If any one painting stands for mid-twentieth-century America, Nighthawks does. In fact, Edward Hopper’s 1942 canvas of four figures in a late-night New York City diner may qualify as the most vivid evocation of that country and time in any form. For Evan Puschak, better known as the video essayist Nerdwriter, the experience of Nighthawks goes well beyond the visual realm. “I’ve always thought of him in a sort of aromatic way,” says Puschak of the artist, “because his paintings evoke the same kinds of feelings and memories that I get from the sense of smell, as if he was channeling directly into my limbic system, excavating moments that were stored deeply away.”
But Puschak wouldn’t have experienced the early 1940s first-hand, much less the turn-of-the-century period in which Hopper grew up. Nor would have most of the people captivated by Nighthawks today, much less those countless appreciators as yet unborn. How does Hopper, in his most famous painting and many others, at once capture a time and a place while also resonating on a deeper, more universally human level?