Home Ground: ‘Walter Hopps Hopps Hopps’ and the making of L.A.’s contemporary art scene

| January 25, 2018 | 0 Comments

PINK’S HOT DOGS was the setting where a legendary contract by Walter Hopps and Ed Kienholz was signed on paper that held their hot dogs.

Three point six miles separate Larchmont Boulevard and 736 La Cienega Blvd. My computer computes that this trip along Melrose Ave. would take, I suppose in some alternate universe, 15 minutes. In 1957, when the artist Ed Kienholz found “a big barnlike artist’s studio with high ceilings and whitewashed walls, in the back half of a one-story building” at the La Cienega address, the ride might have taken — who knows?

But it was here that the young and curious curator Walter Hopps (1932-2005) and Ed Kienholz (1927-1994) opened Ferus Gallery, the now-famous incubator of the L.A. art that eventually made its way around the world. The two young men had signed a contract to work together — at Pink’s. They wrote the contract on the stiff paper that held their hot dogs. “We both signed it,” says Hopps, “and Ed kept it.”

The Dream Colony: A Life in Art” (Bloomsbury, 2017) by Hopps and edited by Deborah Treisman and Anne Doran, is a memoir of Hopps’s brilliant, charismatic, and complicated life as a curator that ranged from Ferus and the Pasadena Art Museum (where he famously shepherded a 1963 Marcel Duchamp retrospective into being) to the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., and the Menil Collection in Houston. (“Walter Hopps Hopps Hopps” is the 1959 Kienholz sculpture featured on the cover of the book.)

MEMOIR is of Hopps’s life as a curator that ranged from Ferus Gallery and the Pasadena Art Museum to the Corcoran and Menil Collection.

Anne Doran, an artist and writer, recorded Hopps recalling his life and work in more than 100 hours of interviews. The results were to have been edited with Hopps, but he died just before his 73rd birthday, in 2005.

The result, however, is catnip for devotees of contemporary art and especially the contemporary art born in L.A. in the late 1950s and 1960s. Hopps was a superb storyteller, and his voice on the page is a great seduction. I read some sections twice. Delicious stories abound of the collector Edwin Janss, the artists Wallace Berman, Kienholz, John Altoon, Craig Kauffman, Ed Moses, Duchamp, Frank Stella, Andy Warhol, Barnett Newman (an astounding person in this telling), Joseph Cornell, Robert Rauschenberg — and the gallerist Irving Blum, who replaced Kienholz as partner in Ferus, and, incidentally, later married Hopps’s first wife, a fact Hopps does not mention here.

Hopps does not spare himself in these recollections. A famously wild as well as brilliant man, he was a devotee of speed and alcohol and perhaps other substances I may have forgotten. He would disappear from his jobs for days at a time, and then reappear and work day and night to hang a show, and expect others to do so, too.
Unpredictable, unreliable, he has been called “one of the past century’s most eagle-eyed and accomplished curators” by Los Angeles writer and curator Michael Duncan.
Is Hopps a reliable narrator on these pages? I can’t begin to judge.

Artist Ed Ruscha, foremost among the artists who brought Los Angeles to the international stage, writes an illuminating introduction to this book. But elsewhere, he says in a recent interview on a Getty Arts & Ideas podcast, when he met Hopps in 1960 or 1961, he could immediately see that Hopps had “some kind of communication with the universe.”

Hopps could make a “spectator sport of talking,” Ruscha says; “he had an immense memory.” When he was preparing himself to talk, he would take a deep breath before he began to answer a question. “Then he would begin to pace — he sort of glided across the floor,” according to Ruscha. “It gave me the idea that he could walk on water.”

By Paula Panich

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