John Opper described the 1930s as a "great gestation period" for his art. "I thought the Thirties was a very vital time for American art. . . . With the WPA, you got together whether it was the [Artists'] Union or the [American Artists'] Congress or whether it was a bar. . . and you talked about art, and you heard about important artists, and you began to live art." But Opper also remembered the thirties as a period of breakdown in the vitality of American art; "we became aware that a great deal was missing."
Academically trained like many of his contemporaries, Opper came to New York in 1934, two years after his graduation from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. As a youth, he had taken Saturday art classes at the Cleveland Museum of Art and later studied at the Cleveland School of Art and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. When he arrived in New York he was a well-trained painter, adept at rendering still lifes and particularly landscapes depicting the American scene. A reviewer of his 1937 exhibition at the Artists' Gallery in New York, for example, wrote about Opper's "colloquial flavor … spontaneity and an imaginative use of color which conveys just the feeling" that the subjects—East River tugboats, old garages, and scenes around Manhattan— suggested.
By 1937 Opper had become familiar with modernism, though he was not yet converted to the cause. Indeed, his 1937 show was made up of the still popular regionalist paintings. Earlier, in 1935 and 1936, he studied with Hans Hofmann and began to think in terms of forces and tensions within the picture plane. He met Wilfrid Zogbaum, Giorgio Cavallon, Byron Browne, Rosalind Bengelsdorf, and George McNeil, with whom he shared a studio. He paid frequent visits to Gallatin's Gallery of Living Art. He joined the WPA easel project in 1936 and began to paint in "a kind of transformed cubist style."
When war came, Opper worked for three years with a marine architectural firm making drawings for the pipe systems of PT boats. After the war, he taught at the University of Wyoming and the University of Alabama, and between 1952 and 1957, he was on the faculty at the University of North Carolina. In 1957, he began teaching at New York University, where he remained until his retirement in 1974.
source: Virginia M. Mecklenburg The Patricia and Phillip Frost Collection: American Abstraction 1930–1945 (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press for the National Museum of American Art, 1989)