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PRINT September 2005

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Ann Temkin on Walter Hopps

WHEN WALTER HOPPS died this past March at seventy-two, he had been organizing exhibitions for more than half a century. He began while still in school and continued right up through the spring, when he guest-curated a George Herms show at the Santa Monica Museum of Art. Too ill to fly out for the final installation, he did it by telephone from his home in Houston, with photographs and floor plan at hand. Shortly after the opening, Hopps went to Santa Monica for a public dialogue with Herms, delighting a standing-room-only crowd that included many of the Los Angeles artists like Ed Ruscha and Larry Bell with whom he began his life in art in the 1950s. Neatly curating his own life full circle, he died of heart failure a few days later.

Hopps is best known for his posts of the last twenty-five years as founding director and curator of Houston’s Menil Collection, an elegantly maverick institution often described as the best place to view art in the US. But the preceding chapters were many, and in different ways, comparably influential. Walter Wain Hopps III—or, as Ed Kienholz renamed him for his 1959 sculptural portrait, Walter Hopps Hopps Hopps—led more lives than any one of his friends and colleagues would ever know. But over the years—first in California, then Washington DC, Houston, and New York—one thing remained constant: Hopps was a peerless discoverer, champion, and presenter of artists and their work.

Hopps was born in 1933 in Los Angeles, California, and raised in a family of doctors. He too was expected to become one, but a different path was forged when in high school he befriended collectors Walter and Louise Arensberg. He had met them on a class trip to their home, and the elder Walter identified the younger one as a special fellow and invited him to return. Thus Hopps’s first contact with modern art was a house stuffed floor to ceiling with works by Picasso, Matisse, Brancusi, and, of course, Duchamp. He later said that it suggested to him a world beyond that of his parents and teachers and set him on an independent course. When Hopps got to college—first a year at Stanford and then back home to UCLA—he concentrated less on his classes than on a variety of projects that included a booking agency for jazz musicians and an art gallery called Syndell Studio in then-seedy Brentwood. In 1954 he organized his first large-scale show, “Action 1,” a nod to Harold Rosenberg’s freshly coined term for the new painting. It took as its site the merry-go-round building at the Santa Monica Pier. A fabric that stretched around the perimeter of the carousel hid the horses and provided a continuous convex hanging wall, an inverse situation to that of the future Guggenheim Museum, where he would later curate several shows. The musical accompaniment included jazz, the carousel’s soundtrack itself, and Hopps’s own rendition of some compositions by John Cage.

The merry-go-round soon gave way to slightly more conventional settings. In 1957 Hopps and Kienholz rented the rear of an antiques store on La Cienega Boulevard to start the Ferus Gallery, a life-changing event for the art and artists of California. At this point, Hopps was perhaps the one person in California who knew the young artists in both LA and San Francisco, and he not only showed their work, but created a community of collectors to buy it. In 1962, he sold out to Irving Blum, who had succeeded Kienholz as his partner. By the end of that year, the gallery had shown the work of scores of California and New York artists, including the infamous presentation of Warhol’s thirty-two Campbell’s soup cans, the artist’s landmark first show of Pop art.

At that point, Hopps began a museum career that included important stints at the Pasadena Art Museum, the Corcoran Gallery of Art, the National Collection of Fine Arts (now the Smithsonian American Art Museum), the Menil Collection, the Guggenheim, and the many places to which his shows traveled. Until he landed safely in Houston, his disregard for bureaucracy repeatedly cost him his jobs, but not before he had put each institution on the map in a way it had never been before. The exhibitions are striking both in sheer number—a couple hundred—and historical significance. In Pasadena, along with groundbreaking exhibitions of Kurt Schwitters and Joseph Cornell, Hopps organized the first solo museum show of Marcel Duchamp in 1963, a milestone in the repositioning of the artist from a marginal jokester to a central figure of modern art. As American commissioner for the São Paulo biennial in 1965, he gave the still-controversial Barnett Newman a place of honor among six younger New York and Los Angeles artists. At the National Collection of Fine Arts, he made the audacious choice of devoting the museum’s official bicentennial celebration to Robert Rauschenberg. Hopps’s Rauschenberg extravaganza was installed backwards, from the most recent work to the earliest (a tactic that has, amazingly, not been more frequently imitated), and landed the artist on the cover of Time magazine. At the Menil, working in a relatively small building, Hopps refined the art of focus shows with “Marcel Duchamp: Fountain,” organized with William Camfield in 1987; “Andy Warhol: Death and Disasters,” organized with Neil Printz in 1989; and “Robert Rauschenberg, the Early 1950s” in 1991. All three came as revelations at a time when the work on view was either being taken for granted or ignored.

Like great art, great curating involves a strong element of self-portraiture, and the artists with whom Hopps worked most intensely and often—from Schwitters and Cornell to Rauschenberg and Kienholz—share a worldview as magnificently encyclopedic as his own. Each has been as extraordinarily prolific as his individual works are richly dense. These are artists, then, whom many would regard as needing a lot of editing. Hopps did just that, but with unerring discrimination. He performed his cutting and sewing with the precision of the surgeon he never became, such that a viewer was unaware of the sutures, and the sprawling, unlimited feeling so essential to the art remained intact. In all their oeuvres (think of a Cornell box or a Rauschenberg Combine), the elegance and unity of a finished work at first conceal the full range of flotsam and jetsam that work contains. I believe that in these artists Hopps found the model and metaphor for organizing his own protean imagination and energy.

This sense of sheer boundlessness is something that Hopps himself explored in a few instances of what might be termed “extreme curating.” In 1978 Hopps organized “Thirty-Six Hours” at an alternative space in Washington called the Museum of Temporary Art. He remained awake and present for the entire run of the show, and during that time he installed anything anybody brought that would fit through the door. Two decades later, he proposed filling P.S. 1 in New York top to bottom with 100,000 photographs by 100,000 artists. P.S. 1 director Alanna Heiss (hardly known for her caution) made a counterproposal for a show of merely 10,000 photographs. A compromise never was reached.

I got to know Hopps as a curator at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. He always felt a close tie to the PMA, the ultimate home of the Arensberg works that had transformed him as a boy. In 1969 he had co-authored with Anne d’Harnoncourt the publication that accompanied the stunning arrival of Étant donnés, which today remains a fundamental text on the artist. He became involved again in 1990 when Philadelphia and the Menil were both venues for the Man Ray centenary exhibition organized by the National Museum of American Art in Washington DC. Hopps wanted to ensure that the show looked as complete and handsome on the last stop of its tour as the first, and he took no chances that a young curator like me would ruin Man Ray’s long-overdue moment in the sun. This was when I learned firsthand that for Hopps, everything about the so-called job of the curator was an adventure worthy of a detective novel: unearthing early work, solving the puzzle of a patchy provenance, or seducing the recalcitrant lender. In the end, though, it was all about the installation: The most remarkable hours were those spent with his treasured scale models of the galleries, and, finally, with the works of art themselves.

We collaborated even more extensively over the course of five years’ work on the exhibition “Joseph Cornell/ Marcel Duchamp . . . in resonance,” which opened at the PMA in 1998. Hopps led a team of five in the delicate enterprise of exploring an artistic friendship without overstating cause and effect. As we prepared the exhibition, there was no such thing as a simple matter—straightforward questions posed to Hopps unraveled into long and winding digressions on artists, lenders, works of art, past exhibitions, and entirely unrelated people and places. It was maddening until you realized that the information you were getting was far more valuable than the answer you thought you needed.

In interviews, Hopps often compared the art of curating to that of conducting a symphony orchestra, and as with many of today’s conductors, he liked to have a few venues at his disposal. For fourteen years, Hopps served as art editor of Grand Street, using the pages of the magazine as walls for an astonishing diversity of work by well- and lesser-known artists from around the globe. While at the Menil Collection, he was also named adjunct senior curator of twentieth-century art at the Guggenheim, where he was able to work in New York and Bilbao on a scale not possible in Houston. His projects in this capacity included Rauschenberg and Rosenquist retrospectives (cocurated by Susan Davidson and Sarah Bancroft, respectively). The Guggenheim affiliation did not prevent Hopps from sending his Menil shows to other New York museums as well, such as his Kienholz retrospective at the Whitney in 1996.

Hopps had many irons in the fire at the time of his death. Over the past few years he was conceptualizing, with William Agee, a show called “New American Art of the 1940s and 1950s,”a vast survey of more than two hundred artists that aimed to widen the definition of Abstract Expressionism just as most art historians are busy narrowing it down. (Agee cheerfully admits that it would have required a site the size of Madison Square Garden.) In between everything else, he was dictating a memoir called “The Dream Colony.” Titles clearly mattered a lot to him. For an interview with Herms in the Santa Monica catalogue, he invented a long one: “George Herms: Bricoleur of Broken Dreams . . . One More Once.” The last phrase was a favorite of Hopps’s. It quoted Count Basie’s cue to his band to repeat a final passage. Hopps loved it because it was nonsensical, but it also represented the possibility of more, a delayed finish. Hopps’s legacy—alive in his memoir, his catalogues, and the artists, colleagues, and institutions he has changed—is his own one more once.

Ann Temkin is a curator in the Department of Painting and Sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.