Blogs Untitled (Blog) Alex Lauer

Alex Lauer was a web content intern at the Walker Art Center in 2014 and 2014.

“Sex and the Office”: The Many Interpretations of Office at Night

Within 10 years of finishing what is now one of his most recognizable and provocative paintings, Edward Hopper sold Office at Night (1940) to the Walker Art Center. It was one of ten works acquired after an exhibition of American painters titled New Paintings to Know and Buy, a 1948 “purchase exhibition” copresented at the Young-Quinlan department […]

Within 10 years of finishing what is now one of his most recognizable and provocative paintings, Edward Hopper sold Office at Night (1940) to the Walker Art Center. It was one of ten works acquired after an exhibition of American painters titled New Paintings to Know and Buy, a 1948 “purchase exhibition” copresented at the Young-Quinlan department store on Nicollet Avenue. Then-Visual Arts Curator Norman A. Geske, Walker Assistant Director William Friedman, and Walker Art School teacher Mac Le Sueur selected artworks to add to the collection, including Yasuo Kuniyoshi’s Lay Figure and Gregory Prestopino’s Death of Snappy Collins. Initially, only two of the three voted to include Office at Night.

The painting’s situational ambiguity has led to a variety of interpretations over the years since then, the bulk of which suggest a sexual tension between the two figures — although Hopper never offered clear clues about the work’s narrative content.  “My aim was to try to give the sense of an isolated and lonely office interior rather high in the air with the office furniture which has a very definite meaning for me,” he wrote in a letter to the Walker. Then, after a brief discussion of lighting within the painting, he added: “Any more than this, the picture will have to tell, but I hope it will not tell any obvious anecdote, for none is intended.”

In planning for our showing of Hopper Drawing: A Painter’s Process, we considered ways we could tap into the painting’s openness to interpretation. In partnership with Coffee House Press, we decided to use Office at Night as the point of departure for a fully realized story. The resulting commission — to be released a chapter at a time each weekday between March 31 and May 2, 2014 — takes the scene out of Hopper’s grasp and places it in the hands of two dexterous writers, Kate Bernheimer and Laird Hunt.

But other interpretations can be gleaned from the numerous rights and reproductions requests we’ve received since 1948 from publishers, writers, and filmmakers seeking to use imagery of Hopper’s iconic work. Many of the inquiries have come from other museums looking to print it in Hopper exhibition materials such as postcards and brochures. In academic texts, it has been included in books on erotic art, American office design, Freud, and, possibly the most surprising, geology. Then there’s the relatively unglamorous mass production of recognizable art that is wall calendars, many of which have included this painting.

Here are some of the more intriguing places Edward Hopper’s Office at Night has turned up:

In no other reproduction of this painting is the erotic nature more implied than in this book cover. Published in 2012, author Julie Berebitsky says Sex and the Office “argues that from the first moment women entered the white-collar office Americans worried about sex.” A professor of history and director of the Women’s Studies Program at Sewanee: The University of the South, Berebitsky chose this painting for the cover because its ambiguous nature lends itself to her discussion:

Office at Night is wonderfully evocative: the cramped space and her voluptuous body—it’s hard not to at least consider the possibility that some erotic interaction has already or might happen. The question of who is in charge also seems unsettled. He is clearly the boss, but she conveys agency as much as submissiveness… The painting’s indeterminate narrative allows the viewer to think whatever he or she wants to think about what’s going on.”

In 1998 the image was requested by Valentino Films LTD to be used in the Keith Gordon film Waking the Dead, a film about an aspiring senator (Billy Crudup) and an activist (Jennifer Connelly) who is helping Chileans escape from the military dictatorship that began in 1973, although the painting doesn’t appear in the trailer (above).

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Minnesota poet John Engman’s second book of poetry, Temporary Help, was finished but not yet published when he died of a brain aneurysm at 47. Published shortly after in 1996, the book has been praised by authors like Mary Karr as an underappreciated gem.

Writing for Star Tribune, Wisconsin poet Thomas Smith had this to say about the Engman’s connection to the painting:

“Like the painter Edward Hopper, John Engman illuminates alienated urban office spaces and apartment buildings with piercing compassion and intelligence. Like James Wright and Alden Nowlan, he is one of those lonely poets we read in order to feel less alone.”

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In episode #5220 of Jeopardy — which aired Friday, April 27, 2007 — the painting was featured as the $800 clue under the category “The New York Times Arts.” The clue was:

“The Times noted that ‘Office at Night,’ seen here, was one of many works by this artist on display at the Whitney.”

I know you all would have gotten that one right.

Have you seen Office at Night in a book, movie, calendar, or somewhere else in the world? Let us know in the comments, tweet us, or post a photo on Facebook of where you’ve seen it!

Living with Pottery: Warren MacKenzie at 90

As the inevitable retrospective pieces on Warren MacKenzie are published as he turns 90 today, February 16, it’s important to remember that he thinks it’s foolish to consider his functional pottery works of art. At least, that’s what his artist statement declares, although he adds this caveat: “… but I do hope that they communicate […]

Warren and Alix - Everyday Art Quarterly, No. 27 (1953)

Warren and Alix MacKenzie. Photo: Everyday Art Quarterly, No. 27, 1953

As the inevitable retrospective pieces on Warren MacKenzie are published as he turns 90 today, February 16, it’s important to remember that he thinks it’s foolish to consider his functional pottery works of art. At least, that’s what his artist statement declares, although he adds this caveat: “… but I do hope that they communicate something of what I feel regarding personal expression in pottery.”

In Design Quarterly, released in conjunction with MacKenzie’s 1961 show at the Walker, editor Meg Torbert wrote that his work is “completely dedicated to art, yet … pursued for the express purpose of sales.” Looking back on a career approaching 70 years, how do we comprehend the seemingly opposing views MacKenzie and Torbert are presenting? It’s best that we eschew the classification of art or non-art and view MacKenzie’s pottery in terms of individual experience.

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Installation shot of Pottery by Alix and Warren MacKenzie, 1961

Putting his career in the simplest of terms, MacKenzie just loves to make pots. His fascination with this form of independent creation began at the Art Institute of Chicago and continued in St. Ives, England. He and Alix MacKenzie, his first wife, spent two years there learning from renowned potter Bernard Leach. This defining experience and his subsequent partnership with Alix led to his artistic process of throwing between 50 and 200 pots a day. This was a normal output for him when his work was first shown at the Walker in the 1954 show MacKenzie Ceramics.

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Installation shot of Pottery by Alix and Warren MacKenzie, 1961

MacKenzie’s work has been shown here four times, and always through MacKenzie Pottery, the name he and Alix adopted after they converted a barn into a studio in Stillwater, Minnesota. Their last and most comprehensive Walker show, Pottery by Warren and Alix MacKenzie, was on display 52 years ago.

“I think it was a good exhibition for our work at that time,” MacKenzie told Robert Silberman of the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art in 2002. “It wasn’t a great exhibition if I look back on it now. At that time it was the best we could do, I’d say.”

But coming from a potter known for saying “The first 10,000 pots are difficult and then it gets a little bit easier,” this shouldn’t necessarily be seen as a criticism of the show. It is a nod to the progression of a traditional potter — one who makes accessible objects for everyday use — where the artist learns more about the making of pots with every piece. There is no threshold at 10,000 or 100,000 pots — an output that MacKenzie has undoubtedly exceeded — where the art is perfected and nothing more can be learned or experienced. Mackenzie Ceramics marked a point on the development of MacKenzie as a potter, as did Pottery by Warren and Alix MacKenzie, as do each of the days he continues to sit at his Leach wheel and throw clay.

MacKenzie pots Design Quarterly, No. 54 (1962)

Fig. 4 (left) and fig. 5 (right) as printed in Design Quarterly, No. 54, 1962, accompanied by Warren and Alix MacKenzie’s commentary: “On the shoulder of each of these pots, extra feldspar and wood ash were powdered over the wet clay. On pot No. 4 the glaze produced is almost pure feldspar, giving a milky, heavily cracked surface. The wood ash on No. 5 reacted in two ways, by melting into the glaze and, in some places, by resisting the fire and popping out as a dry surface. The watery, irregular quality of the glaze itself in contrast to the dry areas is related to natural relationships which most of us see every day such as rocks and water, or branch and leaf.”

Each of the four times work from MacKenzie Pottery was exhibited at the Walker, the pieces were equally meant to be sold as admired, but the idea of the sale has been a contentious aspect of his career. As Torbert noted, MacKenzie’s aim has always been to give the general public access to his work. Unfortunately, as his name recognition grew — and the value of his pottery with it — it became impossible for him to distribute his work as he desired. For instance, the honor system he set up in a Stillwater showroom was taken advantage of by people who bought more than was allowed and then resold items online for profit. The problem with his work fetching high prices on secondary markets, besides the money going to someone other than MacKenzie, is that the objects become more precious and less likely to be used in day-to-day life.

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Warren and Alix MacKenzie in their Stillwater studio. Printed in the September 10, 1961, issue of the Minneapolis Sunday Tribune. Photo: Wayne Bell

MacKenzie challenged the idea that sophisticated art cannot be an everyday object. Looking at a pot he has made, with its irregularity of form and uneven glaze, you may think it looks like any old pot; but looking does not lead to understanding. To drink from, to eat out of, to wash a Warren MacKenzie pot is to understand it.

In conjunction with the 1961 show at the Walker, MacKenzie wrote an essay titled Some potter thoughts by Warren MacKenzie, in which he offered a simple instruction on getting to the essence of their pottery: “In the final analysis it is our work that should communicate what we have to say about pottery, and if these words are more confusing than helpful, I can only ask that you examine and live with the pots to see what they can say to you.”

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Warren and Alix in their Stillwater studio. Photo: Wayne Bell

In celebration of Warren MacKenzie’s birthday, and his life’s work, Walker Executive Director Olga Viso extends her wishes. “We are happy to join in the chorus of celebratory reflections about Warren as he turns 90. He is one of Minnesota’s most inspiring and beloved makers whose work has had a deep impact far beyond Minnesota. Happy birthday, Warren, from all of us at the Walker Art Center!”

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The Road to Opening Day: Jim Hodges: Give More Than You Take

When you walk into any gallery at the Walker, you’re instantly offered entry points into an artist’s work — a Nástio Mosquito video installation or Dan Madsen and Forrest Wozniak’s hand-painted map of Tangier. This immersive experience is essential, but what is frequently not considered is the road that led to it. The day before […]

Senior Registration Technician David Bartley preparing to install Jim Hodges' Changing Things, 1997

Senior Registration Technician David Bartley preparing to install Jim Hodges’ Changing Things, 1997. Photo: Gene Pittman

When you walk into any gallery at the Walker, you’re instantly offered entry points into an artist’s work — a Nástio Mosquito video installation or Dan Madsen and Forrest Wozniak’s hand-painted map of Tangier. This immersive experience is essential, but what is frequently not considered is the road that led to it. The day before the opening of Jim Hodges: Give More Than You Take I spoke with one of the people who has spent the last four weeks installing everything from a 342-piece silk flower arrangement to a secondhand denim sky.

Senior Registration Technician David Bartley has been at the Walker installing every kind of art imaginable for the past 21 years. We walked around the galleries discussing how he assembled specific pieces in this exhibition and what it was like working with Hodges. Then he got back to the growing list of last-minute changes. Here, he recounts what it took to install some of the exhibition’s major works.

A Far Away Corner, 1997. Photo: Alex Lauer

A Far Away Corner, 1997. Photo: Paul Schmelzer

“First of all, we start by bringing the crates up and placing them in the galleries they’re going to be in. This particular gallery is very open as there are only these two works in here: A Far Away Corner and the massive denim Untitled (one day it all comes true). Untitled was the priority to hang on the wall so Jim could get an idea in terms of height and placement. At first it was hung too high so we had to lower it, which — as you can see — is quite a process.

“Dallas made a template of A Far Away Corner that fits on the wall. It took a long time to determine the height of it in relation to Untitled. Jim and Olga [Viso, exhibition co-curator and Walker director] were thinking of having it low, then thinking about having it really high, not too in the middle of the wall.

“Each web is pinned, each one is numbered, and each point where the web hits the wall is numbered — I had a set of elaborate instructions to read through. There are 13 webs that have to be hung in numerical order, but they don’t necessarily go from top to bottom because they overlap and intertwine.

“First I had to trim the pins down because they’re too long, and Jim likes them really, really tight to the wall so the webs don’t look like they’re hanging from pins. Then you, very gently with a fine hammer, hammer them to the wall. The webs are made of a really fine chain, like a necklace. They’re very fragile but surprisingly heavy. If you wore them like a necklace you would feel them. They have weight.”

Jim Hodges, Untitled (one day it all comes true), 2013. Photo courtesy Dallas Museum of Art

Jim Hodges, Untitled (one day it all comes true), 2013. Photo courtesy Dallas Museum of Art

“With the denim piece, there are 52 screws that hold it up. Since we had to lower it, and it took eight to ten people to move it, we now have to patch over the old holes before the show opens. It’s a long, involved process, whereas [A Far Away Corner] was just a one-person job, but it took me all day. Because of the nature of the artwork, if two people were working on it they would just get in each other’s way.”

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Jim Hodges, the dark gate, 2008. Photo: Alex Lauer

Jim’s work is interesting because it goes all the way from a very small piece that takes five minutes to install, if even, to something like the dark gate where the installation was part of the building’s architecture. When they were building and constructing walls for this exhibition, that’s when they were constructing the room it’s now in. The whole process of installing that artwork — tearing down old walls, building new walls, painting the insides and the ceiling black, putting in a black plastic floor, installing the art from three huge crates — took almost four weeks.

“For each show, generally, they’ll start with a teardown, because they already have the architecture predetermined for each show. If certain walls can remain they’ll keep them, but otherwise they completely get rid of the walls, open the gallery up, and then build all new walls.

“From my understanding, there are a lot of differences [between the layout here and the one in Dallas]. The room for the dark gate in Dallas was much smaller. Here it will be a totally different experience.”

Changing Things, 1997. Photo: Alex Lauer

Jim Hodges, Changing Things, 1997. Photo: Alex Lauer

“For this piece, I did the whole thing by myself. There are 342 individual flowers. As you can see, some are bigger than others, some are tiny little things. Jim outlined the flowers on the template, which helped identify the exact position for each, but it still took me half a day to place. This was one of the first works he wanted up in this gallery because it was going to determine a lot of the other works in the space — what’s in and what’s not.”

The wall sculpture Changing Things arrives in a box with each silk element pinned and labeled. Photo: Gene Pittman

The wall sculpture Changing Things arrives in a box with each silk element pinned and labeled. Photo: Gene Pittman

“Jim tends to not like things on-center, as you can see in the galleries. With this one being off-center, Jim and Olga would sit on the steps a lot and say, ‘Move it over. Move it here. Move it there.’ Once it was up it was similar to the spiderweb piece: you go through with a tack and put in all of the holes, but because the physical template is up against the wall you can’t put the flowers on. In Dallas they came up with this weird system of being underneath the template and someone handing you the flowers — it didn’t make much sense to me. So I put the template [on a wall to the side] and did it myself. Each flower or petal is numbered in the box with a pin so it makes it easy to look at the #1 hole and match it with the #1 flower. With a very fine pair of pliers you take each of the 342 pieces out of the box one-by-one and force them into the holes. At that point, Jim would just come by and joke with me.”

Jim Hodges, He and I (detail), 1998

Jim Hodges, He and I (detail), 1998. Photo: Paul Schmelzer

“Jim is a multitasker. For the wall drawing in the next gallery, he taught John Vogt how to do it and let him at it. But one morning Jim came in and felt like drawing, so he just took over immediately and started drawing on the wall. When he was done with that, John got back on and kept drawing again. That one piece took over a week to do, believe it or not.”

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Latin Rose, 1989. Photo: Alex Lauer

“For this in here, we worked closely together because this is very particular for Jim. We had to build an entirely new structure so we could adjust it—it was on tripods with wheels so we could move it in and out of the space and turn it until he decided where he wanted it. There are certain points where it hangs from and it is literally hanging from tape. The whole thing is made of tape. I’ve never hung an artwork from tape before, but it is Jim’s system, it’s how he’s done it, so we figured it out.

“It took us half a day, for sure, to get this hung up and in exactly the right place. So Jim focused on this, and once this was done, boom, off he went to do something else.”

Hodges discussing his work with members of the Walker Art Center Teen Arts Council (WACTAC). Photo: Gene Pittman

Hodges discussing his work with members of the Walker Art Center Teen Arts Council (WACTAC). Photo: Gene Pittman

“In my experience working at the Walker, it’s always much different when you have the artist here for a full two weeks [before the exhibition opens]. You begin to develop a sense of not only who they are but where the artwork is coming from. You get a better understanding of their language. This is opposed to an artist who is no longer living or who just shows up for the opening and makes changes the day before the opening. [Laughs]

“A lot of the time I’m not really that familiar with the body of work of some of these artists, so when they’re here you get a much better understanding. The same could be said working with Thomas Hirschhorn. You understand why he is using tape. He’s got all this energy — he shows up, wraps his tape around himself to keep his pants up, then just dives into the work and starts ripping tape, which is why his work has that haphazard look. But you’d never know that about his process from simply looking. You get that extra little understanding by watching artists handle their work.”

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