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WALTER HOPPS | 1932-2005

Curator Brought Fame to Postwar L.A. Artists

March 22, 2005|Christopher Knight | Times Staff Writer

The implied link between science and art came naturally. Hopps was a native of Glendale, born in 1932 into a family of prominent surgeons. He was home-tutored until junior high school, when he entered the private Polytechnic School in Pasadena. From there he went to Eagle Rock High School. After so many cloistered years, he described high school as "the most exciting time of my life; all of a sudden kids, boys, girls -- friends." It was with a class of Eagle Rock students that he first visited the Arensberg collection, to which he later returned on his own. The work of Duchamp, Picasso, Brancusi, Dali, Miro and many others made a profound impression on him.

"That was the clash," Hopps later told a Times reporter. "I thought of myself as a rational positivist. And I couldn't figure out why this seemingly nice, intelligent man [Arensberg was a prosperous businessman] had devoted his life to this collection. I started reading."

The Arensbergs had been the unofficial center of the European emigre Dada movement when they lived in New York; in Hollywood, where they moved in 1927, their role changed to that of keepers of its history.

Duchamp had been the primary advisor in the development of their collection, and for them he was the center of that legacy. It was a legacy that encountered much hostility in Los Angeles, where, just a few years after Hopps' first visit to the collection, the City Council decreed that Modern art was Communist propaganda and banned its public display.

In 1950, Hopps enrolled at Stanford; a year later he switched to UCLA to study microbiology. He also studied art history. Shortly after opening Ferus, he began to teach at UCLA Extension; over the next four years he helped to cultivate a group of art collectors informed about the avant-garde, including Betty Freeman, Monte Factor, Ed Janss and Fred and Marcia Weisman.

Kienholz made a witty 1959 assemblage-sculpture portrait of his early partner at Ferus, the title of which, "Walter Hopps Hopps Hopps," suggested his peripatetic energy. Its allusion to Beat era slang for illegal drugs also described a problem that followed Hopps for many years.

Part homage, part satire, the sculpture was made from a gas station advertising sign that featured a cutout of the Bardahl motor oil man. Kienholz turned the clean-cut image into a picture of a slippery salesman of Modern art. Hopps, with his trademark horn-rimmed glasses, black suit and skinny necktie, is shown pulling open his jacket as if he were a sidewalk slicker hawking hot merchandise to unsuspecting passersby. Instead of jewelry or watches, however, he reveals vest-pocket pictures of paintings by Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline.

Turn around the sculpture -- at 6 feet, 6 inches tall, appropriately just larger than life -- and the back features a spine made from animal vertebrae, a rotary dial telephone and annotated lists of important people in the L.A. art world.

Kienholz left the gallery to pursue his own work, and Irving Blum, a Knoll furniture salesman, became Hopps' partner in Ferus. Conflicts between them -- which later resulted in Shirley Hopps' becoming Shirley Blum -- led to Hopps' departure. In 1962 he was hired by Thomas Leavitt to become curator of the Pasadena Art Museum. In addition to the Duchamp retrospective, Hopps organized the first museum show of Frank Stella's paintings, a landmark survey of box assemblages by Joseph Cornell and "The New Painting of Common Objects," a groundbreaking 1962 survey that heralded the emergence of Pop art. When Leavitt departed the museum in 1964, Hopps was elevated to director; at 31, he was the youngest art museum director in America.

He was asked to resign four years later, the first of many times that jobs ended badly or in a cloud of complications. He was celebrated for his curatorial abilities and his working relationships with artists, but was a notoriously poor administrator.

Perhaps the most famous art-world story about Hopps concerned his chronic lateness. During his tenure at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C., the staff made lapel buttons that said, "Walter Hopps will be here in 20 minutes."

"He didn't like museum bureaucracies," Moses said. "All his files at the Pasadena Art Museum were kept under the carpet. When he left there, he didn't let anybody know about the files. Later, when they rolled up this giant carpet, they found very careful files and letters."

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