engineering sketches and, naturally, the master’s famous right-to-left handwriting.



Thought-Pourri: Childhood Fantasy Edition

When I was a child, I wanted to grow up to be many things. From policeman to paleontologist, superhero to symphony conductor, it was possible to imagine being all of these things simultaneously even though, practically speaking, such a combination of professions was always going to be impossible. For many, the abandonment of childhood dreams such as these becomes a cause for sadness and disappointment, perhaps even a source of residual bitterness throughout life, because things rarely turn out quite the way we had hoped when we were small.

Yet just because you’re never going to be something like an archaeologist – one of my other fantasy professions – doesn’t mean that your sense of wonder and excitement regarding archaeology has to be put away, left behind to collect dust in some forgotten corner of your mind. In fact, I find that as I grow older, the things which I loved as a child possessed of a very active imagination are the things which still fascinate me today. True, I may never get to find the remains of some undiscovered Egyptian tomb or what really happened to the Roanoke colonists, but that doesn’t mean that I can’t take pleasure in the efforts of those who do manage to go out and do these things.

So although this week’s news roundup is not, strictly speaking, about art, nevertheless I want to encourage you both to read these interesting stories about recent archaeological finds dating from the 1st century AD, and also to think about what it is that you have pushed to the side in your brain, as the concerns of life and work have become more pressing: perhaps they are worth rediscovering.

Building Bath

The English city of Bath, originally a sacred site for the Celts thanks to its hot springs and mineral-rich waters, really took off architecturally speaking when it became a Roman spa resort town known as Aquae Sulis; visitors to the spot can enjoy some of the most extensive Roman ruins in Britian, as well as a wealth of Medieval, Georgian, and Victorian architecture. Recently, a volunteer with the local archaeological society uncovered what are probably the very first mosaic floor tiles plunked down by the Romans in Bath during the 1st century AD, not long after the Emperor Claudius invaded Britain and began to establish colonies on the island. While the mosaics themselves are not particularly impressive, I think the takeaway here is about how average people, who are interested in subjects like art, history, architecture, and the like, can make a significant contribution to our understanding of these subjects. Don’t assume that you have to have a PhD in something in order to be able to make a difference.


Stormy Spain

Another group of locals, this time in Spain, have helped archaeologists recover Roman ruins from roughly the same period as the newly-discovered Bath mosaics. Last week, an unusually powerful storm revealed the remains of a long-lost Roman aqueduct in Cádiz, in southern Spain; residents out walking on the beach after the storm had passed spotted the ruins, and had the sense to immediately contact local authorities to come out and survey the discoveries. Once one of the largest engineering projects in the Roman Empire, the Aqueduct of Cádiz was built in the 1st century AD to carry fresh water from springs on the Spanish mainland across the bay to what was then an island, where present-day Cádiz was founded some 3,000 years ago, (supposedly) by the legendary Hercules. Amazingly, despite being submerged under sea water for centuries, parts of the structure are still held together by their original mortar.


Seeing Saudi Arabia

In an ongoing effort to change outside perceptions of his country, Crown Prince Mohammed of Saudi Arabia, who supposedly helped to bring about the acquisition of Leonardo’s “Salvator Mundi” for the new Louvre Abu Dhabi, may be making a fascinating archeological site more accessible to researchers and visitors. In today’s edition of The Art Newspaper, Anna Somers Cocks describes her visit to the ancient city of Hegra, modern-day Mada’in Saleh, a UNESCO World Heritage site which sits in the NW Arabian desert about 250 miles from the city of Medina. It was founded in the 1st century AD by the Nabateans, whose rich and bizarre architecture – a mixture of Greek, Roman, Persian, and other influences – will be known to you from “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”: the climactic final scenes were shot in the ancient Nabatean city of Petra in modern Jordan. The Saudis want to invest in drawing more interest and visitors to the remote archaeological site, and as there are well over 100 monumental tombs which need to be fully excavated and studied, such a project would likely keep scientists occupied and tourists enthralled for decades.


Putting on the Big Pants

One of the continued problems with contemporary architecture is its tendency to vacillate almost exclusively between only two extremes: the banal and the kitsch.  On the banal end of things we have an endless parade of glass curtain walls and concrete/metal boxes, sometimes with facing in other materials, which are viewed as safe since they are interchangeable, irrespective of where they are built.  Pick up a contemporary K Street office building from Washington and plop it down in the middle of Stockholm or Singapore amidst other such boxes, and no one would find it strange.  These are the sorts of projects that city planners and landowners tend to like, since they can fill these spaces easily with businesses or residents.

On the other side of things we have attempts to look like something other than a box.  These projects may initially capture the imagination of those planning them, but upon completion strike viewers as ill-conceived or utterly impractical.  Frank Gehry’s now-iconic Guggenheim Bilbao is one example, since for all of its flash and acclaim, the building is leaking and falling apart.  Though my personal favorite has always been Philip Johnson’s dreadful AT&T building in New York, with its ridiculously amateurish, giant broken pediment roofline, that looks as though it was designed by a Looney Tunes matte artist for some sequence involving Bugs Bunny being chased across Manhattan by Elmer Fudd.

However sometimes the project does not even need to near completion, before people realize that there has been a terrible mistake somewhere.  Such is the case with a British-designed building currently under construction in the city of Suzhou, China, a structure known as the “Gate to the East”.  The massive project, which features a pair of skyscrapers connected at the top, is supposed to resemble a triumphal arch, symbolizing China’s arrival on the world stage.  Yet the more people look at it, the more it reminds them of a giant pair of long underpants.  It has caused some in China to (understandably) question why it is that their country seems to be commissioning and building more and more odd-looking buildings from Western architects.

Part of the reason for what we might call a “Wild West” architectural movement in the PRC is that China is one of the few places in the world at the moment which not only wants lots of new buildings, so that it can bulldoze the poor out of the sight of Western television crews, but also has the cash to pay for them.  For somewhat different reasons, the wealthy emirate of Dubai has been another locale for bizarre-looking building projects, such as a hotel shaped like an incomplete sailboat, or artificial islands laid out to look like a palm tree from space.  This has been driven by Dubai very sensibly thinking about what will happen when the oil runs out, so that at least there will be nice, shiny buildings for tourists to look at, as the country morphs into some sort of Koranic Las Vegas.

While China and Dubai are – at least compared to much of the rest of the world anyway – doing just fine economically, those who pour their funds into such experimental architecture ought to remember that much of what they are building is doomed for the scrap heap, thanks to poor design and a pernicious effort to try to make people like things which they simply cannot in good conscience accept as a good building.  Modern untested materials and methods combined with bizarre building shapes often become hated eyesores within less than a generation, even as more traditional construction fades into ruin in a sympathetic way.  Thus, the fact that so much of the formerly grand hotels, public buildings, and homes in places like Havana or Detroit for example, are still standing in a kind of spectacularly beautiful decline, is a tribute to the men who built them.  Meantime, I have yet to meet anyone who thinks that the comparatively recent Boston City Hall and its courtyard, which looks like the setting for some sort of space-age auto-da-fe, is anything but a crumbling, hulking disaster which no one at present has the courage to tackle.

There is much to be said for trying new things in architecture, for by doing so we can create buildings that better serve their purpose.  Imagine how much more pleasant, for example, it is to be a patient in a hospital where all of the rooms receive plenty of fresh air and sunlight via modern methods of air circulation and an expansive use of glass, for those who cannot get out of bed or outside unassisted, and think about how much more hygienic a trip to the market is today than it was 50 or 100 years ago.  These are thanks to improvements in engineering and in architecture in understanding how to effectively use different materials and ways of looking at buildings.

Yet not everything that is new is necessarily better.  Simply because a starchitect tells us that a new building is the latest and greatest thing to appear on the planet since Mr. Obama does not mean that either statement is true.  And in the case of building a giant pair of pants, one cannot help but feel that if the Chinese wanted a triumphal arch, they ought simply to have built one.

The “Gate to the East” building, currently under construction
Suzhou, China