MOCA to stage exhibit of Dennis Hopper’s artworks

Jeffrey Deitch, the incoming director of the Museum of Contemporary Art, has signaled his intent to court the film community by announcing his first show: an exhibition that promises to be an art world-meets-Hollywood spectacle.

Deitch said Wednesday that a survey of works by actor and artist Dennis Hopper and curated by larger-than-life painter and movie director Julian Schnabel would open July 11.

 "Dennis is a very inspiring figure for me," said Deitch, the New York art dealer who officially starts work June 1 at the museum. "The American art world often likes to put artists into boxes. You're an artist, not a filmmaker. You're a photographer, not a painter. But Dennis shows you can blur those boundaries, which is very current and exciting." 

 The hope is that Hopper will be well enough to attend the opening. Hopper, 73, has advanced prostate cancer. "We're rushing this exhibition because Dennis is ailing," Deitch said, "and I wanted him to be able to participate in the selection of works. He saw the space with us last week." 

Most museum exhibitions take many months, if not years, to organize.

Deitch came up with the idea for the show, called "Art Is Life," two months ago while visiting Schnabel, a longtime friend of Hopper who had directed his performance as Swiss art dealer Bruno Bischofberger in the 1996 movie "Basquiat." Deitch said Schnabel "offered to curate the show" to help ensure that it happened in Hopper's lifetime.

The artist and curator make quite a pair. Both are known for outsize egos, grand gestures and easily crisscrossing cultural fields.

Schnabel, who made his name with broken-plate paintings during the art boom of the 1980s, has arguably found his real calling as a film director, with the movies "Before Night Falls" and "The Diving Bell and the Butterfly."

Hopper, famous for playing drug-fueled counterculture characters in the 1960s, has also brought a certain adventurousness to making art. Over the years, he has made Abstract Expressionist paintings, Pop Art assemblages, portrait photography and, by the 1980s and '90s, graffiti-inspired paintings and photographs.

His best-known photographs from the '60s chronicle figures including Paul Newman and Tina Turner, Ed Ruscha and Andy Warhol, whose soup can painting Hopper once bought for $75. His last major show in Los Angeles took place in 2006 at Ace Gallery.

Deitch says the MOCA show will feature Hopper's work as an artist, not as a collector, and include work from all of his major periods. Also expect to see a few film projects, such as a "sculptural installation" that projects "Easy Rider" with two other Hopper movies and Warhol's 1963 "Tarzan and Jane, Regained … Sort of," in which Hopper served as a last-minute stunt double for Tarzan.

"One of Dennis's innovations is that he is applying an artist's vision to film and a filmmaker's vision to art," Deitch says. He told a story about how Hopper decided early on, on the advice of James Dean, not to crop his photographs, because a film director wouldn't get the chance to crop his frames.

In New York, Deitch earned a reputation for turning gallery exhibitions into cross-over events, tapping into street culture, fashion circles, the music scene.

He hopes that Hopper's show will help to expand MOCA's audience. "There is a generation of filmmakers who helped develop independent film that care about Dennis' work. And there's a younger generation of filmmakers inspired by him. I'd like to bring them into the MOCA community."

MOCA's incoming director also is thinking big when it comes to exhibition design. He is meeting with architect Frank Gehry this week to talk about the possibility of collaborating on the show. "At this point, we're just discussing it," Deitch says. "We'll see to what degree it makes sense."

Soon after Deitch accepted the job at MOCA, art critics flagged potential conflicts of interest in part because of his personal art collection. Deitch said he did not own any works by Hopper or Schnabel. "I have zero commercial involvement in this," he says.

But contemporary art experts might raise an even more basic question of artistic merit, considering MOCA does not have any pieces by Hopper in its permanent collection — a sign that its curators in the past have not made his artwork a priority.

Is Hopper's art worth all this attention?

"That's one of the reasons I want to do the show," Deitch says. "It's good to have a mission. I want to try to explain why he's important for a new generation."

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