Walter Hopps Obituary
by Gary Comenas (2005)
Billy Name: "Walter Hopps was a surprisingly brilliant and very well-liked and admired curator as a young man. He had a magic-like inspiring air like enlightened, creative people have. He was very engaging and easily knowable. I liked him a lot, as did everyone in the art scene."
(Photo: Gary Cameron)
Walter Hopps died on March 20, 2005 at the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. He was 72 years old and had been suffering from pneumonia. The last exhibition that he organized for a museum was George Herms: Hot Set at the Santa Monica Museum of Art from March 5 - May 14, 2005.
Hopps made several important contributions to Pop. He was one of the original owners of the Ferus Gallery which was the first gallery to show Warhol's Soup Cans in 1962 and during the same year he organized what is generally regarded as the first Pop exhibition in a museum, New Painting of Common Objects, at the Pasadena Art Museum (now the Norton Simon Museum). The following year he organized the first U.S. retrospective of Marcel Duchamp at the same museum.
"Here's how it all began. By 1959 I had bought out my partner, Edward Kienholz, and taken over Ferus Gallery. I shopped around for another partner because I was supposed to still be going to U.C.L.A. When Irving Blum came into Ferus Gallery, I gave him a third of the stock to act as its director... In 1960 in New York, I met a man named David Herbert who worked for Betty Parsons, then Sidney Janis... Herbert knew Andy Warhol, whom we had never heard of in California. Herbert said 'You've got to meet this artist, Andy Warhol,' and this finally happened in the fall of 1961. Herbert's friends hung out in this trendy Manhattan store called Serendipity. Herbert arranged the meeting there and finally Warhol showed up. Irving Blum and I went to Warhol's studio on Lexington Avenue in the Upper East Side." (PK43)
Among the works that Warhol showed him were the Pop paintings of comic strip characters and newspaper advertisements that Warhol had displayed in the window of Bonwit Teller in April 1961. Hopps also recalled being shown an unstretched canvas of a work "that has since disappeared" of Superman flying through the air with Lois Lane in his arms. Although Hopps was "blown away" by Warhol's work it wasn't until the Soup Cans that an exhibition was arranged. (PK44)
"At some point, we may have also seen, in Warhol's studio, work in progress that included one of his first Campbell's Soup cans. Blum was running Ferus Gallery, but I still had ownership stock and had stayed involved. I said to Warhol, 'Absolutely, I want to take some of this work for a show in Los Angeles.' Warhol, who had never been to California, answered with some excitement, 'Oh, that's where Hollywood is!' In the sea of magazines and fanzines scattered on the floor, so deep it was hard to walk around, were all those Photoplay and old-fashioned glamour magazines out of the Hollywood publicity mill. So a show in L.A. sounded great to Warhol. He agreed, and thus the multiple-image soup can show came to Ferus in 1962. Warhol missed that first exhibition of his Pop images, but he finally made it to California in September 1963 for the opening of the Marcel Duchamp retrospective at the Pasadena Art Museum and his own second Ferus show." (PK44)
The now historic exhibition of Warhol's 32 canvases of individual soup cans took place at the Ferus Gallery from July 9 - August 1, 1962. New Painting of Common Objects opened the following month at the Pasadena Art Museum (now the Norton Simon Museum). Hopps organized the New Painting show as curator for the museum .
"By the time the Warhol show hit, I was working full time as curator and then director at the Pasadena Art Museum. I had started doing some shows there in 1960, never having thought of my future as being a gallery dealer. Somebody asked once why I did the gallery work and it was like when Max Ernst was asked why he painted. He replied, 'So, I have something I like to look at.' In a way, I did the gallery work because the art that the California artists and I wanted to look at, we couldn't see in Los Angeles in the late 1950s, early 1960s." (PK48/9)
The New Painting exhibition featured 8 artists each of whom were represented by three works. Warhol's contribution was Campbell's Cream of Chicken, Campbell's Pepper Pot and Green Stamps. The exhibition catalogue consisted of mimeographed pages contributed by the artists. The show's poster was designed by Ed Ruscha - by telephone.
"... we couldn't afford a full catalogue, so instead we created a special portfolio - copies are rare now. What I was able to do - we didn't have photocopiers or fax machines in those days - was crank out a checklist and my gallery notes by hand from a mimeograph stencil. Then I got every artist in the show to do a page as a stencil, and we ran off these line drawings. We put the whole package in a white envelope with a gummed label, red on white. I had a rubber stamp made that I stamped on the label in blue ink: New Painting of Common Objects. Edward Rusha designed the poster by calling up a commercial printer who made posters for concerts and boxing matches. Ruscha dictated all the copy over the phone, and his only directions on the type and style were to 'make it loud!' The poster came back with bold red and black type on a bright yellow background. Our limited budget dictated the portfolio and poster, though the off-the-shelf look fit right in with the show's aesthetics." (PK45)
In an art world still suffering withdrawal pains from Abstract Expressionism, the critical reaction to the show was mixed. It wasn't until Pop was embraced in the general press that it was accepted by many old school art-tellectuals.
Jules Langsner [Art International, September 1962]:
"This critic finds himself in the unfamiliar (and vaguely uneasy) position of being cantankerously at odds with a serious effort to fashion a new mode of vision in the pictorial arts. That effort is the attempt to invest commonplace objects with a hitherto unsuspected significance, usually in painting with a straightforward presentation, on a magnified scale of things characteristic of our machine way of life. To be sure, this tendency, variously described as New Social Realism, Common Object Painting, and Commonism, currently is receiving the endorsement of the more zealous enthusiasts of "Pop" Culture as well as the shrill acclaim of the more chic circles of the art world... The Pasadena Art Museum's current exhibition - New Painting of Common Objects - has brought this emerging tendency into sharp focus... A can of Campbell Soup by Andy Warhol, or a Travel Check by Dowd, initially rivets the viewer's attention by the simple expedient of removing the mundane object from its ordinary surroundings and enormously increasing its scale. The initial shock, however, wears off in a matter of seconds, leaving one as bored with the painting as with the object it presents." (PC33)
"Langsner championed abstract art. He literally coined the term 'hard-edge painting' to describe the refined geometric renderings of John McLaughlin, for example - I will give him credit for that. He also wrote the first positive reviews of the young Abstract Expressionists in California such as Craig Kauffman." (PK46)
The following year, Hopps organized the Duchamp retrospective at the Pasadena Art Museum. Warhol, who was in Los Angeles to see his second show at the Ferus (the Elvis paintings), also attended the opening party of the Duchamp exhibition. It was during that trip that Warhol filmed Elvis at Ferus and shot footage for Tarzan and Jane Regained.... Sort of.
"Marcel Duchamp was having a retrospective at the Pasadena Museum and we were invited to that opening... I talked a lot to Duchamp and his wife, Teeny, who were great, and Taylor [Mead] danced all night with Patty Oldenburg - she and Claes had been living in California for a year 'to get the feel of a new environment,' she said, so they could send back a 'bedroom' for a group exhibit at the Sidney Janis Gallery in early '64... They served pink champagne at the party, which tasted so good that I made the mistake of drinking a lot of it, and on the way home we had to pull over to the side of the road so I could throw up on the flora and fauna. In California, in the cool night air, you even felt healthy when you puked - it was so different from New York." (POP43)
Two years after joining the Pasadena Art Museum as a curator, Hopps was promoted to director of the Museum at the age of 31 - making him the youngest director of a museum in the U.S. at the time. (AI) Other exhibitions that he presented there included the first Joseph Cornell retrospective and the first American retrospective of Kurt Schwitters. (MP) He left the museum in 1967 to become the director of the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington D.C. where he remained until 1972. From 1972 - 1979 he was the curator of 20th Century American Art at the Smithsonian American Art Museum where he organized the mid-career retrospective of Robert Rauschenberg during the American bicentennial in 1976. (PG)
Hopps' success as a curator was exceptional for someone without a college degree. Although he attended various universities he never earned a degree. His unorthodox approach to his curatorial duties generally endeared him to artists and his staff although he was reportedly fired from the Corcoran because of the hours he kept - or didn't keep. According to one account of his days there, he was fired "because of his habit of disappearing for hours, among other eccentric behaviour." (WPL) James T. Demetrion, who worked as a curator for Hopps at the Pasadena Art Museum, recalled Hopps hanging a Jasper Johns exhibit the night before it opened: "He said he'd show up at 9 pm, though, of course he didn't. He strolled in after midnight, and we were there all night. Still, the show looked great." (WPR) Hopps' boss at the Smithsonian, Joshua C. Taylor, sometimes remarked, "If I could find him, I'd fire him." The staff at the Smithsonian produced a badge which ironically read, "Walter Hopps will be here in 20 minutes." He never was. (WPR)
In 1980 Hopps joined the Menil Foundation in Houston and became the Founding Director of The Menil Collection in 1987. He organized the Robert Rauschenberg: The Early 1950s exhibition for The Menil Collection and in 1996 was responsible for the Edward Kienholz retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art. The following year he organized a survey of Rauschenberg's work at the Guggenheim which traveled to several museums in the U.S. and Europe. In 2001 the Menil Foundation created a biannual award in his name - the Walter Hopps Award for Curatorial Achievement - and he also became Adjunct Senior Curator of Twentieth Century Art at the Guggenheim. In 2003 he organized the James Rosenquist retrospective at the Guggenheim with co-curator Sarah Bancroft.
In addition to his curatorial work, Hopps also served as the art director for Grand Street, a New York literary and arts magazine edited by Jean Stein, the author of Edie: American Girl. Warhol stars Gerard Malanga and Brigid Berlin were both contributors to the magazine. Issue no. 55 included reproductions from Brigid's Cock Book and an article about Brigid by Anne Doran; issue no. 68 featured a piece written by Brigid on sweets; and issue no. 63 included Gerard Malanga's poem, Leaving New York.
Hopps' life was celebrated at two memorial events - one at the Santa Monica Museum of Art on May 3, 2005 and another at The Menil Collection in Houston on May 17th. He is survived by his wife, Caroline Huber, of Houston.