PRINT February 1996


IN CALVIN TOMKINS’ 1991 NEW YORKER PROFILE “A Touch for the Now,” curator Walter Hopps comes across as an eccentric maverick. We learn of his preferred schedule (his workday begins not long before sundown and stretches into the morning hours) and near-mythic disappearing acts (his elusiveness prompted employees at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C., where he served as director in the ’70s, to make buttons reading “WALTER HOPPS WILL BE HERE IN 20 MINUTES”). It was his relentless perfectionism, however—preparators will recall the habitual groan “Wrong, wrong, wrong” that greeted their best efforts—that cemented the impression of the curator as a mercurial iconoclast. Indeed, while Hopps’ legendary nonconformity may overshadow his curatorial accomplishment, his independence is not unrelated to his achievement. In a 40-year career spent in and out of the museum world, during which he has organized well over 100 exhibitions, he has never succumbed to administrative logic or routine (he once said working for bureaucrats while a senior curator at the National Collection of Fine Arts—now the National Museum of American Art—was “like moving through an atmosphere of Seconal”). Hopps, in retrospect, manages to come across as both consummate insider and quintessential outsider.

Hopps opened his first gallery, Syndell Gallery, while still a student at UCLA in the early ’50s, and soon achieved acclaim for his “Action 1” and “Action2” overviews of a new generation of California artists. Later, his Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles would bring attention to such artists as Ed Kienholz, George Herms, and Wallace Berman. As director of the Pasadena Museum of Art (1963–67), Hopps mounted an impressive roster of exhibitions, including the first U.S. retrospectives of Kurt Schwitters and Joseph Cornell and the first museum overview of American Pop art (“New Paintings of Common Objects”)—not to mention Marcel Duchamp’s first one-man museum show.

Yet Hopps has enjoyed as much success outside institutional settings as within them. Shows such as “Thirty-Six Hours,” in which he hung the work of any and all corners over a two-and-a-half-day period, are case studies in curating art outside museum settings. Even today Hopps works in multiple contexts: while serving as consulting curator for the Menil Collection in Houston, he also puts in time as art editor of Grand Street, a literary journal that he has helped turn into an artists’ showcase.

Hopps’ flair as an impresario is matched only by his knack for hanging stunning shows. As Anne d’Harnoncourt, director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, put it, his success comes from “his sense of the character of works of art, and of how to bring that character out without getting in the way.” But Hopps also sees the curator as something like a conductor striving to establish harmony between individual musicians. As he told me when I sat down to interview him in Houston in December, in anticipation of his Kienholz retrospective that goes up this month at the Whitney, it was Duchamp who taught him the cardinal curatorial rule: in the organization of exhibitions, the works must not stand in the way.


HANS-ULRICH OBRIST: You worked in the early ’50s as a music impresario and organizer. How did the transition to organizing exhibitions take place?

WALTER HOPPS: They both happened at the same time. When I was in high school, I formed a kind of photographic society, and we did projects and exhibits at the high school. It was also at that time that I first met Walter and Louise Arensberg.

But some of my closest friends were actually musicians, and the ’40s were a great time of innovation in jazz. It was a thrill to be able to see classic performers like Billie Holliday around the clubs in Los Angeles, or the new people like Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, and Dizzy Gillespie. The younger musicians I knew began to try to get engagements and bookings, but it was very hard in those days. Black jazz frightened parents; it frightened the officials. It was worse in this way than rock ’n’ roll. It had a subversive quality.

I had the good luck to discover the great baritone-saxophone player Gerry Mulligan. Later, I had the chance to go on a double date with his wonderful trumpet player, Chet Baker. You know, those guys had a different sort of social life than would normally be the case. Somehow I managed a jazz business and the small gallery near UCLA, Syndell Studio, at the same time I was in school.

HUO: For contemporary artists there was an incredible lack of visibility.

WH: Right. In Southern California there were only two occasions during my youth when any of the New York School people were shown. And the critics damned them. One was an incredible show of New York School artists, “The Intrasubjectivists,” that Sam Kootz and others were involved with putting together. And there was a show by Joseph Fulton, a predecessor of mine at the Pasadena Art Museum. He brought in a beautiful show with Pollock and Enrico Donati—a mix of the new Americans and sort of more Surrealist-oriented things. De Kooning was in it, Rothko, and so on.

The only critical writing we normally had access to was Clement Greenberg’s—who was so contentious and arrogant—and the beautiful writing of Harold Rosenberg and Thomas Hess. Hess constantly looked for every reason he could to champion de Kooning, as you know. We had virtually no critics like that in Southern California at the time. There was also Jules Langsner, who championed the abstract minimal kind of hard-edged painting—John McLaughlin, etc. He just couldn’t accept Pollock.

HUO: How were these shows received?

WH: What impressed me was that the audience was there—younger artists and people who were not officially part of the art world then were really intrigued. It had a real human audience.

HUO: It seems like a paradox—there had been little to see, then suddenly around ’51, there was a climax in art on the West Coast. You’ve talked about a project of organizing a show of works all created in 1951.

WH: I would see the crest of great Abstract Expressionist work as extending from 1946 through 1951. This is true for New York and also, on a smaller scale, for San Francisco. During this period, most of the important Abstract Expressionist painters in America were working in top form. I really wanted to do a show about 1951, with 100 artists represented by a single major work apiece. It would have been fabulous.

Lawrence Alloway, in London, understood what was going on in a way that many people in America did not. He had great insights about the new American art, I’ll give him that.

HUO: Previously you’ve mentioned Stieglitz’s 291 Gallery as a source of inspiration for your exhibitions.

WH: Yes. I knew a little bit about what had gone on there at 291. Stieglitz was the first person to show both Picasso and Matisse in America. Even before the Armory Show, you know.

HUO: So before Arensberg.

WH: Yes. Arensberg’s collection really began in 1913, at the time of the Armory Show. Several collections start then: Duncan and Marjorie Phillips’ collection in Washington begins then; and Arensberg’s began. Katherine Dreier was crucial. She, with Duchamp and Man Ray, had the first modern museum in America. And it was actually called the Modern Museum, although it was mostly known as the Société Anonyme.

HUO: The year 1913 leads us somehow back to the discussion we had during lunch, when you gave 1924 as a second very important date.

WH: Oh, yes. Nothing really happened in museums until around 1924. It took that long. Then in New York and San Francisco, a little bit in Los Angeles, a little bit in Chicago—among certain collectors within those museums—things began to happen. Soon after Arensberg moved to Southern California, he had the idea of founding a Modern-art museum with his collection out there—combining some other collections with his. But it was fated not to happen. There were not enough collectors of Modern art to support such a project in Southern California.

HUO: So ’24 is also the year he left New York?

WH: Yes. To me, the Arensbergs coming to Southern California gave it the cachet, the license, to do anything, even though the public and the officials were so contrary about contemporary art. Even during my time, right after World War II—in the late ’40s and early ’50s—the politics of the McCarthy era were very hard on art in the institutions in Southern California. Picasso and even Magritte—Magritte, who had no politics, who was, if anything, a kind of patron of the royalists—had their work taken down as being subversive and communistic in the one museum we had in Los Angeles. There was plenty of weak contemporary art in Southern California. The whole school of Rico Lebrun. There were all these Picasso-like people and lots of insipid variations on Matisse; it just made you sick. There was more authenticity and soul in some of the landscape painters.

But things slowly began to creep in. In Southern California, the hard-edge painters, like John McLaughlin, began to be accepted in exhibitions. The public didn’t like it, but they would be hung by the museums, for example by James B. Byrnes, the first curator of Modern art at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. San Francisco was the other place in the United States where great Abstract Expressionist art was beginning to be shown seriously, like Clyfford Still and Mark Rothko, as presented by a brilliant and pioneering curator of Modern art, Jermayne MacAgy.

HUO: Was Richard Diebenkorn shown?

WH: Diebenkorn was their student. He also began to be shown, as well as David Park and others.

HUO: Could you talk about the emergence of the assemblage artists of your generation? What were their sources?

WH: Wallace Berman was fascinating—he had a great touch, and great insights about Surrealist art, but he never became some thin carbon copy of Surrealist form, which many artists did. He was crucial to the Beat sensibility. He was one of the serious people. He introduced me to the writings of William Burroughs. And he published his own little journal, Semina.

One of the slightly older intellectuals that affected Beat culture so much on the West Coast was Kenneth Rexroth. He was a very intelligent man, and he was a great translator of some fascinating Chinese poetry. At the same time, he was something of a mentor to people like Ginsberg and Kerouac. So was Phillip Whalen.

But the cultures of San Francisco and Los Angeles were quite distant: the patronage, the infrastructure. The patrons who would spend money were mostly living in Southern California, and most, though not all, of the really interesting art was being created in the north. It was a difficult dialogue, and I felt it was crucial to unite the art from the north and the south.

HUO: In Los Angeles and the West Coast in general the artistic and intellectual circles seem to have been relatively open at the time, not dogmatic but inclusive.

WH: Absolutely. You didn’t have to make allegiances the way you would if you were in New York. Ed Kienholz could love Clyfford Still’s work and that of his circle—Diebenkorn was fine; he liked Frank Lobdell even better, because he was dark and brooding. But he also liked de Kooning. He had no problem with that. In the world of the New York School, it was very difficult—Greenberg became the champion of all the color-field people; Rosenberg became the champion of de Kooning and Franz Kline. The artists took up their allegiances, also. But on the West Coast, someone like Kienholz could love both de Kooning and Still.

HUO: And Kienholz was linked to Wallace Berman and then to the Beat generation as well?

WH: Kienholz and Berman knew each other, but there was a schism between them. Kienholz was a private, tough realist. Berman was very spiritual, with a kind of cabalistic Judaism and regard for Christianity. Kienholz would not berate him, but he didn’t want to have anything to do with him, either. They were very different. Both are represented near one another in the massive “Beat Culture” show curated by Lisa Phillips at the Whitney Museum in New York.

Currently I’m working on a full-scale retrospective of the work of both Ed Kienholz and Nancy Reddin Kienholz, to be presented later this year at the Whitney. Ed’s work was considered very controversial even into the ’60s, when he had his first retrospective. Today, I suspect much less controversy, but you never know. With this exhibition I hope to reveal the continuity as well as the power of his art and both its origins in an American sense of West Coast culture and its wide range of vital subject matter.

HUO: To come back to the issue of curating: in an earlier interview you mentioned a small list of American curators and conductors you consider to be important predecessors.

WH: Willem Mengelberg was a conductor of the New York Philharmonic who imported the grand Germanic tradition of running an orchestra and conducting. So I mention Mengelberg not so much for his style, but for his unrelenting rigor. No matter what, he’d make the orchestra perform. Fine curating of an artist’s work—that is, presenting it in an exhibition—requires as broad and sensitive an understanding of an artist’s work that a curator can possibly muster. This knowledge needs to go well beyond what is actually put in the exhibition. Likewise, as far as conducting goes, a thorough knowledge of the full body of Mozart’s music underlies a fine conductor’s approach to, say, the Jupiter Symphony. Mengelberg was the sort of conductor who had a broad knowledge of any composer he addressed.

Of the curators, I admired Katherine Dreier enormously, with her exhibitions and activities, because she, more than any other collector or impresario I knew, felt she should facilitate what they actually wanted to do, to the greatest extent possible.

HUO: So you could say she was the artist’s accomplice.

WH: Exactly. She didn’t have other rich people on her board. She had Man Ray and Duchamp—having artists in this capacity is nothing but trouble, conventionally.

HUO: You also mentioned Alfred Barr and James Johnson Sweeney.

WH: Yes. Barr, who came from a Protestant Yankee family, might have become a Lutheran minister. Instead he became a great director and curator with an institution that had all the resources the Rockefellers, and others, could provide at the time. There was a kind of moral imperative behind Barr. He preached that Modern art was good for people, that the populace could somehow become inculcated with the new Modernism and it would improve their lives. It’s very close to a Bauhaus idea.

Sweeney was more complicated and romantic. I don’t think he would have argued that art per se was necessarily morally good for you, but I don’t think he made a big case that it was not. But Sweeney was a genuine romantic who felt that the esthetic experience was a whole other territory to explore. He was like an explorer. For him, Picasso was one of the great adventurers, you know. Sweeney was one of the first in his generation to admire Picasso. He worked briefly at the Museum of Modern Art, and then later the Guggenheim.

HUO: And then in Houston?

WH: Yes, he was at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, for a while, at the very end of his career. He responded instinctively to the Abstract Expressionists. And because of his work in France during his youth—in literary journals and so on—he was responsive to the Tachistes as well, and was just beginning to have a certain empathy, a certain response, to the Nouveaux Réalistes, right before he died. I think if he had been younger—and alive, for example—he would have been the greatest champion of Yves Klein. Sweeney was also one of the most rigorous people in working out an installation. When I was young, I had the chance to actually see him in the old Guggenheim townhouse before the Frank Lloyd Wright building was constructed. He was never happy with the Wright building. It was a clash of two giant egos. Sweeney wanted something more neutral for his own stagecraft where the art could happen. However, one gorgeous show he did do in the Wright building was the Calder show.

HUO: In curating, there is a need for flexible strategies. Every show is a unique situation, and ideally it gets as close as possible to the artist.

WH: Yes. To me, a body of work by a given artist has an inherent kind of score that you try to relate to or understand.

It puts you in a certain psychological state. I always tried to get as peaceful and calm as possible. If there was a simple way of doing something, I would do it that way. When I did the Duchamp retrospective in 1963, he and I walked through the old Pasadena Art Museum—the colors were white and off-white and brown; there was some wood paneling; some dark brown. Duchamp said: “It’s just fine. Don’t do anything that is too hard to do.” In other words, he was always very practical. But he had a very subtle way of trying to orchestrate or bring out what was already there, to work with what was already given. Duchamp knew exactly how to work with what was there.

But with other artists installations were very different. Barnett Newman was a very bright man, but he would get a preconceived notion of how the space should be. Wherever I showed him, we always had to do a lot of construction.

HUO: You mean the São Paulo Biennial in 1965?

WH: There, and then when I showed him in Washington. There was a huge wall that had distracting stuff way above, where the paintings were shown. It bothered Newman so much—but nobody else—that we had to build a false wall about ten meters high, at great expense and difficulty.

HUO: In terms of flexibility, in the ’60s and, above all, the ’70s, the European Kunsthalle was defined as something of a laboratory, where things could be tested, without the pressures of public success and thousands of square meters to be filled.

WH: Yes. This is similar to the tradition behind Dominique de Menil, through her father’s family, the Schlumbergers, in engineering. You could remove “Menil Collection” from the building’s facade and call it “de Menil Research,” and it would look like an engineering building.

HUO: Was this the intention behind selecting Renzo Piano as the architect?

WH: Absolutely. It’s one reason we chose Piano, whose great love is engineering. I think his ancestors were shipbuilders, and there’s nothing more beautiful than a ship. But its form is absolutely rational.

Before Jean de Menil died in ’74, he wanted Louis Kahn to build the new museum. Philip Johnson’s chapel already existed, so a kind of peaceful sanctuary had already been achieved. And Jean de Menil wanted the new museum, with these pavilions, on the same land in the park. Kahn died about a year later, so it was never possible to continue it. But I think Piano’s engineered public space works well against the more contained sanctuary space of the Rothko Chapel.

HUO: You’ve also mentioned René d’Harnoncourt as an influence.

WH: Yes, he was special. Nelson Rockefeller was fortunate to have met him. He was yet another person whose background was in the sciences, in chemistry. He could have become an engineer-businessman in one of the great dye-works of the chemical industries. But through his love of art—and ancient art, too—d’Harnoncourt became one of those who felt, instinctively, that there were archetypes of form in ancient art, relating any number of things that existed in the so-called tribal or primitive arts to what went on with the Modern.

When he came to the Museum of Modern Art, he saw something deeper and broader going on with Pollock, deeper than Pollock simply being influenced by the French Surrealists—that Pollock, in his way, was going back to some of the ancient sources that the Surrealists themselves went to.

D’Harnoncourt had a kind of stature as a diplomat who could keep all the departments, all the egos, more or less in balance. He was brought in to MoMA after Alfred Barr had had a nervous breakdown, and his main job, as far as Nelson Rockefeller was concerned, was to help support Barr—which he did do; they got along well.

I think the other one on this list is Jermayne MacAgy. She was the mistress, or the master, of beautiful theme shows. Her greatest work was in San Francisco. She once did a show there around the theme of time. There’s a work by Chagall titled Time Is a River without Banks. I think the phrase intrigued MacAgy—more so even than the work. Her exhibit was ahistorical, coming from any period, and cross-cultural. She included clocks and timepieces. She had a Dali with the little clocks and so on, as well as all kinds of references and allusions to time—in old and new work.

In another exhibition, the California Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco wanted a show of arms and armor. She did a fantastic piece of drama as a set piece for it. She made a huge chessboard in the great atrium—and lined up the figures as two competing sides.

HUO: In the ’80s theme-exhibition boom, many shows started to look like stage designs, with artists being used as props or works being used as accessories. How did MacAgy’s theme shows avoid subordinating the work to the overall concept?

WH: She had a very sure and spare touch, for the most part.

HUO: You also mentioned her shows in terms of an almost-empty design.

WH: Yes. She managed to ignore design systems—or tried to work outside systems of taste for these shows. Early on, here in Houston, when she did a Rothko show, she went out of her way to have beautiful flowers in the entryway—living flowers, planting beds. It was just a general reminder that you don’t start trying to ask why flowers are some color—you relax and enjoy their beauty. It was a very interesting reminder that viewers should not be upset with the Rothkos if there’s no image there, no subject. What is the image of a flower? It’s just a color, it’s a flower.

HUO: If one looks at the encyclopedic range of exhibitions you’ve organized, it’s striking that, besides the exhibitions that take place in and redefine museum spaces, you’ve also done shows in other spaces and contexts where you tend to change the rules of what an exhibition actually is. I’m interested in these dialectics—the exhibitions that take place outside the museum create a friction with what takes place inside the museum, and vice versa. By questioning these expectations the museum becomes a more active space. When you were a museum curator in Washington you organized the show called “Thirty-Six Hours” at an alternative space.

WH: Yes. “Thirty-Six Hours” was literally organized from the street. There was practically no budget, no money.

HUO: So you actually had just a small alternative space, the Museum of Temporary Art, at your disposal.

WH: Right. It had a basement and four floors. It normally just showed on two of those floors. So I said, “Let’s clean up the basement and these other floors so we can have it everywhere in the building.” And the people who ran the space said: “Why? We normally only show on two floors.” And I said: “You’ll see. More people will come than fit two floors.” They said: “How do you know?” I said: “If you say you’re having a show where anyone who brings anything can be shown, people are going to come.”

HUO: How did you make it public?

WH: We worked at letting people know for a couple of weeks. We put some posters up and got certain people to mention it on the radio. We had some musicians performing the opening night; one reason we had the musicians was that they knew the disc jockeys. I knew perfectly well that lots of working artists, you know—they’re in their studios at night, and so forth, they listen to rock ’n’ roll, whatever’s on the radio, and they’re going to hear this. They’ll call up and find out. And they will come.

HUO: So not just artists—everybody.

WH: Anybody—we made no distinction. But it’s interesting how few people who were not really artists showed up. One drunk guy came in who had ripped out a lurid Hustler photo with this nude woman exposing herself. He crumpled up the paper and then flattened it out. He’d signed it, and he came in insisting it was his work. My role in this was to be there all 36 hours, meeting and greeting every single person who brought in a work. We’d walk to a space and they would help install it, right then and there. So here was this crisis. But I found a place that was reasonably dark—it wasn’t spotlit—and I walked him over there and said: “This is the perfect place for it.”

HUO: So you actually did the hanging when people brought things.

WH: Yeah. So we stapled this thing up, in a sort of shadowy corner. This guy was so out of it, and so surprised—this was just a dirty joke on his part, but I didn’t treat it that way. We put it up there, and he went away, and that was fine.

HUO: So the show was inclusive.

WH: My only requirement was that it had to fit through the door.

HUO: In the exhibitions you organized, there’s something like a thread—from Duchamp or Joseph Cornell to Robert Rauschenberg—of artists whose work was encyclopedic.

WH: Yes, that’s true. They’re all artists who would have a difficult time explaining to you what they would not put in their art. They’re naturally inclusive.

HUO: Many of your exhibition projects, like the “Thirty-Six Hours,” or the unrealized project of the “1951 show” and, of course, the 100,000 images project, have this same impetus.

WH: Yes. Well, it’s a very innocent response to natural phenomena. It’s a perception of all the sorts of things one studies in the natural sciences, where you immediately get a vast realm of phenomena thrown out in front of you. I remember when I studied bacteriology, I had a good professor who went out of his way to talk about both bacteriophages and viruses so we might get a better sense of the whole category. Somehow, early on I got used to the idea that these people who were exploring any given subject were constantly pushing out beyond the boundaries, in order to understand what the boundaries were in the first place.

You can tell from the museum here that I believe very much in sometimes isolating a single work, with a very discrete situation—not having it be cluttered or complicated. At the same time, I have a great feeling for really large numbers of works.

HUO: This 100,000 images project was conceived as filling a single entire building?

WH: That’s right. I conceived of it as a really exciting project for P.S. 1 in New York. I calculated that the whole building could hold 100,000 items, if you had some kind of discretion as to what the size would be. That may seem unimaginably large for an art show, but, on the other hand, if you counted the number of phases of music, or measures, in an opera or a symphony, you’d get an unimaginably large number, too.

HUO: Or a computer program.

WH: That’s right. I believe people could take in presentations of art that are almost as vast as nature. If a lot of things looked very repetitive, well, that’s the way it is. If you’re walking through the desert and looking at creosote bushes and some tamarack and some sage—they’re all different and discrete. But, on the other hand, they can appear very repetitive.

HUO: And one could put together his or her own sequence.

WH: Exactly. I think in the future some of the experience of finding one’s way through vastly larger realms of information on the Web and in cyberspace will allow for what I’m talking about. But I’ve also tried to think of exhibits featuring only two or three works, or even one work, and some unusual comparisons. I’ve often thought that Vermeer’s work would fit in this kind of show. The same is true of Rogier van der Weyden.

HUO: The explosion of images and sources leads also to Rauschenberg.

WH: Yes, in recent years I’ve had a lot of involvement with Rauschenberg, indeed, and to use your term, he’s probably the most encyclopedic artist of our time.

HUO: And you’re working on a retrospective.

WH: Yes, having done one at the National in ’76, the Guggenheim wants me to do one for what I guess will be ’97 or ’98—a little more than 20 years later.

HUO: So it’ll be the retrospective of retrospectives.

WH: Yes. The difficulty will come in the work after 1976, where Rauschenberg begins to become prolific in larger-scale works—all the international touring he did.

HUO: The global venues.

WH: The overseas venues seemed, to most people, not very discriminating. There wasn’t any sense of discrimination as to why this or that piece was chosen. I don’t know whether, doing this show, I’ll be beyond such a notion of discrimination. I’m concerned with whether one can get into that vast body of work—and truly represent the vastness of Rauschenberg’s work, and yet have it seem discriminating.

HUO: So it’s a paradoxical enterprise to frame abundance without annihilating or reducing it.

WH: Yeah. We’re talking about using both spaces—both the uptown and the SoHo Guggenheim. That appeals to me.

HUO: The last Rauschenberg retrospective you curated, in ’76—it must have been one of the first times a contemporary artist made the cover of The New York Times Magazine.

WH: Yes.

HUO: This leads to what I call the double-leg theory: an exhibition that is highly regarded by specialists but also makes the cover of Time—in other words, having one leg in a popular field and one in a specialized field.

WH: Yes, I realized early on I couldn’t live without both fields. It isn’t made quite clear in Calvin Tomkins’ article [in The New Yorker], but early on, when I was at UCLA, I kept this small gallery—Syndell Studio—which was like a very discreet laboratory. I didn’t care if four or five people came, as long as there were two or three that were really engaged. I met any number of interesting people that way.

We had only one or two reviews written in all the years it was there. It didn’t matter. But, at the same time, I felt compelled to do this show of the new California expressionists in a very public place—in an amusement park on the Santa Monica pier—

HUO: Was this the Action exhibition?

WH: “Action 1”—in a merry-go-round building. It was near Muscle Beach. It attracted the most totally inclusive mix of people—Mom, Dad, and the kids, and Neal Cassady and other strange characters, and the patrons of a transvestite bar nearby. I got Ginsberg, Kerouac, and those people to attend. It’s amazing they came. Critics I’d never met before showed up. It had a big attendance. So I wanted to work, as it turns out, both ways.

You can see this clearly in the most extreme show I’ve done in recent years, “The Automobile and Culture”—at MOCA, in downtown L.A., in the early ’80s. It later went to Detroit. Paul Schimmel and I came up with the absurd premise. I owe the title to Pontus Hulten. What I was talking about doing was looking at the history of the automobile, from the late 19th century to the present—beautiful and interesting and important cars, no trucks, no motorcycles, just cars—as a kind of quotidian device and fetishistic emblem of cultural life in the 20th century. The automobile had its own esthetic and its own engineering imperatives. I wanted to see that in a fresh survey of 20th-century art—in cases where the automobile becomes part of the subject matter and in other cases where I think the kind of mobility the car provides influences the art.

So, as you can imagine, it was a crazy show. When you start looking for these references—arcane and goofy but perfectly wonderful things—other things turn up. There’s an early Matisse in the show, a portrait of Madame Matisse sitting in the front seat of the car, looking through the windshield. He composed the whole painting as a horizontal structure, based on the kind of horizontal windshields cars had in the ’20s.

I had a wonderful picture of Alfred Stieglitz—a wonderful cityscape of old New York—where two things suggest the coming of Modernism. One is the steel frame of a skyscraper going up, and here, coming down the street, is a very early automobile—the first picture Stieglitz ever took that has an automobile in it.

I was very serious and intrigued with that ’84 show. But the local critics didn’t care for it much—the local critic here in Los Angeles.

HUO: Did it bring a nonspecialized audience to the museum?

WH: It was very, very popular. People who would never come down to look at Modern art were there.

HUO: Your first gallery, the Syndell Studio, was an almost-private venue. Action 1 and Action2, on the other hand, were very public venues. What about the Ferus Gallery? Was it a more in-between place for artists?

WH: It was relatively more private, but less so than Syndell. Ferus was a complicated thing, in that when Kienholz and I ran it as partners from 1957 to 1958, we did it in our own clean, but bohemian, way. We did it just the way we wanted. We didn’t care whether we sold work or not. I had enough money to pay the rent. But a number of the artists we represented started getting impatient—they wanted more material success. So the later history of Ferus, after 1958—when I hired Irving Blum to be director—well, I didn’t compromise the kind of art, but it was meant to be more conventionally economic. I had no idea what the gross sales would have been at the old Ferus Gallery for a year—maybe $5,000, if that? In about eight months of the first year of the new Ferus, we’d sold $120,000 worth of art. But it was a thoroughly commercial enterprise at that point.

HUO: So at first the idea was to create a platform?

WH: That’s right. I mean, we could show this wonderful woman, Jay DeFeo, when there wasn’t anyone to buy her work. Now she’s at the Beat show at the Whitney. She’s a heroine, and deservedly so. The style of the first Ferus was to resemble what an artist’s working studio was like—or a salon that artists would run themselves, although they didn’t. Kienholz could be ruthless with other artists; he was a taskmaster. I was never as blunt as he was. Sometimes he would cancel a show if he didn’t think the work looked good enough. He would just say: “C’mon, get to work—let’s see something better. We’re not going to show junk. It’s not good for you, it’s not good for us.” The first Ferus looked as though it didn’t care whether it was successful or not. Somehow clients could tell that. People came to it like it was a little Kunsthalle.

The second one, with Blum, took exactly the opposite tack—it was to look very well-to-do, as if it were doing successful business—whether we were or not. And, I tell you, that approach works. [Laughs] It does work.

HUO: So at the beginning it was almost like an artists’ collective?

WH: Right. The solidarity between the artists was very strong. That’s the positive side. The negative side, by the way, is that the artists felt they had a ruthless say over who else would be part of the enterprise.

Robert Irwin, for example, was an artist who wasn’t with Ferus in the beginning, and his work was kind of weak—very lyric, easygoing, a not very powerful version of Diebenkorn. He was a conventional abstract lyric painter; his paintings weren’t bad, but they were of no particular distinction. He desperately wanted to be shown by Ferus, but there wasn’t a single artist in the Ferus Gallery—around Los Angeles, anyway—who wanted him in there.

I was president of the corporation. Being with him and looking at what he was up to—hearing what he was thinking about—I knew something was going to come of him. But a tyranny of the majority would have prevented it. So there are times when you just have to risk losing everyone’s good opinion and sort of ram it down their throats—that was one. So I just, by sheer will, forced an Irwin show in there. And he turned out to be quite an important artist, obviously. He knocked himself out with his first show trying to do the work. It owed a lot to Clyfford Still—it was a transition. And by his second show, things got different very quickly.

HUO: At Ferus there was the idea that you did everything yourself. Harald Szeemann once defined the functions of the Ausstellungsmacher—the one who puts on an exhibition—as an administrator, amateur, author of introductions, librarian, manager and accountant, animator, conservator, financier, and diplomat. This list can be expanded by adding the functions of the guard, the transporter, the communicator, and the researcher.

WH: That’s absolutely true. I’ll tell you the worst thing I ever had to do. From time to time—maybe once a year—we would do a historical show. Nobody was showing Josef Albers in California, so we showed Albers. Prior to that we did a joint show of Kurt Schwitters’ collages and Jasper Johns’ sculpture.

Anyway, one of the painters I loved—and I realized that a number of the artists, including Irwin, really loved—was Giorgio Morandi. No one was showing Morandi in the western United States. So I had been traveling, and I came back and discovered that Blum had not put an image of the Morandi on the invitation. I was really furious. I said, “One in the thousand people who get our invitation will even know who Giorgio Morandi is. We’ve got to have one of his drawings on this invitation.”

Well, he hadn’t had a photographer come in to take a picture. I said: “Clear this desk off. I’m going in the back and choosing a drawing.” I picked out a Morandi drawing that was strong enough—it had glass over it—and I layed it down on the table. I took a piece of paper and layed it over the glass, took a soft pencil—and I’m not an artist; Blum would have been better, because he can draw—and I traced out that Morandi drawing, to life size, in my own crude version. Traced the son of a bitch out on a blank piece of paper, and I said: “There’s the artwork.”

Blum said: “You can’t do that. You’ve just made a fake Morandi.” I said: “You watch me do it. You just watch me do it.” And that went to the printer, so it’s printed in red with its line cut very elegantly on a paper. We waited to see who would identify it as a fake. Never—no one, no one. Szeemann is right—there’s no telling what you’ll have to do.

HUO: Certainly, in a small place like Ferus, you got used to doing everything yourself. Soon afterward, in ’62, you began curating and directing the museum in Pasadena. With only a few employees, you succeeded in doing an amazing number of exhibitions, 12 or 14 a year. You must have worked with enormous efficiency in such a small operation. You did big shows on Cornell, Duchamp, Jasper Johns, and so on—in a very short time.

WH: Yeah. You have to be energetic and have good people. Sometimes the measures are extreme.

HUO: And the museum was also a very small structure, wasn’t it?

WH: The building was small enough to manage. It was like a square, symmetrical doughnut. There were larger rooms, and a garden in the center. A curious building. The design was fake-Chinese, like Grauman’s Chinese. But there were these rooms strung together. There were walkways through the gardens. All on one floor. The second floor didn’t have galleries. But somehow these separate rooms, with the garden in the middle, were very pleasing to people—it worked very nicely.

HUO: What about the staff?

WH: We almost never had more than three or four people physically installing a show. The hours were terrible. Somehow we were able to get some very grand shows—with Kandinsky and Paul Klee and so on. And that would mean extra people working pretty long hours to get it all straight. You couldn’t do it today. Nobody would allow artists to come in and help you handle Kandinskys. I’ve never had better workers. You know, with a little training, they care very much for the work.

HUO: At this time, there was also your pre-Pop exhibition?

WH: Oh, yes—“New Paintings of Common Objects.”

HUO: How did this show come about?

WH: Just seeing the work—I had been seeing the work and was determined to do it. The word “Pop” was already in use in England, and was just beginning to be used in America. But I associated the word with the English movement, so I wanted something very bland and dry. I didn’t want to use the word. There were three East Coast artists—Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, and Jim Dine—and three West Coast artists—Ed Ruscha, Joe Goode, and Wayne Thiebaud. I asked Ruscha, who did design work, what to do for a poster. He said: “Well, let’s do it right now. Here, let me sit down and use your phone. What are all our names? Write ’em out in alphabetical order. Here are the dates, and that’s your title—fine. That’s all I need to know.”

And he called up a poster place. I said: “What are you calling?” He said: “This place does prize-fighting posters.” He went to a Pop, mass-produced poster place. He got on the phone and said: “I need a poster”—and he knew the size—and he just read it off on the phone. The guy saw no layout or anything—he just read it off. And then I heard Ruscha say, “Make it loud. And we want this many.” I gave him a number, they quoted a price. And he said: “Yeah, these folks are good for it,” and he hung up.

And I said: “Why the hell did you say, ‘Make it loud’?” He said: “Well, after you give the guy the size, the copy, and how many you want, he wants to know the style.” And I said: “That’s all you said for style?” He said: “Those guys, that’s all they want to hear—make it loud.” It was perfect. The poster was done in yellow, red, and black, and very loud. It was the most important poster that museum had ever done, with one exception—the poster Duchamp designed for his show.

HUO: In 1919, Duchamp was one of the first artists to use instructions. He sent his sister in Paris a telegram for his Readymade Malheureux, to realize the piece on the balcony. Moholy-Nagy was the first artist to do a piece by transmitting instructions over the phone.

WH: Absolutely—just called it in. Sometimes the best solution is the easiest one to do—if you know what to do.

HUO: If one looks at the museum situation now, creating small structures with flexible spaces seems to be of most importance.

WH: Somewhere in the ’70s in America—and in Europe, too—the idea of the smaller, more independent Kunsthalle rose up. In America, the so-called artist’s space—that whole phenomenon.

HUO: Which leads us back to the laboratory idea.

WH: That’s right. I hope the concept doesn’t disappear. I hope a breed of entrepreneurs will come along who aren’t worried about being chic or fashionable and will keep some of that alive. One damn way or another, some version of that idea has always been around. We don’t have the salon now; we don’t have the big competitive shows in smaller cities, you know? They don’t mean much anymore. Most serious artists don’t submit to those. In a sad way, the old salon is dead.

I’ve been waiting for some breed of artist—some terrible little ancestor of Andy Warhol or whatever—to put out a mail-order catalogue of his or her work independently of the galleries. Whether it’s printed matter or it ends up on the Web, people, without even using galleries, can find interested patrons. This was the thrust of what the East Village was all about. They had artist-entrepreneurs there. Never in SoHo. This market appeared, then died down again, but I think it could happen again.

I really believe—and, obviously, hope for—radical, or arbitrary, presentations, where cross-cultural and cross-temporal considerations are extreme, out of all the artifacts we have. If you look at the Menil, with its range of interests—everything is quite manicured and segregated out. But there are some larger areas of juxtaposition as well. We have our African section, right up against a very small section of Egyptian art. But Egypt interposes—you can’t get into the central and western European section, or to Greco-Roman culture, from Africa without going through Egypt. It makes a kind of sense. So just in terms of people’s priorities, conventional hierarchies begin to shift some. But I mean beyond that—where special presentations can jump around in time and space, in ways we just don’t do now. I really believe in these kinds of shows.