Study for Hotel by a Railroad, 1952 by Edward Hopper (1882-1967)
“Edward Hopper’s New York Movie”
We can have our pick of seats.
Though the movie’s already moving,
the theater’s almost an empty shell.
All we can see on our side
of the room is one man and one woman—
as neat, respectable, and distinct
as the empty chairs that come
between them. But distinctions do not surprise,
fresh as we are from sullen street and subway
where lonelinesses crowded
about us like unquiet memories
that may have loved us once or known our love.
Here we are an accidental
fellowship, sheltering from the city’s
obscure bereavements to face a screened,
as if it were a destination
we were moving toward. Leaning to our right
and suspended before us
is a bored, smartly uniformed usherette.
Staring beyond her lighted corner, she finds
a reverie that moves through
and beyond the shine of the silver screening.
But we can see what she will never see—
that she’s the star of Hopper’s scene.
For the artist she’s a play of light,
and a play of light is all about her.
Whether the future she is
dreaming is the future she will have
we have no way of knowing. Whatever
it will prove to be
it has already been. The usherette
Hopper saw might now be seventy,
hunched before a Hitachi
in an old home or a home for the old.
She might be dreaming now a New York movie,
Fred Astaire dancing and kissing
Ginger Rogers, who high kicks across New York
City skylines, raising possibilities
that time has served to lower.
We are watching the usherette, and the subtle
shadows her boredom makes across her not-quite-
impassive face beneath
the three red-shaded lamps and beside
the stairs that lead, somehow, to dark streets
that go on and on and on.
But we are no safer here than she.
Despite the semblance of luxury—
gilt edges, red plush,
and patterned carpet—this is no palace,
and we do not reign here, except in dreams.
This picture tells us much
about various textures of lighted air,
but at the center Hopper has placed
a slab of darkness and an empty chair.
Edward Hopper, especially that painting of the gas station at night—Gas (1940)—was my inspiration for a lot of the songs I made up with my band The Modern Lovers when I was a kid. Especially “Roadrunner” owes to that gas station painting, but any songs I made up about lonely nights on lonely highways and the way lights were like friends in the dark. This is what “Roadrunner” was about. The Velvet Underground covered this kind of stark, lonely feeling of wonder and had a sound which, with its drowning darkness, felt right for my explorations into bleak, modern-world terror. That plus Hopper was a big part of my starting music.
From the Art News Muses column by Jonathan Richman.