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Column: Hopper and Waits

First appeared
Thursday, 16 May 2013


Edward Hopper wasn’t always a “great American artist”, as he is described nowadays. For many years he slugged it out as a commercial illustrator. He only sold his first painting at the age of thirty; it wasn’t until he was in his forties that his work as a painter was self-sustaining.

He was often at odds with visual arts fashions, toying with the impressionism of Manet and Degas and then settling on a distinct brand of realism when abstraction was all the rage. He produced dark, gritty urban images and lonely interior scenes, landscapes and depictions of rural architecture; “I’m more interested,” he affirmed, “in sunlight on buildings and on figures than in any symbolism.”

Hopper’s influence is, however, pervasive. From “film noir” in cinema to “dirty realism” in literature, not just individual artists but entire genres in other art forms owe a debt to the alternating atmospheres of tension, alienation and resignation evoked by the figures and the scenery in his paintings.

It’s not suprising, then, to read a claim like this (by Adrian Searle, writing on a Hopper retrospective at the Tate Modern in 2004): “Nothing much happens in Edward Hopper’s paintings ... People stare distractedly at the window. They sit, they read, they look at the floor. Their clothes go on and off. Midday smacks the wall of a clapboard mansion on the hill. Lives go on in lighted windows glimpsed from the evening train. Without Hopper, we imagine, we’d never have had Tom Waits.”

Reading this, some would be overcome by an urge to thank Hopper’s ghost for his indirect contribution to the history of rock, jazz and folk music. Others would be moved to ask: Who the hell is Tom Waits? Indeed, to quote one anonymous internet wit, Waits is “the most famous musician nobody has heard of”. Substitute “musician” for “painter” and this was true of Hopper for much of his career – it probably still is, four decades after his death.

Just as “We know Hopper’s images, even if we’ve never seen his paintings” (Searle again), so it’s true of Waits that we know his sound, even if we’ve never heard his songs. Once you have listened to his distinctive gravelly voice, however, it may seem that Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Joe Cocker, Don Henley, Rod Stewart and even Louis Armstrong have been trying to imitate him – this is partly because Springsteen, Stewart and The Eagles are among those who have covered his songs.

Waits has received some “mainstream” acknowledgement, including two Grammy Awards and induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But, perhaps because he has enjoyed more commercial success as a “world musician” than in the United States, he is typically seen as a troubadour of the alternative scene – the designated singer-songwriter and patron saint of America’s whiskey-and-cigarettes underbelly.

Waits’ ghostly presence in South Africa is made flesh, as it were, in a new exhibition curated by Gordon Froud. Tom Waits for No Man... is the second project Froud has undertaken as an homage to a musician (the first, Altered Pieces, was a tribute to Leonard Cohen). In this case, he has commissioned artists to produce a vinyl record-sized response to Waits and his music.

Most of the works are displayed like LPs mounted on a wall, although some are three-dimensional pieces. The range of media employed in the 90-odd items is impressive. The subjects range from visual interpretations of his song titles and lyrics to portraits of Waits himself in characteristic pose: staring down the camera, cigarette lit, fedora on head, disheveled hair, stubbly chin, microphone or piano or guitar at the ready.

One image in particular struck me: Rupert De Beer’s “Nighthawks (by Edward Hopper) Revisited (via Tom Waits)”. The title is clumsy, but perhaps it needs to be to hint at a complicated relationship. Waits’ third album (1975) was titled Nighthawks at the Diner and its cover design specifically invoked Hopper’s iconic image. De Beer has taken this link further by inserting a signpost outside the diner: it is no longer in New York, but now at the corner of “Heartattack and Vine” – the title of Waits’ 1980 track, which exposes the ugly, sad hedonism of Hollywood.  


* Tom Waits for No Man... is at the University of Johannesburg Art Gallery until 29th May



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