PORTRAIT OF AN ARTIST
AN INTERVIEW WITH DENNIS HOPPER
 


Dennis Hopper walks up the stairs and into the second floor entry of Ace Gallery, the site of Hopper’s powerful retrospective, “A Survey of Images”. He is elegantly dressed and eager to talk about his work, which fills the labyrinth of halls, alcoves and cavernous rooms that comprise the exhibition space in the gallery’s historic building. The scope of the exhibition is impressive and covers 40 years of work, starting with Hopper’s photographs from the early sixties.

A version of this exhibition opened at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam and the Mak Museum in Vienna. I assume that given the scale of this exhibition, and the fact that we are in the artist’s hometown, this exhibition is more comprehensive. I am wrong. This is the scaled down version.

Taken as a whole, which takes some time, the exhibition is a graceful dance between photography and painting, with photography deftly leading. Which is not surprising, given that Hopper stopped painting for some 18 years after losing almost all of his paintings in the Bel Air fire of 1961.

The earliest work, and the core around which the show revolves, are photographs of Hopper’s close friends. A selection of these photographs have been enlarged to billboard-size scale and hand painted in lustrous black and white. The original photographs, from which they were derived, line the gallery halls. Very few of the photographs are of actors. They are mostly artists and curators, almost all of whom have become icons of contemporary art.

In both photographs and paintings, you see the subjects just as they are hitting their prime: a young Robert Rauschenberg sticking his tongue out to the camera, Andy Warhol sitting coyly behind a tall white flower. The others are captured in equally classic moments; Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, David Hockney, Claes Oldenburg, James Rosenquist, Ed Ruscha, Ed Keinholz, George Herms, John Altoon, Robert Irwin, Larry Bell, Billy Al Bengston. The group is amazing. There are also photographs of legendary curators Walter Hopps and Henry Geldzahler, and Ferus Gallery director Irving Blum, all young and ready to take the art world by storm.

Lastly, there are rooms filled with photos of walls that read as abstract expressionist paintings, formed by the patina of weather, graffiti and time - random marks given meaning by being noticed. And in playful symmetry, there are paintings of walls based on photographs.

What is immediately apparent is that the exhibition is a reflection of a lifetime of serious artistic endeavor. As we talk, it is evident that Hopper sees himself not as an actor who also makes art, but more accurately as an artist passionately engaged in a rich multiplicity of expression, which includes acting, directing, photography, painting, installation and writing. In this sense, Dennis Hopper is very much an artist of our multi-media time.

With the level of museum interest in this exhibition, and Hopper’s inclusion in the Pompidou Center’s exhibition Los Angeles 1955-1985: Birth of an Artistic Capital, this sense seems destined to grow.

Venice: Let’s start with these billboard-size paintings. They are obviously based on the earlier photographs. The scale is wonderful. Because of their size, did you have an exhibition venue in mind when you did them?

Dennis Hopper: No. I had them rolled up in a garage. I didn’t know where to put them. I started them about ten years ago and I had them rolled up thinking they’ve got to show in a museum. There’s no gallery that’s going to be able to show them. I didn’t make them for this space but they fit. It’s amazing.

I undersatand that your path to photography was influenced by the Bel Air fire in 1961. You’d been painting up to that time and lost much of your work?

I lost everything but one painting that my father had.

At that time, did you see painting as an alternative career path for you?

No. I was an actor and I wanted to direct films but I wasn’t able to get very much work at the time, so I was painting every day. I had amassed quite a bit of work. I had a photographic show that night, so my negatives from that period were saved. But I went to start painting again and decided I couldn’t really do it. So I put the brush and all the instruments I was using on an orange board and said “That’s it, screw it.” I told Walter (Hopps), so Walter grabbed that painting. That one still exists.

What was your next move?

I started assembling objects with photographs. I didn’t paint at all. I started putting down painting totally, saying that the machine was here, and everybody’s afraid of the machine and we should start using the machine.

With your photography, did you make distinctions between using it as a record of the moment and using it as an equivalent replacement to painting?

I was always trying to be artsy fartsy with it. I tried to take anything but a snapshot. I tried to avoid taking pictures of people standing in front of cars, and in front of laundry in those days. I tried to avoid sunsets and baby pictures. They crept in every once in awhile but I tried to avoid them. I always thought of them as an artistic endeavor.

You have a number of paintings and photographs of walls in the show. What is the basis of your fascination with them?

It’s always fascinated me. Los Angeles is a place that’s not very visual. You see graffiti, you see walls, you see the city come and paint it over and you get these different colors in the walls and these Rothko kind of things start happening. And the billboards, because we’re constantly driving somewhere. We’re constantly seeing the world from a car.

What is it in particular about walls that excites your attention.

Well I think of them as paintings, which is what made it so ludicrous, me saying “Screw painting. Let them take their paint brushes and stick them up their asses and go back to their caves. You know, the machine is here bubba.” Because basically all I’ve tried to do is make paintings with a camera, or film.

Is there something about the found nature of them that excites you?

They’re like a painting surface. That made me start realizing that you could make poetry in a block, if you start abstracting the reality of it, if you have an eye. It’s amazing. Then all the visual information that you have, that’s been stored, you walk by and say “Oh, wait. That looks like a Rauschenberg. Look at that. That looks like an Oldenburg.” You know you just snap away, and walk on. (Laughs)

You have a performance piece in the show, Life After Death. This sixteen millimeter film depicts you in the center of a circle of dynamite, igniting it, the explosion, and your obvious and unbelievable relief at surviving. I have two questions for you. First, what were you thinking as you were doing this.

You don’t want to go there, (Laughs).

Ok let me ask the other question. What the hell were you thinking?

Ok. I had this show that was starting at the Chicago Art Institute, around1980. It was traveling around and it was going to go to the Menil Foundation in Houston. I hadn’t painted in probably 18 years and I started painting. So I called Walter and told him I’m painting again and I want to show paintings. And he said, “That’s crazy after all these years that you’d be painting now.” I said, “I’ve got a way to introduce it and what I’m going to do is blow myself up and announce that I’m really serious about painting.”

That’s an incredible commitment-

Anyhow, I had to explain this long story to him about how I’d seen this as a kid at the rodeo in Dodge City, Kansas, where this guy called himself the Human Stick of Dynamite and blew himself up. So I found this guy in Salt Lake City, Oly Andersen, who had a daredevil auto show. All you have to do - dynamite won’t blow in on itself -you lay the dynamite in a circle and simply get inside. As long as they all go off simultaneously, it creates a vacuum and you just stay inside it. So that’s what I did.

How did you start developing your perspective as an artist?

Well I started out in Dodge City, Kansas. My mother put me in tap dancing class with a bunch of girls and I flipped out and wouldn’t do that. So then I ended up with this watercolor painter, who painted Rocky Mountain watercolors.

You were about what age?

I was about five to seven. Then when my father came back from the Second World War, we moved to Kansas City, Missouri. So from the time I was nine to thirteen I studied art at the Atkins-Nelson Art Gallery. Saturdays we’d be over there for five and a half hours in the kids program. They had a theater in the museum and I used to go and sketch the actors.

When did you move to California?

When I was 13 we moved to San Diego, California and I started acting at the Old Globe Theater in San Diego. I graduated from high school and came to Los Angeles and went

under contract to Warner Brothers. But I never stopped painting as a kid. I painted all the way through high school and so on and continued painting when I got to Los Angeles.

How did you first meet the artists in LA, who would later become your friends?

James Dean and I went to see this Chinese guy, who was an old Chinese man on Hollywood Boulevard, who used to dress in a Confederate General’s outfit as I remember. And he would recite Shakespeare and sonnets on Hollywood Boulevard for money in a cap. He was passing out mailers saying that he was going to have a reading. So Jimmy and I went to this reading – I think we were doing Rebel Without a Cause, so I was 18. And that night, at that reading at Stone Brothers Printers, I met Bob Alexander, (Ed) Keinholz, (Wallace)Berman, George Herms and Walter Hopps. Then we went away and did Giant, Dean died, and I just stayed with that group. Walter and Keinholz then formed Ferus, over a stale hot dog, as they used to say, I was just around during that whole period.

What was your first introduction to Pop Art?

I came into the Ferus Gallery in 1962 and Irving (Blum) said, “Let me show you these two photographs and see what you think of them.” And he showed me a Soup Can painting by Warhol and a cartoon by Lichtenstein. And I went crazy. I started jumping up and down, saying, “This is the return to reality. This is what everybody has been talking about.” All the critics are talking about return to reality. And they thought it was the Bay Area figurative painters. I said, “No this is it. This is the return to reality.” So Irving says, “Well, what are you doing tomorrow?” I said, “Nothing.” So Irving and I got in an airplane the next day and we went to New York. And at that point I met (Henry) Geldzahler, I met Andy, I met Roy. I met Rauschenberg. I met Jasper Johns.

When you first met them, you’d already become pretty well known as an actor. How did that impact their perception of you as an artist? Did it help it, hurt it?

I think being an actor hurt it. I mean it certainly opened up the doors for me to meet them. But uh, I would say that Rauschenberg was the only one of that whole group, besides Andy later, when he saw the photographs. But nobody ever thought of me as an artist, besides Keinholz, who helped me with my assemblages and so on.

I see you more than anyone else from the film world, out in the galleries and museums. I’m always surprised there isn’t more of a cross-over because I share your view, I think, that the disciplines are so inter-related.

Yeah, I never thought of compartmentalizing. I just thought acting was part of living in culture, you know. If you were an actor, a painter, a poet, if you could play music great - whatever you could do. I mean, I knew I was never going to do opera but I enjoyed opera and I felt that was part of my life as a creative person. Not that I could sing opera or even that I would ever direct it, but I felt it was really important.

How did you develop your thinking about acting and the arts?

There’s an acting book by Richard Boleslavsky. He and Stanislovsky started the Moscow Art Theater. He broke away from Stanislovsky and he went out into the country and wrote a little book that’s called “The First Six Lessons.” It’s a small book. In the beginning it’s a play between the character and the teacher. This young woman comes to this professor of acting, and wants to study with him. And he says to her: “Do you know the great literature of your day? Do you know the great paintings of your day? Do you know the great poetry of your day? I’m not talking about history, I’m talking about contemporary things. Do you know the contemporary world around you because unless you know that, how dare you come to me and ask me to teach you acting. Because unless you know the contemporary writing and creative things of your day, then how can you express yourself, because you are your instrument.” So I took that to heart, said yeah, well that seems right. And I thought while you’re learning it, why not do it. So I created with everything I possibly could. I wrote poetry, I made paintings, I acted. I finally got to direct movies. All hard battles each one of them.

And the hardest?

The hardest was trying to paint and trying to exhibit with painters.

I would be stopped, first of all because I was an actor and actors aren’t trustworthy.

In what way?

Because they were actors, they must be acting as painters, or whatever. So unless you had a credential from a university or an art school, they weren’t interested in showing your work. And then when I started taking photographs, I couldn’t even show my photographs in the same places that painters showed. They were just suspect. So it took a long time for that. But I collected the people that I liked.

Which was fairly unusual at the time. I know the Ferus Gallery had many shows where little sold.

Well there were also very few people who were interested. You know, I lost an agent when I bought the Soup Can painting.

How so?

I bought the first Tomato Soup can painting by Andy from John Weber at the Dwan Gallery. Irving was selling them for $100 (at Ferus Gallery) and I said, “How much is this?” and John said, “This is at seventy five dollars.” So I thought, “Wow, I’m getting a real good deal here.” So I bought that and I bought a Keinholz for $125. It was a mannequin head of a woman on a rollerskate picking her nose called The Society Girl, Quickie. And I bought a big wooden construction of his called White on the Side. So I brought these things home and my agent came in, looked at it and he said, “You should be embarrassed. You’re married to Margaret Sullivan and Leland Hayward’s daughter. Obviously she has money and you don’t, and you’re squandering it by buying this junk. Now, either you respect that and get rid of this stuff immediately or I’m leaving and I’m not going to be your agent anymore. And I said, “Good-bye then.” So that was the beginning of my collecting.

From looking at the picture of the one early painting of yours to survive the fire, the one you gave to your father, it appears you were working very much in an abstract expressionist style. Do you think that, in some sense, losing that body of work made you more open to fully embrace the Pop movement?

Oh, absolutely. Also we didn’t have any paintings at the time. My wife, Brooke (Hayward) had two paintings, a Milton Avery that her father had given her and something else. We grabbed those paintings and saved those things out of the house, but I lost all my stuff that was in the garage. But the insurance money, since we were totally wiped out, gave us an opportunity to go out in 1961 and find a new house and start collecting art. So over that period of time, 1961 to 1967, I spent twenty-eight thousand dollars to get a collection that’s probably now worth over 100 million dollars.

And spending twenty-eight thousand then, people probably thought you were insane.

Yeah, absolutely crazy. Like when I got the Warhol and the Keinholz.

When you came into the gallery today, you mentioned that there is a Lichtenstein painting coming up for auction that you used to own with Brooke.

Yeah. This is the painting I used to own. (Pointing to the cover of the Sotheby’s catalog). Irving (Blum) bought this one and I bought this one. I paid $1,200 dollars for it and today the estimate is twenty million. When we got divorced, Brooke sold all that stuff back to Irving. She kept nothing. I think she sold it back to him for three thousand dollars, thought she really made a good deal. (laughs)

That’s rough.

Yeah, it is rough (laughs).

In my career as an art dealer, I’ve found that art can be a great catalyst for finding out where you are in a relationship.

Yeah, right.

But, nonetheless, you’ve put together a terrific collection.

Yeah, and also, really honestly, I feel that as a collector, all you’re doing is picking things that will eventually be in a museum. Basically, you’re just a caretaker for that period of time, until they find another home.

You were collecting work by close friends of yours and it’s always difficult to step back and see things with the perspective we see them in now. Did you have any sense of how important these paintings might be?

Yeah, I only took photographs of artists who I thought were going to be important. And I only collected work by artists who I thought were going to be important. I never collected one where I thought “Oh, I really like this.” First of all, I wished I’d made them. It was a sort of criterion, the way I approached it. And I was right on most of the time. I mean there are a lot of them unfortunately that I missed during that period, but these were the people I believed in at the time.

Are you surprised there isn’t more cross-pollination between the movie business and the fine arts?

In my world, of commercial movies, I don’t know of any art form that encompasses all the arts as a film does. You have departments for everything, set design, painting, photography, writing, acting, story telling, music.- all the arts as I know them. That’s why I’m really shocked that there aren’t more directors involved in the fine arts, who aren’t collectors. I mean you bring up art in most offices in Los Angeles, they show you the elevator. They don’t want to know about art, they want to know about making money. My theory always was that art does make money, you just have to disguise it as something else.