Some time ago I was reminded of a painting I have only ever seen in reproduction – “Room In New York”. The original painting lives in a room somewhere in Nebraska. The artist, Edward Hopper, died the year I was born. I was reminded of it because it came my way on a card from a friend who wanted me to know that she appreciated me having thought about her during a time when she experienced a very great loss. That to me added another layer of meaning to the image.
Because it is Valentine's day and I am sick in my room with the all too common cold I thought I might take the time to examine my fascination with this image, and in particular what it may have to tell us about love. The painting is clearly a 20th Century American narrative, and the couple are obviously cultured what with reading, music, art, fashion and architecture all portrayed simultaneously in the one scene. They are middle class – well groomed even at leisure – a hallmark of those who are aware that the visual impression they make on others could make or break an opportunity for social advancement. After whatever hard work these two endure to maintain and improve their social position, they are now in a semi-relaxed state to do as they please, at home, at night. She is as severely feminized, by proportion and posture, as he is masculinized; one hopes their strictly prescribed gender roles won't get in the way of their relationship. He's reading the paper, perhaps he's reading the Times. 1932 was the depth of the depression so it is unlikely he's reading poetry. She's not playing the piano – she's about to toy with it - and by extension with him. Her red dress is not sufficient to grab the attention of her man, so perhaps an interrupting note might make him notice her existence. This approach may work or it may backfire. The romantic in us wants to see the two of them embrace and enjoy each other on this New York summer night, window wide open, overhead light, so that we would be the voyeurs in the next building smiling for their happiness. But this never happens because it is a painting and they are stuck in their single American moment forever and without conclusion.
I would love such a New York apartment and would look dashing in such a suit myself. Either or them could be any number of us because they are not individuated and although clearly white, their predicament is not peculiar to any race. The material concerns and outward appearances are just a backdrop to their relationship during those unstable times. The times haven't stopped changing and remain just as unstable. Unlike this painted couple we are alive and can change what we're doing and how we think. This dynamism of ever changing conditions, predicaments and self-perception is frightening but each of us must embrace it all in order to function. I think this painting is telling us to look up from our paper, computer, whatever, and take a moment to appreciate the space between us, within our rooms, between our houses, between Honest Ed's and Kensington Market, between New York and Nebraska, Toronto and Berlin, London and Sydney, Nova Scotia and Texas, Glenburnie and Honolulu, Saltspring Island and Baghdad, Shropshire and Bejing and so on and so forth with all the criss-crossing strings of love that somehow manage to hold this fabric together for now and I hope forever. I get the feeling that exactly how this American man looks up after this American woman hits that note on the piano could very well decide our destiny.
The best would be if he were to put down his paper to turn his attention to her, just as she decides to leave him in peace, not touch the piano and turn herself to meet his gaze. They might recognize themselves in each other and delight in that rediscovery. Such an ideal outcome takes more than heart felt courage and good-will, it takes imagination. It takes the kind of consideration of possibilities as inspired by personal experience, a romantic painting or perhaps even an email Valentine's greeting like this.