Dennis Hopper, easy-rider art enthusiast


It was a year ago, late on a June gloom Venice afternoon, when I last sat down with Dennis Hopper. We had been working for over 18 months on a publication of his photographs for Taschen Books. It was our last meeting before the book went to print and he was reading, with a mix of curiosity and bemusement, a biography I had written for the publication.

It is not an easy thing to sit beside an icon and watch him read a summation that you’ve written of his entire existence. But Dennis, thankfully, had a sense of humor — particularly about himself. His only comment to me concerning the bio was, “Do you really think anyone will want to read about me?” to which my answer was a definitive “yes.” Dennis was as crazy and as colorful a character as any he portrayed onscreen, and his own life — a rich, fertile and freethinking adventure — was his greatest role.

Throughout the countless meetings and extensive interviews over nearly two years of creating the Taschen book, Hopper was full of wit, intelligence and colorful reminiscences, and had a surprisingly sharp recollection of his past that defied his reputation as a former drug-addled maniac.

Hopper had gotten sober at the age of 50, but the prior years of experimentation and self-abuse had affected neither his memory nor his attitude. Hopper loved art, music, and life with a gusto that had grown over the years, rather than waned. He told me that he was well aware of his good fortune – and made sure to use his circumstances to live as fully and passionately as he could.

“I’ve always tried to lead a sensual life,” he said, “to take risks and be ballsy and continue to be curious about the world around me.”

Hopper’s charisma is not easy to define. For some, he was the hell-raising bearded weirdo who summarily dismissed the ‘60s dream while simultaneously embodying it. He was an Easy Rider and an Apocalyptic lunatic. He was a charlatan, a charmer, a warped genius. But he was also the gentleman badass — an aging American Dreamer who found a ninth life as a gray-haired outlaw of the movies.

Perhaps his most surprising persona was Hopper as dedicated visual artist, passionate and curious about the world around him. In fact, Hopper was an important figure of the late 20th century art world — a creator, collaborator, connector and avid collector who helped to form the foundation of the Pop Art movement.

This is the Hopper that will be celebrated in a career retrospective opening Sunday at MOCA, the first full-scale exhibition under the leadership of the museum’s new director, Jeffrey Deitch. Hopper helped plan the show before he died of complication from prostate cancer May 29.

“One of the most exciting experiences I ever had in L.A. was going to a party at Dennis’ house many years ago,” remembers Deitch, “and just being there was thrilling. The house was one of Frank Gehry’s first residential commissions and it is a work of art itself — but it is filled with art as well: Bruce Conner works alongside of sculptures of Dennis’ own and graffiti paintings that he had had Venice kids paint, alongside Basquiats and a Marcel Duchamp. When you were inside Dennis’ world, art surrounded you. That really stayed with me and stimulated me. So when I was thinking about ways to begin programming at MOCA, Dennis was already on my mind.”

Deitch, an influential New York gallerist and dealer before his MOCA appointment, has faced some criticism for the Hopper show — snide asides that he’s pandering to the Hollywood elite by glorifying one of their own. But he and the show’s guest curator, artist (and longtime Hopper pal) Julian Schnabel, are confident these rumblings will be silenced by the show itself.

“Dennis is just a seminal figure in the artists’ landscape, particularly in Los Angeles since Pop Art’s inception,” says Schnabel. “He was friends with, and documented, all of the great young artists of the Pop Art scene. He showed alongside those artists, people like Ed Ruscha and Bruce Conner.”

Hopper’s fascination with art began with painting lessons at the Nelson-Atkins Museum while still a child in Kansas City, Mo. He continued his connection with art throughout his first contract with Warner Bros. at age 18, and through the years of movie stardom, self-enforced Hollywood exile, and triumphant return that followed.

“I had always been immersed in art, always fascinated by it, always experimenting with it,” Hopper had told me in the course of our interviews for the Taschen publication, “and I tried to take advantage of my situation, of being in Hollywood, of being lucky enough to sometimes have a little money and a little of my own time — to focus on making art and enjoying art and collecting art. Always.”

His 1960s photography, which I documented, is a testament not only to a sharp and thoughtful eye, but to a man who lived through one of the most vital eras in American history. Intimate images of Warhol, impossibly young and unguarded, appear alongside those of Kennedy’s funeral and the civil rights march on Selma, Ala. Hopper documented Pigpen of the Grateful Dead with the same tenderness and respect as his images of Martin Luther King Jr.

“It was pretty obvious there was something going on that should be captured and remembered,” Hopper told me. “I knew these people and these moments would have some value historically, that they deserved to be documented, so I just carried my camera with me everywhere I went. I took images of what was around me and was lucky enough to have some incredible things happen and some incredible people in front of my lens.”

Hopper was experimenting with abstract art photography, assemblages and traditional painting techniques as well.

“I experimented with every medium I could,” Hopper told me. “I love taking photos and so, early on, I started assembling objects with large photographs, in part because they wouldn’t allow photographers to show with painters in Los Angeles at that time. If you wanted to buy a Man Ray you might be able to find one in the back room but you never saw him exhibited with painters. I wanted to show with painters, so I made these large photographs with objects on them.”

Then there are the films he directed — among them “Easy Rider,” “The Last Movie” and the little-known “Out of the Blue.”

Hopper, even in his darkest moments, was continually creating. And collecting.

Over his lifetime Hopper amassed a formidable array of 20th and 21st century art, including many of Schnabel’s works (such as a shattered-plate portrait of Hopper); numerous works from his early cohorts, such as Ruscha, Roy Lichtenstein and Warhol; and recent pieces by contemporary artists such as Damien Hirst and the young South African Robin Rhode. He was involved in L.A.’s Virginia Dwan and Ferus galleries (the latter run by dealer Irving Blum) of the 1960s, and he was a longtime friend and supporter to New York dealer Tony Shafrazi. Both the Hermitage in Russia and the Cinémathèque in Paris have featured Hopper’s personal collection in popular recent exhibitions.

“I was documenting the Pop Art scene before it was called that,” Hopper told me. “I was also buying as many pieces as I could, because I loved the work, I really did. When Warhol had his soup can show, I bought one from John Weber, who was running Virginia Dwan’s gallery in Westwood. It was hanging over his desk and I said, ‘What is that?’ and he said, ‘Well that’s the first soup-can oil painting of Andy’s.’ And I said, ‘Yeah? Well, how much is that?’ And he said, ‘$75.’ And I said, ‘Well, I’ll take it, because Irving Blum is selling them for $100.’”

Hopper ultimately lost the Warhol soup can painting in a divorce settlement, but his collection continued to grow and evolve. Despite his renown as a collector, however, Schnabel and Deitch were adamant that the MOCA show focus on works by Hopper himself.

“Acting was one way to express myself and I loved acting, but it wasn’t always in my control whether I could perform or not,” Hopper told me. “Whenever I wasn’t able to get work in Hollywood, I felt really desperate. I tried to keep busy. Making art became a way of creating that I could always control.

“If you’re a creative person, then creating is what you do, all the time, in every moment of your life,” Hopper once told me. “That desire is always there, to make something, paint something, take a photograph, act a scene, it’s just a part of who you are.”

“It will be a beautiful moment for Los Angeles,” says Schnabel of the MOCA show. “These will be powerful works the city is going to see. And it will change, I think, how many people see Dennis. In that way, I feel like the art world is giving back to him, for all his passion. It’s rare that anyone gets anything back from art — other than the pleasure of making it.”

Jessica Hundley was a contributing author to “Dennis Hopper: Photographs 1961-1967,” a limited edition title from Taschen Books.