Edward Hopper (1882-1967),
As in his masterwork Nighthawks (1942, Art Institute of Chicago), Edward Hopper’s 1929 painting Chop Suey distills the atmosphere of an everyday eatery into a cinematic scene that at once suggests a specific story as well as alludes to broader themes of social isolation, gender roles and even the art historical tradition through which an artist can reflect such issues within his work. The most iconic painting by Hopper left in private hands, Chop Suey epitomizes the psychologically complex meditations for which the artist is best known, while uniquely capturing the zeitgeist of the city during one of its most fascinating eras of transition.
In his early years, Hopper studied painting at the New York School of Art under the guidance of the leading promoter of the Ashcan School, the artist Robert Henri. His classmates at the school included George Bellows, Rockwell Kent and Guy Pène du Bois. While transforming and modernizing his style over his lifetime, Hopper always embraced a central teaching of Henri: to paint the city and street life he knew best. Whether during his studies in Paris or his first years in New York as an illustrator, Hopper would sit in cafés and find inspiration through people-watching. Yet, while his contemporaries like Pène du Bois, Reginald Marsh or John Sloan tended to focus on the flamboyant and sordid sides of the flapper set, Hopper focused on the more nuanced stories of society and often those found at the restaurants of the era. For example, while Sloan’s Reganeschi’s Saturday Night (1912, Art Institute of Chicago) has been suggested as inspiration for Hopper’s New York Restaurant (circa 1922, Muskegon Museum of Art) and Chop Suey, the subject matter for both artists was more likely commonly derived, with their approaches markedly different. Robert Hobbs explains, “The two artists are both adhering to the tradition begun by the French Impressionists of picturing ordinary people in modern cities… but unlike Sloan he was not concerned with direct political reform. Hopper was much more involved with a new and distinct sensibility characteristic of his own era…He was concerned with general human values, and he used art as a way to frame the forces at work in the modern world” (R. Hobbs, Edward Hopper, New York, 1987, p. 48).
‘His uncommon sensitivity, his distanced perspective on the world, and his sense of drama have earned him a significant place in the history of modern art. Hopper’s work not only casts a spotlight on the birth of American modernity, but also marks the advent of a form of artistic creation entirely his own.’
Guillermo Solana, Jean-Paul Cluzel
While having its roots in the French Impressionist and Ashcan traditions of painting city life, Chop Suey was likely more specifically inspired by Chinese restaurants Hopper visited, both in New York and on his travels. A uniquely American place, in the early twentieth century, the chop suey joint personified the spirit of the modern nation’s melting pot. Derived from a Cantonese phrase, tsap sui, meaning ‘odds and ends,’ chop suey came to refer to not only a low cost stir-fry dish but, moreover, to a public destination where an interested observer could view the societal fusion of different cultural elements of the modern city. Originating as flashy destinations in Chinatown for the nightlife crowd, by the mid-1920s chop suey restaurants had evolved into popular luncheonettes where the burgeoning working-class could gather to grab a bite to eat. The layout of this restaurant has been associated by scholars including Patricia Junker with a spot in Portland, Maine, where Hopper spent the summer of 1927, as well as a restaurant on Columbus Circle on the Upper West Side of New York. Called The Far East Tea Garden, the New York establishment was a cheap, second-floor spot that the Hoppers frequented while dating and in the early years of their marriage, and was also known as a meeting place for Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O’Keeffe and other Modernists in their circle. (A.F. Smith, ed., Savoring Gotham: A Food Lover’s Companion to New York City, New York, 2015, n.p.) These restaurants were typical for their type, as described by Junker: “Unpretentious places, they were typically located on the upper floors of old commercial brownstones. A large, flashy ‘chop suey’ sign, extending prominently from a building’s façade, identified the restaurant to passerbys on the street below. Many were open for lunch, but all catered, at least initially, to a late-night crowd, remaining open as late as 2:00 A.M… Chop suey restaurants appealed to a widely diverse clientele that included Irish Catholics, European Jews, and blacks from Harlem. Their dining rooms provided a snapshot of modern New York… By the end of 1925, Bertram Reinitz, a popular social commentator and columnist for the New York Times, saw chop suey as a major indication of cultural transformation…it had been ‘promoted to a prominent place in the mid-day menu of the metropolis’” (P. Junker, quoted in Edward Hopper: Women, exh. cat., Seattle Art Museum, 2008, pp. 34-35).
Hopper’s Chop Suey captures a snapshot look at this common lunch hour meeting spot, depicting just two tables of archetypal customers within the somewhat sparse interior of the restaurant. In the foreground, two women chat at a table during their break, while another couple is partially visible in the distance. Curiously, within the restaurant, the bright white tables are conspicuously empty, and only the Asian teapot on the near table suggests any Chinese influence. Judith A. Barter writes of these bare tables in Hopper’s café scenes, “The distillation of Hopper’s subjects, the purity of his vision, is unmistakably American. Using the space of the diner, the Automat, or the Chinese restaurant, Hopper painted the familiar in new ways, editing out unnecessary details…There is never anything to eat on Hopper’s tables. Famously uninterested in food, Hopper and his wife often made dinner from canned ingredients. What he found important were the spaces where eating and drinking took place” (J. A. Barter, “Food for Thought: American Art and Eating,” Art and Appetite: American Painting, Culture, and Cuisine, exh. cat., Art Institute of Chicago, Illinois, 2013, p. 34).
Rather than the food or restaurant itself, it is the view through the window that draws attention to the specific space that gives the painting its title. The partially visible signage and the bold ‘SUEY’ literally cast a light on where the viewer should focus within the scene. Chop suey joints were notably restaurants where the new female working force was welcome, and in the crisscrossing bands of light, the figure facing the viewer is the point of focus. The expression on her pale, sunlit face becomes a mystery to uncover from beneath her cloche hat. Rather than bask in the glow, she appears pensive, seeming to avoid eye contact with either the viewer or her companion. Posed for by Hopper’s wife Jo, as indeed were all three women within the painting, she seems to sit alone and at a distance from the woman across from her, even while attracting attention with her composed beauty. Reflecting on the unique dual effect of light in Hopper’s work, Lloyd Goodrich has noted, “it reveals and at the same time isolates them” (L. Goodrich, Edward Hopper, New York, 1971, p. 83) Didier Ottinger further explains, “This property of light is easily experienced in America. In the city streets of the East Coast it acts on individuals in a crowd like the beam of a theater spotlight, literally ‘isolating’ each of them. Hopper invests this special quality of American light with metaphysical meaning, using it to create paradoxical lighting that heightens the poignant solitude of his figures” (D. Ottinger, “The Transcendental Realism of Edward Hopper,” Hopper, exh. cat., Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid, 2012, pp. 46-47).
Adding another layer of interpretation, Margaret Iverson has proposed that by modeling both women at the table after one person, Hopper infuses the scene, perhaps unconsciously, with a “Freudian doppelganger, the figure with her back to us being the other woman’s (and everyone’s) naturally once-repressed double, here returned as ‘an uncanny harbinger of death’” (W. Wells, Silent Theater: The Art of Edward Hopper, New York, 2007, pp. 41-42). With this reading, Chop Suey very closely echoes the subject and tone of Hopper’s painting Automat (1927, Des Moines Art Center, Des Moines, Iowa) of two years earlier. Depicting a similar young woman in green looking thoughtful beneath the rim of her tight-fitting hat, Automat more straightforwardly embodies the feelings of loneliness and isolation possible even when out in a public place. Just as in Chop Suey, Hopper also plays with the reflections of light through a large expanse of windows to define just how the viewer should be looking at his subject. Ottinger summarizes, “Automat…represents silence and solitude: a young woman is sitting at a table in one of the new self-service cafes where the food comes in vending machines. This work demystifies the hollow happiness promised by the leisure industry, exposing its alienating and dehumanizing side.” (D. Ottinger, op. cit., p. 27).
Beyond illuminating the feelings of uncertainty that modern city life in the 1920s could spur, viewing Hopper’s restaurant paintings from this era as a series reveals the changing role and view of women within this atmosphere. In his painting New York Restaurant (circa 1922, Muskegon Museum of Art, Muskegon, Michigan), Hopper captures women in a male-dominated restaurant as servers in frilly white aprons or escorted dates in fanciful fur coats. When he revisits similar settings at the end of the decade—those expressly titled as the modern settings of an automat and chop suey joint—Hopper instead sees the female visitors as independent individuals, facing new challenges of identity that come along with their new place in society outside of the home. These women are creatures of contradiction; bundled in thick coats, long sleeves and tight hats, yet with bare legs and bright red lips, they are at once just another face in the crowd as well as the focus of every eye. Even the viewer is given the role of voyeur, with elements like the top of a chair visible at the foreground edge of the composition suggesting our place within the scene. Junker reflects, “In New York’s restaurants, women, especially young ones, were on public display as never before. Hopper’s restaurant pictures all focus on these young working-class women, and thus they understand something essential about the character of the modern city in which he painted. They reveal, too, the social and sexual tensions that came with new public roles for men and women. Hopper’s New York café women of the 1920s are among his most psychologically and sexually charged character studies, and they tell us much, too, about the intensity of his own personal engagement with his subject” (P. Junker, op. cit., p. 17).
The intense personal feeling imbedded in works such as Chop Suey partially derives from Hopper’s artistic process during these early years of his career in New York. Whereas later he would prepare copious preliminary drawings to work out his compositions, Carter E. Foster writes, “there are no known drawings for several of his most famous paintings from this era, including Chop Suey, House by the Railroad (1925; Museum of Modern Art, New York), or Automat” (C. E. Foster, Hopper Drawing, exh. cat., Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, 2013, p. 46) Rather, Hopper would ruminate on his idea, and then paint onto the canvas his own memory rather than what was actually there. Hopper himself once explained of his method, “The picture was planned very carefully in my mind before starting it, but except for a few small black-and-white sketches made from the fact, I had no other concrete data, but relied on refreshing my memory by looking often at the subject.” Naturally, with this compositional technique, what is included versus removed reflects the artist’s imagination and underlying motivation as much as reality. Referring to New York Restaurant, Hopper reflected on this aspect of his art: “In a specific and concrete sense the idea was to attempt to make visual the crowded glamour of a New York restaurant during the noon hour. I am hoping that ideas less easy to define have, perhaps, crept in also” (E. Hopper, quoted in Edward Hopper: Women, pp. 12-13, 19).
‘Hopper is an artist who is as much universal as he is American: he paints man in his alienation from and disenchantment with everyday life, and he does so with a truthfulness that is not devoid of tenderness.’
Guillermo Solana, Jean-Paul Cluzel, Hopper, Paris, France, 2012, p. 9
With the emphasis on personal expression rather than true realism, it is no wonder that Ottinger declares, “Of all the American ‘realists,’ Hopper is the one whose painting has the greatest degree of ‘abstraction’” (D. Ottinger, op. cit., p. 38). Indeed, in Chop Suey Hopper plays as much with color and light as he does with the psychological mood. In the background, swaths of cool blues are bisected with bands of strong white light, creating spotlights on the figures but also an almost abstract pattern along the walls. Meanwhile, the foreground of the restaurant employs a warm, golden hue to define the architecture of the space and draw further attention to the striking red, white and blue of the gleaming sign outside. In fact, perhaps it was this play of light and form that directed Abstract Expressionist Mark Rothko to look to Chop Suey as a direct inspiration in his early career. Rothko would have seen the painting either at its exhibition at Frank K.M. Rehn Gallery in January 1929 or in Pène du Bois’ Hopper monograph of 1931, and the image shortly thereafter inspired his own Composition I [recto], which closely replicates the composition in Rothko’s early, more realistic style. Yet, even Rothko’s classic color field works share a kinship with the play of light and structure in Hopper’s best canvases. Rothko scholar David Anfam explains, “Hopper’s strongest compositions, like Rooms by the Sea, not only attain a quasi-abstract and stark luminosity reminiscent of Rothko, but also aspire to the interlocked, planar rigor of a pictorial architecture. To Rothko’s eye this was the quality that set Hopper above [Andrew] Wyeth—the architectonics, literal and metaphoric” (D. Anfam, Mark Rothko, The Works on Canvas: Catalogue Raisonné, New Haven, 1998, p. 77).
Hopper’s Chop Suey similarly foreshadows the post-War movement of Pop Art, incorporating the bold lettered signage of the city streets as a focal point of attention and self-reference within the composition. Gail Levin writes of the prominent signs in Hopper’s work, “in Hopper’s ironic imagination, the classic architecture becomes a frame for the contrasts of old and new, commerce and entertainment, in urban life” (G. Levin, Edward Hopper: An Intimate Biography, New York, 1995, p. 285). Moreover, Hopper’s explorations into the commoditization and mechanization of dining in the 1920s, and the impact those changes have on society, parallel the themes of Pop Art explored by Andy Warhol and Claes Oldenberg a half century later. As Sarah Kelly Oehler explains, “In the 1960s, Pop artists dedicated numerous works to depictions of food, tapping into an ethos of mass consumption and convenience that was quintessentially American” (S. K. Oehler, “Convenience: Pop, Production, and the making of Art in the 1960s,” Art and Appetite: American Painting, Culture, and Cuisine, p. 205) In these ways, both visually and symbolically, it is no wonder that William Seitz has called Hopper’s paintings “a bridge from the Ashcan school to the decade of Pop Art.” (W. Seitz, quoted in Edward Hopper: An Intimate Biography, p. 578).
Indeed, Chop Suey stands as an important visual icon of an era when American art and culture were renewing themselves with modernist vigor. With women joining the workforce, more people living in the city, developing technology and commerce changing everyday interactions, and the United States enjoying unprecedented growth and prosperity, Hopper’s 1929 painting was certainly executed during a dynamic moment in the nation’s history. Yet, by addressing the evolving concept of the American Dream and visualizing it around a restaurant table, this work takes its place as a modern icon amidst the art historical narrative that traces the roots of American culture through mealtimes, from nineteenth-century still lifes through Norman Rockwell’s Freedom from Want and Wayne Thiebaud’s pastel pastries. With this grounding, Hopper presents a scene of modernity that the viewer can immediately relate to and ultimately accept as their own. As embodied by Chop Suey, “His uncommon sensitivity, his distanced perspective on the world, and his sense of drama have earned him a significant place in the history of modern art. Hopper’s work not only casts a spotlight on the birth of American modernity, but also marks the advent of a form of artistic creation entirely his own” (G. Solana, J.P. Cluzel, Hopper, Paris, France, 2012, p. 9).