A&E: Out of the Hopper: Drawings reveal artist’s process

When so much attention is focused on wo u l d – b e b l o c k bu s t e r exhibitions, it’s easy to forget that the Indianapolis Museum of Art mixes things up regularly with smaller shows. At their best, these offer more succinct pleasures-and they don’t require much of a time commitment.

Truth is, if you spend more than a half-hour at one, you’re probably just being pretentious.

Two new shows-lost a bit in the shadow of the “To Live Forever” Egyptian exhibition-typify what the IMA can do in a small space.

“Edward Hopper: Paper to Paint” takes two works from the permanent collection and gives each a context. The most interesting of the pair is 1943’s “Hotel Lobby.” Painted just a year after his career-defining “Nighthawks,” “Hotel Lobby” is present with a series of Hopper’s preliminary sketches, making clear that, for the artist, the work is a process, not the result of some sudden spark of inspiration.

Hopper clearly was working through not just composition, but also content. The elderly man and the hatted woman seem to be talking in one of the sketches while, in the finished version, their lips are sealed. A stairway is replaced by the hint of an empty dining room. Both changes, and others more subtle, heighten the sense of isolation, accentuating what we now think of as the Hopper style.

I’m usually a believer that the finished product is what matters in art, but sometimes getting a peek behind the canvas helps me appreciate even more a work I already admire. When it goes back, on its own, into the American galleries, “Hotel Lobby” will be an even richer painting for me, thanks to this show.

Also on the first gallery floor, you’ll find the awkwardly titled “More Than Four Legs: A Closer Look at Chairs.” The show would feel more complete and focused if it involved itself solely with designers Charles and Ray Eames. With so little space, and with Eames-related work dominating, the title doesn’t match the show. Still, just about every object is of interest, including the most recent work, a 2008 Eames Stacking Chair sculpture by Carla Hartman.

My only other problem with the show: I now feel a little guilty sitting down.

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