Recommendation by DeWitt Cheng
Continuing through August 31, 2017
Some years ago I became aware of the art curator extraordinaire Walter Hopps. He was the subject of Ed Kienholz's affectionate assemblage portrait of 1960 (now in the Lannan Collection, Los Angeles), "Walter Hopps Hopps Hopps" which captures his dual aspects: the mild-mannered, bespectacled scholar, Clark Kent, and the indefatigable (if often drug-enhanced) Art Superman. Then there is the art pusher, opening his overcoat to display avant garde wares such as deKooning postcards. Hopps was in fact not much of a salesman, more an enthusiast and champion. By his own estimation, he was a guy who found a painting in a cave and held up the illuminating torch.
Hopps' role in developing the Los Angeles art world of the 1960s as gallerist, curator and tireless proselytizer is well detailed in Morgan Neville's excellent documentary "The Cool School" (2008), narrated by Dennis Hopper. In 2015, Robert Berman E-6 Gallery in San Francisco replicated the famous 1963 Marcel Duchamp Pasadena Museum of Art show that had been curated by the then thirty-one-year-old Hopps, a show that would have massive repercussions in the art world. One of the photos by Julilan Wasser depicts the curator and artist playing chess; it's not as memorable as the shot of Duchamp playing chess with a nude Eve Babitz, but reflective of Hopps' rapport with and unwavering support for interesting artists.
When Hopps died, in 2005 of pneumonia at age seventy-two (while in L.A. to see a George Herms retrospective), it was as if an era had passed. Paul Richard of The Washington Post ("Walter Hopps, Museum Man With a Talent For Talent") wrote: "Most museum men are smooth. Walter Hopps wasn't. He was sort of a gonzo museum director — elusive, unpredictable, outlandish in his range, jagged in his vision, heedless of rules. That's if you could find him, which wasn't always easy. But Hopps, who died Sunday in Los Angeles at the age of 72, had a peculiar gift. He found artists, wonderful artists, and he found them first."
The roster of artists that Hopps showed in a hundred exhibitions over forty years at galleries (notably his Syndell Studio, and his and Kienholz's Ferus, both in L.A.), museums (Pasadena Museum of Art, Corcoran Gallery, Smithsonian National Collection of Fine Art, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, The Menil Collection) and in other venues (São Paulo Biennial, Venice Biennale) is astonishing. To name just a few: John Altoon, Larry Bell, Billy Al Bengston, Wallace Berman, Llyn Foulkes, Robert Irwin, Ken Price, Ed Ruscha, Richard Diebenkorn, Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still, Frank Lobdell, Roy DeForest, Jay De Feo, Bruce Conner, George Herms, Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray, Joseph Cornell, Robert Rauschenberg, Ellsworth Kelly, Yves Klein, Wayne Thiebaud, Andy Warhol, James Rosenquist, Max Ernst and Robert Crumb. I could go on.
If Spinoza was a "Gott betrunkener Mensch," a man drunk with God, Hopps was, Hopps was, after his epiphany following a high school encounter with the modern art collection of Walter and Louise Arensberg, the pluperfect "Kunst betrunkener Mensch." Substitute art for God. Paul Richard again: "Hours, sometimes days, would pass before one heard his low, rich voice, often on the telephone in the middle of the night. It was always worth the wait. He was the best art talker I have ever heard. His speech was like a Jackson Pollock drip painting, swooping, swelling, doubling back. He mesmerized. He taught." Yet little of that mesmerizing talk survived — until now. A few years before his death, Hopps taped a hundred hours of interviews with artist, critic and editor Anne Doran; those interviews have been edited by The New Yorker Fiction Editor Deborah Treisman, who had known Hopps for years, into "The Dream Colony: A Life in Art," just published.
I attended a reading in late June at City Lights Books, in San Francisco, with its bohemian, free-speech history, a singularly appropriate venue for such an iconoclast. (Digression: Hopps had seen the paintings by City Liights' founder, the poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, in the 9 Mission Street warehouse during the late 1940s, as a teenage cultural tourist.) While organizing that quantity of recording must have been a herculean task, Treisman notes that Hopps, who seems to have never forgotten anything, was an accomplished and practiced storyteller and lecturer. Some of his anecdotes had been clearly polished by repetition into memorable prose. Whatever the degree of editorial reshaping, the book reads smoothly and conversationally, detailing the adventures and passions of a remarkable eye and intellect driven by passion and imbued with so little of the bureaucratic spirit — the San Francisco art critic Mark Van Proyen calls it art administrativism — prevalent today that Corcoran Gallery colleagues made gentle fun of his perpetual tardiness with a pin reading, "Walter Hopps will be here in 20 minutes." Hopps' story makes for welcome reading in our current floundering art scene, with its aesthetic claims and counter-claims, and, always at our back, the wingèd chariots of money, power, glamor and fashion.
Ed Ruscha, in his introduction to the volume: "There was such vitality to the things he said. He had the ability to rhapsodize ... He didn't just talk about famous artists and preach their success, He talked about artists who were obscure, oddballs who were out in the sticks, not necessarily accepted by the mainstream of the art world ... the dust bunnies. He was very catholic in his tastes, and he had real respect for every bit of it." Hopps' memoir would make a fine one-person stage show (with slides), or perhaps the serious, passionate, funny movie about art and artists that we've all been waiting for. But the book, almost universally praised, will probably have been better.
RICHARD MISRACH: The Writing On The Wall
‘The writing on the wall’ refers to the story in the Book of Daniel of the end of the reign of the Babylonian king Belshazzar (son of Nebuchadnezzar, conqueror and enslaver of the Israelites during the Babylonian Captivity) in 539BC. Belshazzar is interrupted at his impious feast by a terrifying disembodied hand writing fiery letters on the palace wall. Mene mene tekel upharsin is decrypted by the Jewish sage Daniel as a warning that Belshazzar’s reign has been divinely weighed and found wanting, and is thus forfeit, and prophecy is verified that very night when the kingdom is overthrown by the Medes. The story is the subject of religious, moralizing paintings by Rembrandt (1635), Washington Allston (1817) and John Martin (1821).
Richard Misrach, who has been documenting the environmental damage of America’s capitalist culture for decades—“these cultural manifestations in the natural landscape, ... the collision between nature and civilization”—may not be assuming the role of prophetic doomsayer per se, but the signs of incipient collapse are there for anyone to see and decipher: the government environmental-damage report asserting that climate change is real, leaked on Wednesday in order to evade death by redaction; and, of course the ongoing comic tragedy and tragic comedy in Washington. Misrach began working on this series of ruined houses in the American Southwest bedecked with anonymous graffiti during election year, and found in the swastikas and racist comments (as well as some rejoinder a compelling record of “the dystopian side of the American dream” now familiar to everyone: desperation, despair and vicious scapegoating. Misrach: “These are the hieroglyphics of our time.”
Five large photos depict abandoned houses seemingly invaded by malefic spirits. Swastika, Barstow, California presents three layers, or registers: the dry gray-brown dirt; the blue sky dotted with clouds; and, separating them, a beige wall of a building, with a sky-blue door decorated with a swastika. A similar tripartite composition structures “Trump Loves American People,” North of Reno, Nevada, with a crudely lettered. misspelled sign the only evidence of human presence. Shotgun practice, "he will return," Nevada shows a trio of cinder-clock walls crowned by rebar stems, with a crucified Jesus serving as target, all but obliterated by bullet craters, only his limbs still recognizable.
Also included are smaller-format graffiti shots taken with an iPhone, and grouped in clusters, from the Obama years: ‘premonitions’ (to use Misrach’s term) of the current culture war; and Tagged Boulders, Lucerne Valley, California, a thirty-two piece grid of medium-sized photos of rocks upon which messages have been written: $, thug life, We color the world! —DeWitt Cheng