Keeping it Mobile at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts

If I am to believe my genealogy, I am a sixth generation Virginian; yet none of us have ever lived in the state’s capital. Still, Richmond figures as a major touchstone in my half-a-century on the planet. My friends and I often did the hour’s drive from The College of William and Mary to dance in the clubs at Shockoe Bottom. I met my husband in the Texas Wisconsin Border Café - a restaurant in the Fan neighborhood surrounding VCU. Years after that night, in 2011, we brought our tween daughters to see a visiting exhibit at a museum, which for all my trips down Interstate 64, I had never seen. That’s when I fell in love with the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

According to its website, the museum opened in 1936 and with help from the WPA and private funds, was intended to be the flagship showcase for fine art in the state. Over the next eight decades, with donations from wealthy families and public funds, the space acquired a noteworthy collection of paintings, sculptures, and other treasures ranging from jewelled objects by Peter Carl Faberge to world famous Himalayan and Indian paintings; from French Impressionism to Art Nouveau.

Ironically, because the traveling exhibits in this place demand one’s full attention, we now need to plan a third visit to explore the permanent collection in more depth. We came in 2011 to visit a stunning collection of work by Picasso. Now, almost a decade later, we returned to my college playground with college friends to visit the work of another favorite, Edward Hopper.

Edward Hopper and the American Hotel, which runs through February 23rd, is a collection of work by American artists that chronicles this country’s rise in personal mobility. Hopper, with his wife Jo, traveled the country extensively, often finding himself in the American southwest and Mexico. The exhibit contains diaries, postcards, studies, an interactive map of their travels, and a most creative concept piece - an actual room behind glass inspired by the setting of Hopper’s Western Hotel. This was billed as a functional hotel room, with visitors able to buy a “special overnight package” costing anywhere from $150 to $500 dollars allowing them to stay in the museum.

The author’s husband snaps a picture of a concept piece based on Western Motel

I have loved Hopper for a long time, appreciating the narrative the viewer creates themselves from viewing his work. But the narrative of this exhibit as a whole (like my memory of the Picasso exhibit in 2011) is what intrigued me the most.

As I said before, my husband and I made the road trip to Richmond with college friends, Joe and Saira. Joe has a print of Edward Hopper’s Room in New York on his living room wall. I have used it in classroom activities that focus on the isolation and quiet conflict between characters found in certain works of literature. But, in this context, with the addition of postcards from the Hoppers’ travels, work by other artists related to this theme of respite and haven, I saw the couple across from each other in a different light. I saw the couple taking a moment alone in a common area. Perhaps dressed for dinner later but enjoying a moment of quiet recreation. The genius of this exhibition is just that. Its context. I have always enjoyed charcoal and pencil studies of famous works in progress, but they were all the more compelling seen through Hopper’s (and the exhibit’s by design) Neo Historical lens. Who could travel in the middle of the 20th Century? How did they dress for the occasion? Who read for leisure more - men or women? Did the gender of the individual with the paper in the lobby need to be changed?

I have always maintained that Hopper is so much more complicated than he appears at first encounter. I remember the first exhibit of his I ever saw exhibited alongside a photography show, “The History of the American Polaroid.” It was the perfect pairing. I had never noticed the smaller details - the single doily on the table, the open filing cabinet drawer, the jacket on the hotel room chair, or the stapler on the desk. The clarity of Hoppers lines and perspective - the sharp definition of light and shadow - only makes his work appear more snapshot like. It brings attention to the details of the American’s everyday world.

A visitor descends the stairwell in the main atrium of the museum

I could say the same for the museum itself. The original English renaissance-style headquarter’s building was designed by Peebles and Ferguson architects of New York. Originally opened on January 16, 1936 with major renovations in 1954, 1970, 1999, and 2010. As we entered the atrium to purchase our tickets, I was drawn into glass, steel, sunlight and shadows that complemented the artist we were about to see. I snapped a picture of a woman descending an angular staircase, completely exposed. A giant banner advertising the exhibit cascaded from the top. Primary colors adorn the atrium, with red circular chairs surrounding a cracked bronze globe. We descended into the lower level for the Hopper exhibit, but we could see, one level up from the atrium, through glass windows and a neon piece blinking the word “JAZZ”, the naked maples and oaks of Virginia in February. These magnificent trees date back to the Civil War and still adorn Arthur Ashe Boulevard.

As I said, the exhibit is about American mobility, or the occasional lack thereof. And Hopper was not the only artist featured. The exhibit contains 65 paintings and works on paper by Hopper himself along with 35 other artists, including John Singer Sargent, David Hockney, and Berenice Abbott, to name a few. There were sculptures inspired by Hopper’s work, and also art that showed American travel from an even different perspective.

Blue Girl on Black Bed: A sculpture inspired by Hopper’s work by George Segal
Beacon 3 by Derrick Adams (2018)

Probably the most striking to me was Beacon 3 by Derrick Adams (2018). This sculpture, a house seemingly made from blank milk cartons with lights shining from the inside - illuminating the block it stood on in sepia tone - is inspired by the Negro Motorist Green Book, published from 1936-1967. These editions alerted African-American travellers to safe places to stay in their travels across the country. Hopper and his contemporaries produced art in transition, during a time of transition - often painful but necessary for viability and growth.

It occurred to me, as we walked down Arthur Ashe boulevard on this warm afternoon in February, that I am in transition as well - sometimes painful, but necessary for viability and growth. Almost 30 years after I fell in love in Richmond, my husband and I strolled down that same road with old friends. Remembering to keep moving, always.

Learn more about the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts on its website:

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Sally Toner

Sally Toner is a High School English teacher who has lived in the Washington, D.C. area for over 20 years. Her poetry, fiction, and non-fiction have appeared in Gargoyle Magazine, The Delmarva Review, Watershed Review, and other publications. She lives in Reston, Virginia with her husband and two daughters. Her first chapbook, Anansi and Friends, from Finishing Line Press, is a mixed genre work focusing on diagnosis, treatment, and recovery from breast cancer.