Artists' final work before death can be telling. For instance, Georgia O'Keeffe's last painting The Beyond offers a black sea under a night sky streaked with bright white light, the kind that people with near-death-experience describe. It's as if she were thinking of what comes next after her passing. In a similar way, a vision from Edward Hopper made at the close of his life - 'Two Comedians,' now showing at the Currier Museum of Art in Manchester, N.H, - is also telling. Like all his work, this one speaks of doom and gloom.

Taking a dim view

What you see in 'Two Comedians' is the artist and his wife – both ailing octogenarians - taking a bow on a darkened stage in clown outfits. The surrounding black-shaded emptiness suggests that for the Hoppers, “the beyond” doesn't exist. This makes 'Two Comedians' a kind of continuation of his better-known work, Nighthawks. The couple is also in this picture, which depicts a handful of people hunched over a counter in a diner late at night. The painting is universally viewed by art critics (me, included) as a portrait of alienation in modern America. Not just critics think this.

Say what?

Representing the doom and gloom view of Hopper's work is singer/songwriter Tom Waits warbling in his album Nighthawks at the Diner the song “Warm Beer and Cold Women.” And novelist Joyce Carol Oates was so taken by the sadness she saw in the painting that she penned a poem pondering what was going on in the head of the lone woman in the picture, concluding she was “thinking that her companion has finally left his wife but can she trust him.”

Second opinion

The interpretations from Waits and Oates seem to be more about them than some sociological statement by Hopper. Granted his figures look forlorn, but an anecdote in a biography of him by Gail Levin has me thinking there's another way to understand his work, why, for instance, he favored so much black over color in his pictures.

The anecdote prompts the thought that his palette reflected an innate melancholy, and not modern America's state of mind. When Hopper visited the colorful countryside of New Mexico he became “bewildered, disoriented, and unable to paint. He wandered for days looking for something; Then he found an abandoned locomotive.”

Is 'Two Comedians' a sick joke?

Did you get that? In picturesque New Mexico, he chose to paint a discarded iron horse.

He chose to paint junk. Now take a second look at 'Two Comedians.' According to the Currier Museu of Art, the Hopper's are standing on a stage. But in the dark, without any sign of a theatrical setting, their bowing takes on the look of them readying to jump off a roof into the blackness of night? Clearly, Hopper had a dark side that had nothing to do with the world around him.

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