When Walter Hopps went to pick up painter Frank Lobdell to bring him to his 1966 opening at the Pasadena Art Museum, he found Lobdell soused in his hotel room. Hopps, who had become the youngest museum director in the United States when he took the helm at the Pasadena museum at age 31 in 1964, was high on speed that night, even before he helped himself to some of Lobdell’s bourbon. “They’re going to kill me if I don’t get you to the opening,” Hopps told Lobdell, so the two men got into the car and Hopps started driving toward the museum through residential neighborhoods. Hopps commented that the road felt unusually rough and bumpy, and Lobdell pointed out that they’d been driving along people’s lawns. “[P]eople have had to run out of the way.”
This anecdote takes up all of one paragraph in “The Dream Colony: A Life in Art,” the collected musings of Hopps, edited by New Yorker fiction editor Deborah Treisman and published this month, 12 years after the prolific, eccentric curator’s death. The book is an unusual beast: pieced together interviews, an oral history as autobiography. The words of this elusive but extremely verbose man, prone to long, detail-rich monologue but disinterested in self-reflection, fill the entirety of “The Dream Colony.”
Immediately before and after describing his drunken car ride, Hopps talks about art, in his characteristically granular way: Lobdell’s paintings are full of “blunt and atavistic” biomorphism, hovering “right on the edge of abstraction.” Joseph Cornell, whose 1966 show at the Pasadena Art Museum was the last Hopps put on before being fired for his unpredictability, worked only with found objects and “created a cosmology from everyday parts, a whole reality that is both quotidian and, somehow, mysteriously, other.”
Journalist Calvin Tomkins, who profiled Hopps for the New Yorker in 1991, described a man who “gives away very little of himself in conversation” besides the “contents of his extremely well-stocked mind.” For devoted art lovers who appreciate the role Hopps played in championing Pop art and shaping local and national institutions, the slog of “The Dream Colony” might be worth it — certain anecdotes and observations do reward the patient reader. But others may want to hold out for the smart biographer who better contextualizes the curator’s idiosyncrasies.
Hopps was born in Glendale, Calif., in 1932 and spent parts of his childhood in Tampico, Mexico, with his grandparents. His grandfather started a citrus plantation there and tried for a while to introduce to the locals a product he considered inspired but they hated: peanut-butter tacos. As a teenager back in Los Angeles, Hopps enrolled in a special weekend humanities class for gifted math and science students. The class took a field trip to the home of Walter and Louise Arensberg, among Los Angeles’ first committed collectors of contemporary art and early champions of Marcel Duchamp, the French Conceptualist who famously exhibited a urinal as art. “[I]t was as if I’d passed through the looking glass,” Hopps wrote about seeing important art in their house hung everywhere, even on a coatroom door. He invited himself back and, on a subsequent visit, Louise Arensberg allowed him to take a small marble sculpture by Constantin Brancusi with him to the lunch table so he could continue admiring it while eating.
Hopps attended Stanford and then UCLA but never acquired a college degree. He started his first gallery in a rented storefront near Brentwood in 1952, when he was 20. He called it Syndell Studio after a man named Maurice Sindel, who committed suicide by jumping in front of L.A. artist Jim Newman’s car. “I decided that Maurice Syndell had been an artist,” said Hopps, who didn’t know at the time he’d misspelled the man’s last name. His later, more famous gallery would get its name similarly: a man named Jim Farris had been a fan of Syndell Studio but shot himself in the head before Hopps could properly meet him. Hence the name Ferus, a phonetic tribute.
During the initial Ferus years, Shirley Nielsen, the art historian who married Hopps at the base of the Watts Towers in 1955, used her teaching salary to foot the bills while Hopps and his first partner, artist Ed Kienholz, hosted poetry readings, movie nights and let young, broke artists sleep in the storage room while they discovered a California vanguard. Now-iconic Craig Kauffman, Wallace Berman, Jay DeFeo, Bruce Conner and John Altoon all got their start at Ferus. In “The Dream Colony,” Hopps describes these artists’ work and recounts comic interactions with all of them — early Ferus was chaos, with fistfights at openings — but, even with the benefit of hindsight, it always feels like Hopps is too close to the art he loved to give us any greater insights into how his experiences shaped him.
In 1983, after a series of short stints at Washington, D.C., institutions, Hopps served as the founding director of the Menil Collection in Houston. He lived with his boss, collector Dominique de Menil, in a small, spare bedroom until he married his third wife, Caroline Huber. Hopps took Caroline to France for their honeymoon; Mrs. De Menil came too, and they all stayed together in her Paris apartment. One morning, they all went to meet the aging Surrealist artist Meret Oppenheim, Caroline’s favorite artist. Hopps describes this visit and Oppenheim’s “extraordinary sexual vibrancy” and cat-like gaze with more excitement and presence than he does his own wedding. Perhaps the book lacks a sense of perspective because he truly had none.
It is difficult to write a curatorial memoir. The job of curating itself, discovering and displaying the art of others, already requires some remove from oneself. Marcia Tucker, the founder of the New Museum, did a decent job balancing personal insight with art talk in hers. But though published posthumously, she actually wrote it herself. Not so with “The Dream Colony,” which relies on recorded interviews between Hopps and artist Anne Doran, done with this book in mind, then edited, expanded and painstakingly reorganized by Treisman after Hopps’ unexpected death from pneumonia. In essence, it’s an extremely long “as told to,” that may or may not read as Hopps would have intended. However, the curator, known for never finishing exhibition catalogs and never showing up when he said he would (during his tenure as director of the Corcoran in D.C., staff wore buttons that said “Walter Hopps will be here in 20 minutes”), may not have been capable of finishing a book in his lifetime.
Wagley writes about the arts and visual culture in Los Angeles. She can be found on Twitter @cgwagley.
Walter Hopps, edited by Deborah Treisman and Anne Doran
Bloomsbury: 336 pp., $30