In NIGHTHAWKS (1942), Edward Hopper’s best-known painting, viewers find themselves standing outside an all-night diner, the kind of place where drifters, insomniacs, prostitutes, and thieves congregate like moths swimming druggedly around pools of blue neon. Inside, behind a pane of radiant glass, trapped in a trapezoid of cold, probing, antiseptic light, surrounded by a backdrop of shadows, four people—most likely strangers—are joined together in the company of waiting: waiting for this malingering moment, this prolonged silence, to come to an end.
There is a drama here waiting to be played out—a story left untold. Hopper lures and seduces viewers into this solitude of quiet lives, the mysterious shadow-world of NIGHTHAWKS, yet these viewers are soon released, ushered by the elbow around the bend, into the darkness, pushed politely out of the picture, away from this island of regenerative light. In time, though, they return, like the revenant flotsam of night: the drifters, the insomniacs, the moths.
They find themselves wanting in, waiting to hear how the story ends, when or where it will begin. They press their ears to the luminous glass, their eyes lowered to the keyhole. The figures in the portrait, however, are far too reflective, perhaps too aloof, to look up.
Mark Strand, recent poet laureate, helps viewers to locate themselves within the private space of Hopper’s world. In NIGHTHAWKS, Strand points out how as viewers “we are suspended between contradictory imperatives—one. . . that urges us forward, and the other, governed by the image of a light place in a dark city, that urges us to stay.” Strand’s observations read like a series of interconnected prose poems triggered by a desire not only to look, to penetrate through the enigmatic darkness, but to see beyond Hopper’s unseen source of light. Even those who think that they know all there is to know about the work of Edward Hopper will come away from this book feeling visually renewed, as if drawn for the very first time to the cleansing light of NIGHTHAWKS.