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WALTER HOPPS | 1932-2005

Curator Brought Fame to Postwar L.A. Artists

March 22, 2005|Christopher Knight | Times Staff Writer

Walter Hopps, an art dealer and museum curator who was instrumental in bringing the first generation of postwar Los Angeles artists to international prominence and whose 1963 retrospective of Dada artist Marcel Duchamp ranks as a seminal event in modern museum history, died Sunday in Los Angeles after a brief hospitalization. He was 72 and lived in Houston.

Frail and in ill health for some time, Hopps had pneumonia, according to artist Ed Moses, a longtime friend. Hopps was in Southern California for a 45-year survey of assemblage art by sculptor George Herms, which he organized for the Santa Monica Museum of Art.

Artist Larry Bell said that he had unexpectedly encountered Hopps in the coffee shop of a Venice hotel last Tuesday and that he insisted on taking him to see his doctor.

Bell said Hopps had fallen earlier and broken several ribs, which contributed to a buildup of fluids in his lungs. On Saturday, Bell and Moses had hoped to visit Hopps at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, but Hopps had been moved to intensive care and was in a coma. He died there Sunday morning.

At the time of his death, Hopps was curator of 20th century art at the Menil Collection in Houston, where he had been founding director, and an adjunct senior curator at New York's Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. When the surprise dual appointment was made, Ned Rifkin, then director of the Menil, described Hopps as "a giant among his peers in the arena of modern and contemporary curators." He organized a large retrospective of paintings by American Pop artist James Rosenquist for the Guggenheim in 2002.

Hopps' most celebrated exhibition was the 1963 Duchamp retrospective, held at the Pasadena Art Museum (now the Norton Simon Museum) in its original home on Los Robles Avenue. Hopps was in his first year as curator. He had been introduced to the French expatriate's iconoclastic work in the late 1940s, during a high school visit to the Hollywood home of art collectors Louise and Walter Arensberg. Their formidable collection of Cubist, Surrealist, Dadaist and other modern art, now a centerpiece of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, included such classic Duchamp works as "Nude Descending a Staircase" (1912).

During the Pasadena show, Hopps arranged two chess matches with the impish artist -- one for himself and one for the young writer Eve Babitz, who famously played her match nude.

The Duchamp exhibition was typical of Hopps' modus operandi as a curator. He had come upon the artist by accident as an impressionable and inquisitive youth, and he was determined to follow his instincts; he knew from his conversations with young artists that their interest in Duchamp's art was far ahead of the museum establishment's. A Duchamp retrospective was not mounted in New York, where the artist lived, until 1973, five years after his death. The Pasadena show entered the realm of legend as a symbol of a more freewheeling, less tradition-bound artistic climate in Southern California.

Hopps' first exhibition, organized with his first wife, Shirley, in 1954, was itself unorthodox. Dubbed "The Merry-Go-Round Show," it arose from his concern that a new generation of Abstract Expressionist painters was not being seen in L.A. Hopps rented the merry-go-round at the Santa Monica Pier for $80, stretched tarp around the poles and hung nearly 100 paintings by 40 artists, including Richard Diebenkorn, Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still and Jay De Feo. All were for sale, none for more than $300. Nothing sold.

Hopps and his wife regularly held informal exhibitions in their Brentwood apartment, where occasional sales helped keep them afloat. He briefly operated a gallery housed in a small structure built from used telephone poles. Called Syndell Studios, it was named in memory of a farmer who was killed in a freak accident while Hopps was driving cross-country. At Syndell Studios, Hopps showed the seminal Beat generation artist Wallace Berman, and he met Herms.

In 1957 he and artist Ed Kienholz, who would become an important figure in the development of assemblage art on the West Coast, opened Ferus Gallery. Ferus, the first professional space in L.A. to be principally devoted to the Southern California avant-garde, rapidly became the most adventurous and influential contemporary art gallery west of Manhattan.

In addition to showing the work of established Abstract Expressionist painters, Ferus introduced young L.A. artists to the growing scene, including Bell, Billy Al Bengston, Craig Kauffman and Robert Irwin. Moses had his first exhibition at Ferus while still a student at UCLA. Hopps once told The Times that the name Ferus -- Latin for "uncivilized" or "wild" -- was "borrowed from an anthropological description of an aboriginal tribe with subhuman, irascible, possibly dangerous tendencies."

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