Advertisement

Disappearing Acts

A new book on the legendary curator Walter Hopps 

Walter Hopps was elusive. As a curator, gallerist, museum director and sometime music impresario, the various stories that fuel his myth involve his being elsewhere. Staff at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., where he was director from 1970 to 1972, made helpful badges that read: ‘Walter Hopps will be here in 20 minutes.’ He could disappear for days at a time. When he did materialize, his preferred working day began a little after 5pm and stretched late into the night. ‘If I could find the son of a bitch,’ his boss at the National Collection of Fine Arts liked to say, ‘I’d fire him.’

This sometimes rackety life meant that Hopps did, in fact, get dismissed from several museums. More often, though, his unpredictability was tolerated – a small price to pay for beauti­fully installed exhibitions. He started out as a rookie art dealer in the 1950s and opened the landmark Los Angeles gallery Ferus. He was prescient – giving Larry Bell and Ken Price their first shows – though he wasn’t much of a salesman, failing to sell anything by Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko. His subsequent museum shows included the first-ever retrospectives of Joseph Cornell and Marcel Duchamp, and an early survey of pop art, before the term was widely used in the US. By the time Hopps died in 2005, at the age of 72, he had organized several hundred shows.

Many remarked that, in his seemingly intuitive placement of paintings, he was less curator than artist. Hopps himself preferred to be compared to a conductor or choreographer. Later in life, he came to understand his profession as going back 25,000 years: ‘My job has been finding the cave and holding the torch,’ he said in a 1991 New Yorker profile. ‘Somebody has to be around to hold the flaming branch and make sure there are enough pigments.’ This self-effacing image is much too modest, belying the way Hopps relished the roles of collaborator, confidant and go-between. But, while he was a good deal more than a torch-bearer lurking in the dark, it was often noted that there was something shadowy about him. Frank Gehry once thought Hopps, always dressed suspiciously smartly, might be a CIA agent.

thorneweb.jpg

Edward Kienholz, Walter Hopps Hopps Hopps, 1959. Courtesy: The Menil Collection, Houston, Gift of Lannan Foundation; photograph:Paul Hester  

Edward Kienholz, Walter Hopps Hopps Hopps, 1959. Courtesy: The Menil Collection, Houston, Gift of Lannan Foundation; photograph:
Paul Hester

 

 

A new posthumous memoir throws some more light on this enigmatic curator. The book’s title, The Dream Colony: A Life in Art (2017), is borrowed from a phrase Hopps encountered while doing a stint at a think tank and describes the region of the unconscious mind in which artists dwell. This pleasantly conversational memoir was shaped by the artist Anne Doran and the New Yorker’s fiction editor, Deborah Treisman, from more than 100 hours of taped conversations. Both of them worked at Grand Street magazine in the 1990s, when Hopps was the art editor. A raconteur who was congenitally averse to sitting down long enough to write anything, he preferred to deliver monologues that were transcribed and then fashioned into essays. The same approach was taken for composing The Dream Colony, though Hopps didn’t live long enough to fully finish his story. Because of this, more space is given to his freewheeling first decades in California than to his distinguished final 25 years in Houston, where he was the founding director of the just-about-perfect Menil Collection.

The Dream Colony gives the impression of a man whose interests appeared, fully formed, while barely into his teens. As a child, Hopps filled scrapbooks with pictures of American flags, gleaming cars and Campbell’s Soup; he barely pauses for breath to wonder how this might have shaped his lifelong support of Jasper Johns, Ed Ruscha and Andy Warhol. (With the exception of Jay DeFeo, he worked exclusively with men.) At high school, Hopps was enrolled – along with Susan Sontag – in a weekend programme for gifted students, through which he met Walter and Louise Arensberg.

These intrepid collectors took a liking to this inquisitive kid, inviting him to use their library and allowing him to caress a Constantin Brâncusi head over lunch. Most importantly, they introduced Hopps to artists: their friends Duchamp and Man Ray. As he recalls: ‘It was as if I’d passed through the looking glass.’ Young Hopps’s path was set. Though often light on detail, low on new gossip and lacking much insight into working methods, this chatty account is, nonetheless, a valuable record of perhaps the most significant American curator of the postwar period – and of his many lives. 

Main Image: Edward Kienholz, Walter Hopps Hopps Hopps, 1959. Courtesy: The Menil Collection, Houston, Gift of Lannan Foundation; photograph: Paul Hester

Sam Thorne is director of Nottingham Contemporary, UK, a contributing editor of frieze and a co-founder of Open School East. His book, School: Conversations on Art & Self-Organised Education, will be published by Sternberg Press this summer. 

Issue 190

First published in Issue 190

October 2017
Advertisement

Most Read

Criticism of the show at the Hungarian National Gallery in Budapest comes alongside a nationalist reshaping of the...
A retrospective at Munich’s Museum Brandhorst charts the artist’s career from the 1980s to the present, from ‘fem-trash...
At the National Theatre of Wales, a performance alive with wild, tactile descriptions compels comparison between the...
There are perils in deploying bigotry to score political points, but meanings also shift from West to East
‘It’s ridiculous. It’s Picasso’: social media platform to review nudity policy after blocking Montreal Museum of Fine...
Poland’s feminist ‘Bison Ladies’ storm the Japanese artist’s Warsaw exhibition in solidarity with longtime model Kaori’...
An art historian and leading Leonardo expert has cast doubt on the painting’s attribution
How will the Black Panther writer, known for his landmark critical assessments of race, take on the quintessential...
The dissident artist has posted a series of videos on Instagram documenting diggers demolishing his studio in the...
In further news: artists for Planned Parenthood; US court rules on Nazi-looted Cranachs; Munich’s Haus der Kunst...
A mother’s death, a father’s disinterest: Jean Frémon’s semi-factual biography of the artist captures a life beyond...
Jostling with its loud festival neighbours, the UK’s best attended annual visual art festival conducts a polyphonic...
It’s not clear who destroyed the project – part of the Liverpool Biennial – which names those who have died trying to...
Dating from 1949 to the early 1960s, the works which grace the stately home feel comfortable in the ostentatious pomp...
The disconnect between public museum programming and private hire couldn’t be starker – it’s time for the arts to...
In further news: Angela Gulbenkian sued over Kusama pumpkin; and Pussy Riot re-arrested immediately after release from...
With Art Week in town, a guide to the best exhibitions to see, from sonic surveillance to Ronnie van Hout’s showdown...
Moving between figuration and abstraction, the New York-based painter and teacher made work about in-between spaces and...
Trump’s State Department is more than 3 months late in announcing its national pavilion – testament to the chaos...
The continued dominance of UK-US writers makes a mockery of the Man Booker’s ‘global outlook’
The fashion photographer has been accused on Twitter of ripping off another artist – with both represented by the same...
Katharina Cibulka has stitched ‘As long as the art market is a boys’ club, I will be a feminist,’ across her alma mater...
The punk artists’s invasion of the pitch during the Croatia vs. France match reminded us what Russia’s new ‘normality’...
In further news: Brexit voters avoid arts; New York libraries’s culture pass unlocks museums; Grayson Perry-backed...
If artificial intelligence were ever to achieve sentience, could it feasibly produce art? (And would it be good?)
Nods to the game in World Cup celebrations show how dance has gone viral – but unwittingly instrumentalized for...
‘What is being exhibited at Manifesta, above all, is Palermo itself’
With the 12th edition of the itinerant European biennial opening in Palermo, what do local artists, curators and...
The curators seem set to ask, ‘how civilized is the world’s current state of affairs?’

On View

Latest Magazines

frieze magazine

April 2018

frieze magazine

May 2018

frieze magazine

June - August 2018