Dennis Hopper’s art reflects his free spirit

With assistants milling around him, Julian Schnabel looked like he was directing a movie. The painter who is also a filmmaker was walking through the south wing of MOCA’s Geffen Contemporary last week calling out requests.

Dennis Hopper exhibit: An article in Saturday’s Calendar section on an exhibit of the artwork of the late actor Dennis Hopper said that Jeffrey Deitch, the director of the Museum of Contemporary Art, where the exhibit is being held, became the godfather of Hopper’s son Henry. Julian Schnabel, the curator of the exhibit, is Henry’s godfather. —

“Could you clear out these boxes so we have a better view?” asked Schnabel, who is known for having a rather commanding presence even in a bathrobe, but on this day wore track pants and a plaid shirt.

“Let’s try to move that up a bit,” he said with a sweeping hand gesture.

He was in the sweaty final stretch of a three-day period installing " Dennis Hopper Double Standard,” an exhibition of artwork by his longtime friend that opens Sunday.

“This is a portrait of Dennis, a portrait that we can walk through,” he said. “He was a really curious guy who was self-educated, and his instincts were always on the edge.”

The show is also Schnabel’s first official undertaking as a museum curator — at least as far as he can remember. “I’m always hanging my own shows, and god knows I’ve helped other friends hang their shows. But doing a museum show for a friend who wasn’t there — I can’t remember another time.”

“I thought that Dennis was actually going to be here with us when we did this,” he added. “Every 30 minutes or so it hits me that he’s not.”

Hopper died at age 74 on May 29 from prostate cancer. Schnabel says the idea for the show jelled a few months earlier when talking to incoming MOCA director Jeffrey Deitch about his friend’s importance as an artist and relative lack of visibility. While Hopper has had a few retrospectives abroad, this is his first museum survey in the U.S. “You’re never a prophet in your own land,” Schnabel said.

Schnabel’s own land is the New York art scene, and he got to know Hopper there in the late 1980s, after meeting him at a Keith Haring show after-party in the basement of the restaurant Indochine. (“Underchine,” offered Deitch.) Over the years they grew close; Deitch even became the godfather of Hopper’s son, Henry.

“The guy was like family to me. Whenever I was going mad, I called him,” Schnabel said, describing Hopper as “pretty down to earth when it came down to it” and “a damned loyal friend.”

Hopper also helped Schnabel make his first movie, “Basquiat,” by agreeing to play a small role, Swiss art dealer Bruno Bischofberger. “He did me a favor — he was the first actor to sign on to do the movie, so other actors were more comfortable doing it,” Schnabel said.

Schnabel by this point sat in the show’s central gallery, the heart of the show. He has stacked more than 150 photographs by Hopper in rhythmic groupings on angled walls, which in some sections look like film strips and altogether feel like a big photo collage.

“A typical museum curator might not feel comfortable taking this kind of liberty with the artwork,” Deitch said. “It takes an artist like Julian, who really shared Dennis’ sensibility.”

Schnabel sees the grouping as an expansive, inclusive Whitman-esque portrait of America from California to New York — “actors mixed with painters, Hells Angels mixed with Freedom Riders, Martin Luther King mixed with bullfighters.”

Bringing together the high and low, famous and forgettable, beautiful and ugly, has a Beat feel to it, added Schnabel, who offered that the entire show could have been called “On the Road.”

“There is so much travelling going on in the work,” he said, looking at a Diebenkorn-like abstract landscape in the show. “Not only was Dennis an anonymous spectator looking out of a car window but someone who got somewhere, became the center of attention, and then tried to turn the camera around.”

The show’s entrance is more Pop than Beat, with two giant, colorful fiberglass sculptures greeting visitors: a Mexican waiter with platter in hand and a Mobil Oil man holding a “free 5¢ coupon” sign. Both are found objects that Hopper re-created when working with Fred Hoffman, who was also MOCA’s curatorial consultant, for his 2001 retrospective at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam.

A screening room features a short film that Schnabel has pieced together with highlights of Hopper’s acting and directing career, “Easy Rider” included. Other galleries have early conceptual paintings (which Deitch compared to Joseph Kosuth) and later gestural paintings (which Schnabel compared to Cy Twombly). There are photographs of graffiti and paintings of photographs of graffiti.

Rudi Fuchs, who curated the Stedelijk exhibition, framed Hopper primarily as a painter instead of a photographer. But this show makes it hard to label Hopper either way. As Schnabel pointed out, he was not one to spend weeks in his studio “trying to perfect a painting technique. He was going through emotional shifts and dealing with a psyche not in the most hospitable circumstances, so there is an erratic but at the same time persistent vision.”

Does that open up Hopper to being seen as a dilettante?

Schnabel shook his head. “I think we’re living in a society where people don’t like it if you do too many things. I’ve become aware of that because I’ve directed movies.”

“What is a dilettante anyway?” he continued. “How hard is it to be an actor and wait for directors to get a job? Are you a dilettante because you do what you want, or a professional because you’re getting paid?”

He went on to describe Hopper as a conceptual artist with a painter’s eye, who saw paintings in everyday life. He glanced at a wall of new photographs: color-drenched digital images printed on aluminum, “taken right from Dennis’ camera” and printed for the show. These shots, like a close-up of a building wall painted a brilliant red, verge on painterly abstraction.

And they are not all that different than Hopper’s films in their intensity of vision, Schnabel suggested. He singled out the psychedelic LSD-fueled cemetery scene in “Easy Rider” as a sort of matrix containing all of the basic elements in Hopper’s visual art.

“It’s all there — the iconography, the color, the violence, the transcendental quality,” he said.

“This is not a film that you could make from a script,” he added. “It’s a diving board.”

Then, a few minutes later, he added, “Is this the film of a dilettante?”