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WALTER HOPPS | 1932-2005

Curator Brought Fame to Postwar L.A. Artists

March 22, 2005|Christopher Knight | Times Staff Writer

Hopps was named director of the Corcoran in 1970 and fired in 1972. His seven years at the National Collection of Fine Arts (now the National Museum of American Art) were marked by chronic absenteeism, which prompted Director Joshua Taylor to pay his curator only for the time he spent inside the building. Hopps joined Houston's Menil Foundation in 1980 -- artistically an excellent fit, given the collection's strength in Surrealism -- and became founding director of its celebrated museum in 1987; but patron Dominique de Menil despaired of her director's administrative failings. He was made chief curator and a new director was hired. In 2001 the Menil Foundation inaugurated the Walter Hopps Award for Curatorial Achievement, a $25,000 prize bestowed biennially by an international jury.

Hopps once estimated that he organized more than 250 museum shows during his career. Most were well received. Among his great successes was a pair of Robert Rauschenberg surveys -- one for the National Museum on the occasion of the 1976 American Bicentennial, the other, in 1991, for the Menil. Among his rare failures was 1984's "The Automobile and Culture," a show for L.A.'s then new Museum of Contemporary Art that ironically ended up demonstrating what little influence automotive imagery had on Modern art.

"With him goes a certain breed of unorthodox curator," said painter and Newsweek art critic Peter Plagens, who lived in Los Angeles during Hopps' heyday at Ferus and the Pasadena Museum. "Museums now are much more business-based and focused on the bottom line. There are fewer margins for error, so you don't have guys like Hopps who are not organization people -- much to their credit. He might have been the last of the breed."

Hopps is survived by his second wife, Caroline Huber. A memorial service is being planned.

Times staff writer Suzanne Muchnic contributed to this report.

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