On ViewThe Menil Collection
The Curatorial Imagination of Walter Hopps
March 24 – August 13, 2023
Walking into The Curatorial Imagination of Walter Hopps, now on view at the Menil Collection, we are greeted (and that really is the word) by a larger-than-life assemblage portraying Walter Hopps (1932–2005). In 1959, Ed Kienholz constructed Walter Hopps Hopps Hopps from the metal sign for the Bardahl Oil Man, cleverly conflating Hopps with the company character who peddled oil lubricants by adding Hopps’s signature thick-framed glasses and focusing on the figure’s eyes, which are painted, penciled, worked over, and worried over in such a way as to undercut the sleekness of the Oil Man. The unctuous sales pitch persists in the slick drips of stress sweat gliding down the figure, possibly referencing Hopps’s work ethic, his drug habit, or just a succinct sendup of the Abstract Expressionist paintings he’s hawking under his suit jacket.
As the centerpiece of the first room, Kienholz’s assemblage is a fitting totem, for it announces Hopps’s presence while bringing attention back to his relationships with artists (the further one digs into the compartments in the back, the more slyly interpersonal the work gets). Born and raised in Los Angeles, Hopps’s understanding of the art world developed from what was then its periphery. In Hollywood, his artistic awareness was shaped by a chance encounter—that turned into a sustained engagement—with the Arensberg Collection. From California, Hopps moved through multiple positions in Washington, DC, before being hired by Dominique de Menil to advise her on the creation of a museum in Houston. Hopps became the Founding Director of the Menil Collection, and his widow Caroline Huber has now promised their collection of six hundred works to the museum. A selection of those works, curated by Clare Elliott, evocatively intertwines Hopps’s eclectic legacy with the Menil’s ongoing institutional sensibilities.
Elliott’s opening salvo asks us to attend to the particularities of place, and their influence on Hopps’s curatorial practice. The first room situates the viewer in California, where Hopps partnered with Kienholz to found the now legendary Ferus Gallery on La Cienega. When it opened in 1957, Ferus was one of barely a handful of Los Angeles galleries showing avant-garde art, and it quickly gained notoriety after Wallace Berman’s exhibition that year was shut down by the LA Vice Squad. At the Menil, guided by Dominique de Menil’s belief in the spiritual power of art, Berman’s work is represented by a collage of parchment paper with scraps of the Hebrew alphabet hinting at his interest in Kabbalistic mysticism. Those explorations into the psychic and symbolic charge of ancient language resonate with Jay DeFeo’s painted and bandaged white Untitled (cross) (1953), which suggests healing, while nearby Bruce Conner’s black Crucifixion (1960), with its accumulation of wax, wood, and nylon, conjures decay and despair. They each maintain a provocative tension between the flawed materiality of the ordinary and the veiled promise of the spiritual.
Other works hint at transference and transformation. In the corner, Greet the Circus with a Smile (1961), by George Herms, offers a humorous imperative carried out by a Wile E. Coyote creature with a snout composed from a curved phonographic tonearm perched on an embellished mannequin torso. Across the room, Sonia Gechtoff’s large drawing Untitled (1956–57) hovers between animal and abstraction, as does Jay DeFeo’s small, shell-like gouache After Image (1970), with its delicately peeling trace paper frame. All of these artists were supported by Ferus early in their careers.
Behind the impresario that is Walter Hopps Hopps Hopps radiates a salon-style hang of photographs, collages, watercolors, and anecdotal assemblages such as Copley’s Pasadena Incident (1962). Many were gifts to Hopps from friends, and some were “souvenirs” he swiped from their studios. (George Herms’s nickname for Hopps was “El Bandito,” but he also credits Hopps’s acquisitive impulse for preserving objects that might otherwise have been lost, broken, or discarded). There are inside jokes, images of Hopps, and a sense of irreverent collective energy.
Elliott assigns a room to each phase of Hopps’s career. The next gallery is dedicated to East and West Coast Pop, an homage to New Paintings of Common Objects, the first exhibition of Pop art in the United States, which Hopps curated after his move to the Pasadena Art Museum in 1962. In the third room, Elliott re-envisions Hopps’s selections for the US Pavilion at the São Paolo Biennale in 1965. Fostering a dialogue with neo-concrete abstraction, he included the established Barnett Newman with relative newcomers Donald Judd, Frank Stella, and Larry Bell, whose work with glass panes pushed the minimalist project in an ethereal direction. Sam Gilliam’s painting on metal, also in this room, previews Hopps’s time in Washington, DC, where he re-located in 1967, curating an exhibition of Gilliam’s work at the Corcoran in 1969.
While based in DC, Hopps explored the South. The fourth room offers an array of photographs by Alabama native William Christenberry and Tennessee-born, Mississippi-raised William Eggleston, all of which testify to Hopps’s lifelong interest in the vernacular, bolstered by pioneers in documentary photography Eugène Atget (admired by the Surrealists), Henri Cartier-Bresson, and Walker Evans. The immense Robert Longo tableau Master Jazz (1982–83) that dominates the fifth room feels even more imposing after the constellation of modest photographs. Now, the photographic image is marshaled by artists in the 1980s to comment on pop culture in both drastic and quietly diagrammatic ways (as in works by Anne Doran).
Implicit throughout the exhibition, the Dadaist impulse that guided Hopps’s career is revealed in a tiny gallery that displays Marcel Duchamp’s By or of Marcel Duchamp or Rrose Sélavy (Box), [De ou par Marcel Duchamp ou Rrose Sélavy (Boîte)], Series B (1941–52), several Joseph Cornell boxes, and Kurt Schwitters’s Merz. Hopps curated the first US solo retrospectives of Duchamp, Cornell, and Schwitters. Borrowing from Hopps’s method of mixing old and new, Elliott groups these key representatives of the historical avant-garde with a selection of contemporary Houston artists Hopps came to know and admire, including Mel Chin. The cramped room operates a bit like one of Cornell’s boxes—packed with small items that are at once playful and portentous, as if an alchemical reaction is imminent.
It is fitting that, with the last room in the exhibition, we are released into a gallery devoted to Robert Rauschenberg. This finale echoes the major Rauschenberg retrospective Hopps curated at the National Collection of Fine Arts to coincide with the nation’s bicentennial. For that 1976 show, Hopps subverted the very tradition of a retrospective by installing the works in reverse chronological order, saving the earliest for last. Here, too, are some of Rauschenberg’s earliest works, along with later ones that more directly share Hopps’s neo-Dadaist inclinations. Paintings like Crucifixion and Reflection (1950), a white and beige doubled cross, and Night Blooming (1951), a glossy black oil with rough gravel and sticky asphaltum, echo the spiritual and material concerns from the first room; both entered the Menil Collection during Hopps’s tenure. For Hopps, Rauschenberg was the quintessential American artist. But, as folks here know well, he hails from Port Arthur, Texas. Rauschenberg transcends place, but his position in Houston can’t help but be local.
Does Hopps transcend place? Like his contemporary Harald Szeemann, he was one of the first itinerant curators; Kienholz listed all his addresses in the back of Hopps Hopps Hopps. But despite frequent moves, his time in Houston places him firmly in the lineage of other imaginative, ambitious curators, like Jermayne MacAgy, who thought deeply about aesthetic ideals in close collaboration with the Menils. Hopps doesn’t need to transcend place. He looks right at home at the Menil Collection.