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Walter Hopps
The Menil Collection, Houston, Texas
Commentary by Donna Tennant

Edward Kienholz, “Walter Hopps Hopps Hopps,” 1959, alkyd and acrylic paint on hardboard and wood with oil, metal, plastic, animal vertebrae, candy, plaster, leather, pills, glass, printed paper, graphite, colored pencil and ink on paper, mat b


Continuing through August 13, 2023


Walter Hopps was the founding director of Houston’s Menil Collection, but his first love and considerable talent was curating. Some observers even identify Hopps as one of the first curators in the modern sense of the word: someone who works directly with living artists. Notably, he resigned as director of the museum after two years to become curator of the collection. 


“The Curatorial Imagination of Walter Hopps” presents 130 artworks by 70 artists, recent or promised gifts to the museum from the Estate of Walter Hopps and his wife, Caroline Huber. Eventually, the total works of art in the bequest will number around 600. According to Clare Elliott, curator of the exhibition, Hopps (1932-2005) acquired “a substantial amount” of the collection in the 1950s and 1960s while living in his native Los Angeles. 


Both Hopps’ father and grandfather were physicians, and he was expected to study medicine as well. But during a high-school field trip to the home of Walter and Louise Arensberg, he saw several works of art by Marcel Duchamp. On subsequent visits, Hopps met Duchamp himself and, according to Hopps, that changed everything. He began organizing art exhibitions while studying at the University of California Los Angeles. In 1954 he founded Syndell Studio with a group of artists and friends to exhibit work by contemporary Californians, as no other galleries were showing them at that time. Hopps first met Edward Kienholz when the artist visited Syndell and subsequently gave him his first show there. 


Hopps is better known, however, for opening Ferus, a gallery on North La Cienega Boulevard, with Kienholz in 1957. Ferus soon became the center of an emerging avant-garde art scene, showing Kienholz, Edward Ruscha, Bruce Conner, George Herms, and Jay DeFeo, all of whom are included in the Menil show. Hopps, later with his partner Irving Blum, was the first to show Andy Warhol’s “Campbell’s Soup Cans” (1962) there as well, one of which is included in the exhibition.


After tenures at the Pasadena Art Museum (where he organized the first retrospective of Duchamp’s work, as well as exhibitions of Kurt Schwitters, Joseph Cornell, and Jasper Johns), the Corcoran Gallery of Art, and the Smithsonian Institution, Hopps was invited by Dominique de Menil to consult for the Menil Foundation. This led to his appointment in 1981 as the first director of the new Menil Collection, which opened in 1987. 


Given Hopps’ history with Kienholz, it is appropriate that the show begins with the latter’s sculptural portrait, “Walter Hopps Hopps Hopps” (1959). It depicts the curator in his customary suit, the jacket of which he pulls aside to reveal miniature works by Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline, and Willem de Kooning that he is furtively trying to sell. This introductory gallery is largely dedicated to works from the Ferus era. 


The wall behind the sculpture is hung salon-style with a selection of small works by various artists, including photographers John McIntosh and John R. Gossage; longtime friends Craig Kauffman, William N. Copley, and Sam Gilliam; California artists Ed Moses, Billy Al Bengston, Frank Lobdell, and John Altoon; and other internationally known artists like Christo and James Rosenquist. Also in this gallery is a major freestanding assemblage by Herms, “Crucifixion” by Conner, and an untitled cross painting by DeFeo, all of whom Hopps showed at Ferus.


In the next two galleries are paintings and sculptures by other artists Hopps encountered and exhibited in the early days — Ruscha, Warhol, Johns, Roy Lichtenstein, Frank Stella, Larry Bell, Barnett Newman and Donald Judd. The fourth gallery is devoted to photography, which Hopps had been interested in as a boy. There are photographs by William Christenberry, who served as best man at the Hopps/Huber wedding, as well as Eugène Atget, Walker Evans, Henry Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank, William Eggleston, Allen Ginsberg, and Louis Faurer. Hopps favored photographers who used their cameras to capture people and street life, the mundane and the everyday. 


The subsequent gallery is dominated by “Master Jazz,” a large multi-media piece in four parts by Robert Longo, part of his “Men in the Cities” series from the early 1980s. The left panel depicts two businessmen, one striking a model-like pose while the other seems to be distraught. Next to that is a black relief sculpture of an art deco skyscraper. The two panels on the right contain a screaming Black man and a young woman who appears to be unconscious. These disparate images evoke anxiety, with one character in each pair reflecting angst while the other expresses anger, or perhaps exhilaration. 


Also in this gallery is “Eat Human Flesh” by Houston-based artist Mark Flood, one of ten pieces in the Hopps/Huber collection. Flood worked with Hopps at the Menil, as well as other institutions, and this painting is part of his “Idols” series in which he would combine a celebrity’s face (Cheryl Ladd in this case) with provocative phrases like “Masturbate Often.” In 1988, the Houston Police Dept. seized a painting with the same phrase after being alerted to possible satanism. Hopps wanted that piece, but it was never recovered, so he settled for this one. On a nearby shelf are four objects titled “fresh” by Haim Steinbach, two of which are an homage to Duchamp — small bottle racks painted orange. 


The final gallery is a tribute to Robert Rauschenberg, whom Hopps knew for some 50 years. There are four large pieces, including a classic cardboard construction from 1971 and the dazzling “Glacier (Hoarfrost)” from 1974. For that, the artist printed an abstract pattern on chiffon; it is attached to the wall only at the top and moves in response to air currents in the room. 


In a vitrine are three pieces from the 1950s, two box constructions and a gold-leaf relief painting. These reveal a more romantic, even delicate side of Rauschenberg that is not present in most of his larger pieces. One is from his “Scatole Personali” series, which were made from found objects, dirt, pebbles, and sticks Rauschenberg collected during his travels with Cy Twombly in Italy and North Africa in the early 1950s. These smaller pieces reveal Hopps’ attraction to offbeat work that provides some insight into an artist’s psyche.


An alcove gallery adjacent to the Rauschenberg room holds a treasure trove of smaller pieces, including six Joseph Cornells, a Kurt Schwitters collage and drawing, and Duchamp’s “By or of Marcel Duchamp or Rrose Sélavy (Box),” populated by 68 miniature replicas and printed reproductions of his work. This room also contains pieces by Houston artists whose work Hopps appreciated and supported: Mel Chin, Terrell James, Virgil Grotfeldt, Sharon Kopriva, MANUAL, and the late William Steen.


Hopps’ wide-ranging interests are difficult to catalog. He had a passion for lyrical abstraction, abstract expressionism, surrealism, collage, assemblage, photography, conceptual art, pop art, and more. But the one constant was Duchamp, the artist responsible for luring Hopps away from medicine and into the world of art. Although he served successfully as director of several major museums, curating was how he started his career and where he ended it. He liked artists and enjoyed their company. The feeling was mutual — the artists he championed remain fiercely loyal to this day. Hopps’ vision and imagination, complemented by that of Huber, live on through an extraordinary collection.

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