Los Angeles

Dennis Hopper

Fred Hoffman Fine Art

Life After On Canvas, 1983–97—a triptych and a 16 mm-film projection—shows Dennis Hopper, protected only by a box, surviving an explosion in what appears to be a rodeo or a stock-car-racing oval. Smoke billows and Hopper rises from the cloud to begin his postdetonation life. Whatever the work’s debt to Chris Burden’s body performances, this work gains much from being displayed with one of the most beautiful projectors imaginable—a found object that counterpoints the work’s disruptive effect with its elegance. Placing this work next to his 1967 sculpture Bomb Drop, a giant mechanical lever stored for years in the New Mexico desert in a sly riposte to government nuclear testing, underscored the fact that Hopper is interested in exploring the potentially volatile boundaries between art/not-art, life/death, implosion/explosion as a reaction to and consequence of living in the present.

Such gutsiness is bound to lead to the occasional failure. When this happens—as in the rather tedious photographs in “Berlin (Walk to Christo),” 1995, which fail to capture the emotional swell of Christo’s wrapping, or in Lyle from Dallas, which displays a neon buckaroo, itself a prop from a 1993 movie Hopper acted in, Red Rock West—it’s like seeing a badly sketched story-board for what might actually be an interesting movie. Compare the flat “Berlin” photos with Hopper’s stunning sequence of eight black and white photos, “Kennedy Funeral,” 1963. These are shot directly from a television screen whose small tube cannot contain the emotive force of the Arlington Cemetery, the funeral cortège, the folded national flag the way, paradoxically, the photographs can, since they are austere and distanced and cropped only by Hopper’s eye.

Most of the newest work consisted of large color photographs, close-ups of parts of walls in various hues, with remnants of posters, suggestions of various human and meteorological wear and tear. These served as counterpoint to and commentary on King Part Bust Trapped, 1991–97, a massive “painting” that connotes the textural surface of the photographed walls, and that Hopper linked to the violence and turf wars of urban life by using stills from his 1988 film Colors, as well as spray paint. As with some of the other work in the show, this painting had an energy of its own but didn’t quite escape the feeling of being scripted, in this case by Robert Rauschenberg, elsewhere by Marcel Duchamp or Edward Kienholz. It is a bit disheartening only because at his best (both as an artist and as an actor) Hopper is never derivative, but wildly original, as was demonstrated by the strongest and strangest piece in the show.

To see Triangle (Video Triptych) (excerpts from Easy Rider,1969; The Last Movie, 1971; and Out of the Blue, 1980), 1997, one entered an awkward tentlike structure that suggested an old-time photographer’s drape. Looping simultaneously were excerpts from three of Hopper’s greatest movies, at least two of which, Easy Rider and Out of the Blue, are some of the best movies ever made in and about America. Where Easy Rider probes the tenderness and daring of masculinity at odds with itself and its forefathers, the superb Out of the Blue investigates the complicated inner life of teenage girlhood. The acid trip in the cemetery from Easy Rider echoes the psychic turmoil Linda Manz displays in Out of the Blue which The Last Movie complements with all kinds of things going out of control. Nothing is like Hopper’s films: they are commentaries on the sad horrors and thrills of contemporary America. Perhaps the way to look at the lesser works, the failures, is as “drawings” or “test drives” that eventually lead to Hopper’s best photographs, his seriously underappreciated movies, and his uncanny performances—displays of a particularly idiosyncratic brilliance.

Bruce Hainley