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.
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.
First published in Issue 190