Paint­ing a col­or­ful life in art

A mem­oir col­lects rem­i­nis­cences from an un­ortho­dox cu­ra­tor at the fore­front of in­no­va­tion and ex­per­i­men­ta­tion

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOK WORLD - BY WENDY SMITH book­world@wash­post.com

Afree­wheel­ing spirit speaks from the pages of “The Dream Colony,” a de­light­fully stream-of-con­scious­ness mem­oir crafted by ed­i­tor Deb­o­rah Treis­man from the tape-recorded rem­i­nis­cences of Wal­ter Hopps. Hopps, who died in 2005, was a glee­fully un­ortho­dox ad­vo­cate for cut­tingedge art. His cu­ra­to­rial stints at such ven­er­a­ble in­sti­tu­tions as the Cor­co­ran Gallery and the Smith­so­nian never man­aged to turn him into a con­ven­tional mu­seum pro­fes­sional.

Hopps came from un­con­ven­tional stock. His grand­fa­ther left home to pan for gold and wound up in Mex­ico, where he raised a stake to open a hard­ware store by us­ing his ex­per­tise with dy­na­mite to blow open a jammed safe door for a grate­ful banker. Hopps’s fa­ther, a doc­tor, re­moved his son’s ap­pen­dix him­self and pre­sented it to Wal­ter in a bot­tle af­ter surgery. “I al­ways meant to take a pic­ture of it,” Hopps muses, “but some­how didn’t or couldn’t.”

Mar­velous anec­dotes abound in “The Dream Colony.” Among his friends and col­leagues, Hopps was as fa­mous for his sto­ry­telling as he was for his em­brace of art that be­wil­dered or en­raged oth­ers. He too saw the world in a dif­fer­ent way. Even in his ele­men­tary school in Cal­i­for­nia, he in­cited fel­low first-graders to ig­nore their teacher’s “stu­pe­fy­ingly ob­vi­ous” in­struc­tions to wall­pa­per the rooms of a doll­house and in­stead “tear up the wall­pa­per and make mul­ti­col­ored col­lages.”

Hopps was still tear­ing up the rule book when he started ex­hibit­ing art in a ramshackle Los An­ge­les neigh­bor­hood in 1952, barely 20 years old. For his first big show, “Ac­tion,” he hung paint­ings on the curved walls of an aban­doned merry-go-round on Santa Mon­ica Pier, a dis­play of con­tem­po­rary Cal­i­for­nia artists so hip that a con­tin­gent of San Fran­cisco Beats trekked south to see it. At the Ferus Gallery, co-founded with artist Ed­ward Kien­holz in 1957, he con­tin­ued pro­mot­ing West Coast tal­ent, “about evenly di­vided be­tween the dark-side-of-the-moon as­sem­blage artists and the lyric ab­stract peo­ple.” As­sem­blage pioneer Wal­lace Ber­man’s one­man show at Ferus was closed down by the vice squad due to a sex­u­ally ex­plicit photo in one of his boxes.

Hopps liked edgy art by edgy peo­ple. Ber­man “made a bit of a liv­ing as a pool hus­tler and a card shark,” he tells us, and the vivid de­pic­tions of his artist friends are stud­ded with such mat­ter-of-fact ref­er­ences. We see John Al­toon slash­ing his own paint­ings be- cause he was an­gry at a gallery owner, and Kien­holz telling Hopps, af­ter he found tow­er­ing stacks of liquor cases in the Ferus store­room, “Some peo­ple I know kind of got it off the back of a truck . . . . Let’s not go into the de­tails.” There is, of course, ma­jor al­co­hol and drug abuse by ev­ery­one, in­clud­ing Hopps, who took speed to get him through his day job at a bio­science lab and then ate or­anges in­jected with grain al­co­hol “to stop the shakes.”

The bad be­hav­ior and high times make amus­ing read­ing, but the more im­por­tant nar­ra­tive traces Hopps’s life­long en­gage­ment with art at the fore­front of in­no­va­tion and ex­per­i­men­ta­tion. At the Pasadena Art Mu­seum, he cu­rated “New Paint­ing of Com­mon Ob­jects,” which spot­lighted work so new that in 1962 it wasn’t yet called pop art. But he also or­ga­nized the first mu­seum ret­ro­spec­tives of Mar­cel Duchamp, who had been out­rag­ing tra­di­tional-minded view­ers since the 1913 Ar­mory Show, and of Joseph Cor­nell, whose work ap­peared in a New York ex­hibit of sur­re­al­ist art in 1932. Hopps had a deep ground­ing in avant-garde art of the early 20th cen­tury; he con­nected it with gusto to the in­cen­di­ary work ex­plod­ing across Amer­ica in the cen­tury’s sec­ond half.

The whole coun­try seemed to be ex­plod­ing by the time Hopps ar­rived in D.C. in 1967. He was po­lit­i­cally ac­tive him­self and com­pares his tu­mul­tuous ten­ure as di­rec­tor of the Cor­co­ran to “do­ing a tour of South­east Asia.” The Cor­co­ran’s 1971 Bi­en­nial was a vir­tual who’s who of con­tem­po­rary Amer­i­can art, with Roy Licht­en­stein, Philip Pearl­stein, Ed Ruscha, Alex Katz, Wayne Thiebaud and many oth­ers. A few months later, Hopps was out, fired for en­cour­ag­ing the staff to form a union.

He moved on to the Smith­so­nian’s Na­tional Col­lec­tion of Fine Arts (now the Amer­i­can Art Mu­seum); the mem­oir rates a Robert Rauschen­berg ret­ro­spec­tive as the most im­por­tant show he did there. Hopps’s shrewd, ap­pre­cia­tive assess­ment of Rauschen­berg is one of the best of his bril­liant thumb­nail sketches, along with lov­ing rec­ol­lec­tions of his friend Kien­holz and the Los An­ge­les col­lec­tor Edwin Janss Jr., a cher­ished men­tor and fa­ther fig­ure.

Hopps’s death in 2005 cut short the record­ing ses­sions with artist/ jour­nal­ist Anne Do­ran from which Treis­man win­nowed this mem­oir. An af­fec­tion­ate por­trait of Hous­ton-based col­lec­tors John and Do­minique de Me­nil closes “The Dream Colony,” which says lit­tle about the years af­ter his ap­point­ment as found­ing di­rec­tor of the Me­nil Col­lec­tion in 1981. A com­pre­hen­sive chronol­ogy fol­low­ing main text cov­ers the main events of the sub­se­quent quar­ter-cen­tury, but it’s hardly nec­es­sary. Hopps’s at­mo­spheric ac­count cap­tures three decades in the art world with such pas­sion and per­cep­tion that we don’t need to know more about what he did, though we may very well wish we could have hung out with this dy­namo and heard him talk more about art. Wendy Smith is the au­thor of “Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and Amer­ica, 1931-1940.”

ABOVE: From left, Robert Alexan­der, John Reed, Wal­lace Ber­man, Juanita Dixon and Wal­ter Hopps in the al­ley next to the Ferus Gallery in Los An­ge­les in 1957.

CHARLES BRITTIN/J. PAUL GETTY TRUST

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