THE INDEPENDENT VOICE OF THE VISUAL ARTS
By Tom Mullaney
It was major art world news when noted contemporary art curator and museum director, Walter Hopps, died in March, 2005. His passing was featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times and Art in America. The Post obituary termed him “a sort of gonzo museum director…outlandish in his range, jagged in his vision, heedless of rules.”
He was that but also intuitive about art, friend to artists, innovative, and iconoclastic. And perpetually late for meetings. The Corcoran Gallery of Art staff, during the brief period Hopps was director, created the button “Walter Hopps will be here in 20 minutes.” Joshua Taylor, whom Hopps worked with at the Smithsonian Museum of American Art, famously said, “I’d fire him if I could find him.”
We owe a great debt of gratitude to Deborah Treisman and Anne Doran for resurrecting Hopps, his picaresque life and many contributions to contemporary art. At the time of his death, he had been the founding director of Houston’s Menil Collection along with being its curator and trustee over the prior 25 years.
Hopps was a unique figure who led a charmed life filled with his share of difficulties, mentioned only in passing in the book. Three wives and numerous women were woven throughout his life (beginning with the three girlfriends he had at one time in the 10th grade). He battled an addiction to amphetamines for many years and suffered a brain aneurysm in 1994 but made an amazing recovery and returned to work.
Hopps held a series of museum appointments (Pasadena Art Museum, Corcoran Gallery, the Smithsonian Museum of American Art) but preferred being a curator, mounting shows and being close to the art and artists he considered the “Dream Colony” relative to corporate America’s “Plantation Colony.”
His deep immersion in art began as a teenager at age 15 when he visited the Los Angeles home of Walter and Louise Arensberg, the famed collectors of Dadaist and Surrealist art. He was so taken by what he saw that he repeatedly skipped class to spend days at the house exploring their collection.
Also at age 15, Hopps began visiting the Copley Gallery where he saw exhibitions of Rene Magritte, Yves Tanguy, Joseph Cornell, Matta, Man Ray and Max Ernst. He developed a lifelong attachment to the art of Marcel Duchamp and Cornell with whom he formed a close friendship.
Hopps’ first exhibition in 1955 shows the ingenuity he displayed throughout his career. He rented the merry-go-round at the Santa Monica Pier, stretched tarp around the poles and hung nearly 100 paintings by 40 artists, including Sonia Gechtoff, Richard Diebenkorn, Clyfford Still and Jay DeFeo. None of the works were above $300 but nothing sold. Yet the show is considered a seminal moment in gaining recognition for a new generation of West Coast artists.
He founded the Ferus Gallery at age 24 in partnership with artist Ed Kienholz. Ferus was the first gallery to show Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans. His museum career begins in 1962 when he takes the curator/registrar position at the Pasadena Art Museum and becomes its director a year later.
With the Pasadena appointment, Hopps became the youngest museum director in America at age 31. During his five years there, he curated the first museum exhibition of Pop Art with work by Jim Dine, Joe Goode, Roy Lichtenstein, Ed Ruscha, Wayne Thiebaud and Andy Warhol. He presented the first retrospective of Marcel Duchamp’s work, as well as Joseph Cornell’s, and gave Frank Stella his first museum show.
When he became director of Washington’s Corcoran Gallery of Art in 1967, the New York Times dubbed him “the most gifted museum man on the West Coast (and, in the field of contemporary art, possibly in the nation).” He mounted a “Hairy Who” show in 1969.
He continued throughout his museum career to mount landmark exhibitions of Duchamp, Cornell, Robert Rauschenberg and other avant-garde figures. He was famous for curating “outside the box.” In Washington in 1978, he curated a show, “Thirty-Six Hours,” where he hung all the work well-known artists and total unknowns brought to the gallery over a day-and-a-half period.
We might not have this memoir without Deborah Treisman and Anne Doran’s long labor of love. Hopps refused to write his autobiography so artist Doran spent over 100 hours capturing his storied recollections on tape. They supplemented their draft with material supplied by his widow. Treisman, the fiction editor at The New Yorker, crafted the manuscript and masterfully captured Hopps’ voice and spirit.
The book is chock full of his encounters with artists throughout his life. He had a special ability to “hit it off” (his term) with artists and collectors alike. He willingly surrendered the role of being a director to escape the chains of administrative chores so he could roam free amongst the art. Treisman and Doran end the book on a high note with Hopps’ strong, deeply personal remembrances of Robert Rauschenberg and Dominique de Menil.
The book contains a highly useful Chronology at the back. I would urge readers to consult that reading aid as you go along since it contains useful details that are not mentioned in Hopps’ recollections.
I read the book with a mixture of admiration and wonder at Hopps’ vision and accomplishments. I closed it feeling I’d gotten to know an unforgettable character and museum man so unlike the more button-down figures of today. This incomplete account, which skimps on his time in Houston, should still be required reading for a new generation of students and curators who missed the chance to know and learn from this remarkable figure.
“The Dream Colony: A Life in Art”
Deborah Treisman and Anne Doran
Tom Mullaney is Senior Editor of the New Art Examiner. He wishes he had gotten to know Walter Hopps when heand Hopps both lived in Washington in the early 1970s.
Robert Alexander, John Reed, Wallace Berman, Juanita Dixon, and Walter Hopps in the alley next to Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles, ca. 1957. The Getty Research Institute, Charles Brittin papers, 2005.M.11.9. © J. Paul Getty Trust.
Photo by Charles Brittin
Walter Hopps by John Gossage.