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Where's Walter

Commentary: 'Walter Hopps Hopps Hopps' is so bound up with the cultural history of L.A. that its departure would be nothing less than a civic tragedy.


Since Jan. 30, the Lannan Foundation has announced the sale or gift of about 300 works from its important collection of contemporary art, mostly to three American museums. Now that the controversial dispersal is nearly complete, an important question lingers.

Where's Walter?

Walter is "Walter Hopps Hopps Hopps," the wonderful 1959 portrait sculpture of the brilliant, quixotic young art historian, gallery owner and curator Walter Hopps by Edward Kienholz, which Lannan acquired nearly eight years ago in a momentous auction at Sotheby's. It didn't turn up on any of the lists of acquisitions excitedly announced in recent weeks, either by L.A.'s Museum of Contemporary Art or Chicago's Art Institute and Museum of Contemporary Art. According to Lannan grants administrator Kathleen Merrill, no final decision has been made about the disposition of the sculpture, and its fate won't be known for several weeks.

Sources indicate the Kienholz was among the 53 paintings and sculptures Lannan had hoped to sell. The Art Institute, which was the only museum with funds to make purchases from the collection, bought 48 exceptional Lannan works, including knockout paintings from the 1940s, '50s and '60s by Robert Motherwell, Clyfford Still and Gerhard Richter. They didn't buy available pieces by Donald Judd, Agnes Martin or Frank Stella--and they didn't buy "Walter Hopps Hopps Hopps."

I, for one, am glad they didn't. For although it's painful to see any major work of art leave Los Angeles, a few are so integrally bound up with the cultural history of the city that their departure would be nothing less than a civic tragedy.

Such is the case with "Walter Hopps Hopps Hopps."

The portrait sculpture is part homage, part satire. More than an image of a single individual, however, it's also a portrait of an extraordinary moment in the art life of the city.

In 1957, Kienholz and Hopps opened the Ferus Gallery on La Cienega Boulevard, the first professional space in L.A. to be principally devoted to the postwar California avant-garde. Ferus is now the stuff of legend. The gallery introduced the work of major L.A. artists, ranging from the counterculture assemblages of Wallace Berman to the perceptual abstractions of Robert Irwin, and hosted the American debut of out-of-town Pop artist Andy Warhol.

The gallery collaboration lasted about a year, until Kienholz sold his share of Ferus to Hopps. (The artist reportedly maintained, even until the day he died in June 1994, that his former partner still owed him $600 on the transaction.) Within a year after the partnership dissolved, he made the sculpture.

"Walter Hopps Hopps Hopps" is a classic early assemblage, one of Kienholz's first in the influential genre. The free-standing figure was adapted from a gas station advertising sign, which featured a cutout of the jaunty Bardahl motor oil man.

With a couple of deft alterations, Kienholz turned the clean-cut commercial sign depicting a purveyor of oil into an image of a slippery seller of Modern art. Hopps, with his horn-rimmed glasses, black suit and skinny tie, is shown pulling open his jacket, like a sidewalk slicker hawking hot wristwatches to the unsuspecting rubes. Instead of watches, though, he reveals vest-pocket reproductions of Abstract Expressionist paintings by New York School masters Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline and Jackson Pollock.

The funny figure is drizzled with amber-colored resin, instantly giving it the look of rubbish and, at the same time, a patina of venerability. Kienholz would henceforth regularly use this instant-aging technique in most of his assemblages.

Standing 6 feet, 6 inches tall, the witty portrait sculpture is, appropriately enough, just a bit larger than life. It also has some hidden charms.

Turn the flat, prop-like figure around, and its back is adorned with a variety of amusing objects: a spine made from animal vertebra, a built-in rotary telephone dial (the now-obsolete version of an art dealer's essential tool) and a welter of dusty cubbyholes. The compartments hold numerous items, including pictures, clippings, assorted medications and satirically annotated lists of noted figures in the small but influential contemporary L.A. art world.

When the sculpture was made, American art was undergoing an extraordinary transformation, which exploded in the 1960s. In addition to being a clever work of art, the Kienholz assemblage is also a kind of time capsule, a critical index of a good chunk of the avant-garde L.A. art scene at a pivotal moment in the nation's cultural life. Kienholz had fashioned a myth-making work about art in L.A., and the work itself soon entered the pantheon.

Thirty years later, though, the sculpture was about to be lost. It had long resided in the West L.A. collection of real estate developer and maverick art collector Edwin Janss Jr.

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