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Curator Brought Fame to Postwar L.A. Artists

Times Staff Writer

Walter Hopps, an art dealer and museum curator who was instrumental in bringing the first generation of postwar Los Angeles artists to international prominence and whose 1963 retrospective of Dada artist Marcel Duchamp ranks as a seminal event in modern museum history, died Sunday in Los Angeles after a brief hospitalization. He was 72 and lived in Houston.

Frail and in ill health for some time, Hopps had pneumonia, according to artist Ed Moses, a longtime friend. Hopps was in Southern California for a 45-year survey of assemblage art by sculptor George Herms, which he organized for the Santa Monica Museum of Art.

Artist Larry Bell said that he had unexpectedly encountered Hopps in the coffee shop of a Venice hotel last Tuesday and that he insisted on taking him to see his doctor.

Bell said Hopps had fallen earlier and broken several ribs, which contributed to a buildup of fluids in his lungs. On Saturday, Bell and Moses had hoped to visit Hopps at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, but Hopps had been moved to intensive care and was in a coma. He died there Sunday morning.

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At the time of his death, Hopps was curator of 20th century art at the Menil Collection in Houston, where he had been founding director, and an adjunct senior curator at New York’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. When the surprise dual appointment was made, Ned Rifkin, then director of the Menil, described Hopps as “a giant among his peers in the arena of modern and contemporary curators.” He organized a large retrospective of paintings by American Pop artist James Rosenquist for the Guggenheim in 2002.

Hopps’ most celebrated exhibition was the 1963 Duchamp retrospective, held at the Pasadena Art Museum (now the Norton Simon Museum) in its original home on Los Robles Avenue. Hopps was in his first year as curator. He had been introduced to the French expatriate’s iconoclastic work in the late 1940s, during a high school visit to the Hollywood home of art collectors Louise and Walter Arensberg. Their formidable collection of Cubist, Surrealist, Dadaist and other modern art, now a centerpiece of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, included such classic Duchamp works as “Nude Descending a Staircase” (1912).

During the Pasadena show, Hopps arranged two chess matches with the impish artist -- one for himself and one for the young writer Eve Babitz, who famously played her match nude.

The Duchamp exhibition was typical of Hopps’ modus operandi as a curator. He had come upon the artist by accident as an impressionable and inquisitive youth, and he was determined to follow his instincts; he knew from his conversations with young artists that their interest in Duchamp’s art was far ahead of the museum establishment’s. A Duchamp retrospective was not mounted in New York, where the artist lived, until 1973, five years after his death. The Pasadena show entered the realm of legend as a symbol of a more freewheeling, less tradition-bound artistic climate in Southern California.

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Hopps’ first exhibition, organized with his first wife, Shirley, in 1954, was itself unorthodox. Dubbed “The Merry-Go-Round Show,” it arose from his concern that a new generation of Abstract Expressionist painters was not being seen in L.A. Hopps rented the merry-go-round at the Santa Monica Pier for $80, stretched tarp around the poles and hung nearly 100 paintings by 40 artists, including Richard Diebenkorn, Mark Rothko, Clyfford Still and Jay De Feo. All were for sale, none for more than $300. Nothing sold.

Hopps and his wife regularly held informal exhibitions in their Brentwood apartment, where occasional sales helped keep them afloat. He briefly operated a gallery housed in a small structure built from used telephone poles. Called Syndell Studios, it was named in memory of a farmer who was killed in a freak accident while Hopps was driving cross-country. At Syndell Studios, Hopps showed the seminal Beat generation artist Wallace Berman, and he met Herms.

In 1957 he and artist Ed Kienholz, who would become an important figure in the development of assemblage art on the West Coast, opened Ferus Gallery. Ferus, the first professional space in L.A. to be principally devoted to the Southern California avant-garde, rapidly became the most adventurous and influential contemporary art gallery west of Manhattan.

In addition to showing the work of established Abstract Expressionist painters, Ferus introduced young L.A. artists to the growing scene, including Bell, Billy Al Bengston, Craig Kauffman and Robert Irwin. Moses had his first exhibition at Ferus while still a student at UCLA. Hopps once told The Times that the name Ferus -- Latin for “uncivilized” or “wild” -- was “borrowed from an anthropological description of an aboriginal tribe with subhuman, irascible, possibly dangerous tendencies.”

The implied link between science and art came naturally. Hopps was a native of Glendale, born in 1932 into a family of prominent surgeons. He was home-tutored until junior high school, when he entered the private Polytechnic School in Pasadena. From there he went to Eagle Rock High School. After so many cloistered years, he described high school as “the most exciting time of my life; all of a sudden kids, boys, girls -- friends.” It was with a class of Eagle Rock students that he first visited the Arensberg collection, to which he later returned on his own. The work of Duchamp, Picasso, Brancusi, Dali, Miro and many others made a profound impression on him.

“That was the clash,” Hopps later told a Times reporter. “I thought of myself as a rational positivist. And I couldn’t figure out why this seemingly nice, intelligent man [Arensberg was a prosperous businessman] had devoted his life to this collection. I started reading.”

The Arensbergs had been the unofficial center of the European emigre Dada movement when they lived in New York; in Hollywood, where they moved in 1927, their role changed to that of keepers of its history.

Duchamp had been the primary advisor in the development of their collection, and for them he was the center of that legacy. It was a legacy that encountered much hostility in Los Angeles, where, just a few years after Hopps’ first visit to the collection, the City Council decreed that Modern art was Communist propaganda and banned its public display.

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In 1950, Hopps enrolled at Stanford; a year later he switched to UCLA to study microbiology. He also studied art history. Shortly after opening Ferus, he began to teach at UCLA Extension; over the next four years he helped to cultivate a group of art collectors informed about the avant-garde, including Betty Freeman, Monte Factor, Ed Janss and Fred and Marcia Weisman.

Kienholz made a witty 1959 assemblage-sculpture portrait of his early partner at Ferus, the title of which, “Walter Hopps Hopps Hopps,” suggested his peripatetic energy. Its allusion to Beat era slang for illegal drugs also described a problem that followed Hopps for many years.

Part homage, part satire, the sculpture was made from a gas station advertising sign that featured a cutout of the Bardahl motor oil man. Kienholz turned the clean-cut image into a picture of a slippery salesman of Modern art. Hopps, with his trademark horn-rimmed glasses, black suit and skinny necktie, is shown pulling open his jacket as if he were a sidewalk slicker hawking hot merchandise to unsuspecting passersby. Instead of jewelry or watches, however, he reveals vest-pocket pictures of paintings by Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline.

Turn around the sculpture -- at 6 feet, 6 inches tall, appropriately just larger than life -- and the back features a spine made from animal vertebrae, a rotary dial telephone and annotated lists of important people in the L.A. art world.

Kienholz left the gallery to pursue his own work, and Irving Blum, a Knoll furniture salesman, became Hopps’ partner in Ferus. Conflicts between them -- which later resulted in Shirley Hopps’ becoming Shirley Blum -- led to Hopps’ departure. In 1962 he was hired by Thomas Leavitt to become curator of the Pasadena Art Museum. In addition to the Duchamp retrospective, Hopps organized the first museum show of Frank Stella’s paintings, a landmark survey of box assemblages by Joseph Cornell and “The New Painting of Common Objects,” a groundbreaking 1962 survey that heralded the emergence of Pop art. When Leavitt departed the museum in 1964, Hopps was elevated to director; at 31, he was the youngest art museum director in America.

He was asked to resign four years later, the first of many times that jobs ended badly or in a cloud of complications. He was celebrated for his curatorial abilities and his working relationships with artists, but was a notoriously poor administrator.

Perhaps the most famous art-world story about Hopps concerned his chronic lateness. During his tenure at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C., the staff made lapel buttons that said, “Walter Hopps will be here in 20 minutes.”

“He didn’t like museum bureaucracies,” Moses said. “All his files at the Pasadena Art Museum were kept under the carpet. When he left there, he didn’t let anybody know about the files. Later, when they rolled up this giant carpet, they found very careful files and letters.”

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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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