Ed Ruscha, 1964, gelatin silver print, 16 x 24 in., taken by Dennis Hopper. (© The Estate of Dennis…)
It was a year ago, late on a June gloom Venice afternoon, when I last sat down with Dennis Hopper. We had been working for over 18 months on a publication of his photographs for Taschen Books. It was our last meeting before the book went to print and he was reading, with a mix of curiosity and bemusement, a biography I had written for the publication.
It is not an easy thing to sit beside an icon and watch him read a summation that you've written of his entire existence. But Dennis, thankfully, had a sense of humor — particularly about himself. His only comment to me concerning the bio was, "Do you really think anyone will want to read about me?" to which my answer was a definitive "yes." Dennis was as crazy and as colorful a character as any he portrayed onscreen, and his own life — a rich, fertile and freethinking adventure — was his greatest role.
Throughout the countless meetings and extensive interviews over nearly two years of creating the Taschen book, Hopper was full of wit, intelligence and colorful reminiscences, and had a surprisingly sharp recollection of his past that defied his reputation as a former drug-addled maniac.
Hopper had gotten sober at the age of 50, but the prior years of experimentation and self-abuse had affected neither his memory nor his attitude. Hopper loved art, music, and life with a gusto that had grown over the years, rather than waned. He told me that he was well aware of his good fortune – and made sure to use his circumstances to live as fully and passionately as he could.
"I've always tried to lead a sensual life," he said, "to take risks and be ballsy and continue to be curious about the world around me."
Hopper's charisma is not easy to define. For some, he was the hell-raising bearded weirdo who summarily dismissed the '60s dream while simultaneously embodying it. He was an Easy Rider and an Apocalyptic lunatic. He was a charlatan, a charmer, a warped genius. But he was also the gentleman badass — an aging American Dreamer who found a ninth life as a gray-haired outlaw of the movies.
Perhaps his most surprising persona was Hopper as dedicated visual artist, passionate and curious about the world around him. In fact, Hopper was an important figure of the late 20th century art world — a creator, collaborator, connector and avid collector who helped to form the foundation of the Pop Art movement.
This is the Hopper that will be celebrated in a career retrospective opening Sunday at MOCA, the first full-scale exhibition under the leadership of the museum's new director, Jeffrey Deitch. Hopper helped plan the show before he died of complication from prostate cancer May 29.
"One of the most exciting experiences I ever had in L.A. was going to a party at Dennis' house many years ago," remembers Deitch, "and just being there was thrilling. The house was one of Frank Gehry's first residential commissions and it is a work of art itself — but it is filled with art as well: Bruce Conner works alongside of sculptures of Dennis' own and graffiti paintings that he had had Venice kids paint, alongside Basquiats and a Marcel Duchamp. When you were inside Dennis' world, art surrounded you. That really stayed with me and stimulated me. So when I was thinking about ways to begin programming at MOCA, Dennis was already on my mind."
Deitch, an influential New York gallerist and dealer before his MOCA appointment, has faced some criticism for the Hopper show — snide asides that he's pandering to the Hollywood elite by glorifying one of their own. But he and the show's guest curator, artist (and longtime Hopper pal) Julian Schnabel, are confident these rumblings will be silenced by the show itself.
"Dennis is just a seminal figure in the artists' landscape, particularly in Los Angeles since Pop Art's inception," says Schnabel. "He was friends with, and documented, all of the great young artists of the Pop Art scene. He showed alongside those artists, people like Ed Ruscha and Bruce Conner."
Hopper's fascination with art began with painting lessons at the Nelson-Atkins Museum while still a child in Kansas City, Mo. He continued his connection with art throughout his first contract with Warner Bros. at age 18, and through the years of movie stardom, self-enforced Hollywood exile, and triumphant return that followed.
"I had always been immersed in art, always fascinated by it, always experimenting with it," Hopper had told me in the course of our interviews for the Taschen publication, "and I tried to take advantage of my situation, of being in Hollywood, of being lucky enough to sometimes have a little money and a little of my own time — to focus on making art and enjoying art and collecting art. Always."