Rooms By The Sea by Edward Hopper hangs at the Yale University Art Gallery. I have never seen this painting in person, but a copy of it has hung at my house for years. There is a door opening onto water, a picture on the wall, carpet, a tall set of drawers or maybe a cabinet, and a sofa. And there is light. The only things that are thoroughly representational are the door handle and the strike plate. The strange part is that there are no stairs to the water, it looks like there is a straight drop.
Another way to see the picture is to look at the blocks of color. At the bottom there is an oddly shaped block of avocado green. Above it is a block of very light yellow, a block of off-white (shaded towards black), and above that is a block of gray. As your eyes move around the painting, you see other blocks of colors. Even the sea is mostly flat blue with just hits of white foam. It is a tribute to the human eye that even without knowing the name of the painting, we have no trouble converting those blocks of color into something representational.
Good writers show, they don’t tell. In the same, way, good artists show us something, they don’t tell us what to think or how to understand. Hopper has reduced the amount of information in the painting a great deal, and still left us with a clear image. The rooms are empty, they have no personality. That emptiness invites the viewer to fill them with purpose, or not, perhaps just to contemplate the emptiness.
This painting by the American Milton Avery, Sheep, works the same way. The figure is recognizable as a sheep, in part because of the wool, but there isn’t any detail. Douglas Hofstadter addresses a similar question, how do we recognize letters, in his wonderful book Metamagical Themas. See .pdf page 3 of 19, here. I think the answer is I don’t know.
On the other hand, take a look at this painting by the American Helen Frankenthaler, Seeing the Moon on a Hot Summer Day. The figure on the right is holding a pipe and looking at the moon. There is a figure below the moon that doesn’t look like much of anything, maybe a mountain, with a tiny figure on top, maybe a glacier, who knows.
For each of us there is some level of abstraction which gives us enough to work with, enough to inspire thought or emotion, without being totally frustrating, say like IKB 191 by Yves Klein, which hangs at the Pompidou. Rooms by the Sea is enough for me. The Avery and the Frankenthaler are edging away.
Last week I wrote about Louis XIII Comes of Age, by Peter Paul Rubens. I went to the Rubens Room yesterday and took another look, partly because my memory of the painting was different from the photo in the post. The painting is darker than I remembered, and is not as precise as I recalled. The photo is accurate. I checked, person1597, and there is no hint of a five o’clock shadow; the lad is, however, quite callow.