L.A.’s Renaissance Man
From Easy Rider to Azzurra, Dennis Hopper explains how an artist’s passion can endure even under the bright lights of Hollywood
At a recent opening at L.A.’s Ace Gallery, an appreciative crowd packed its maze of rooms to take in a retrospective of Dennis Hopper’s art, most of which came to life as photographs that also underwent sev- eral reincarnations as paintings, billboards, murals and sculpture. Among this sizable body of work, one billboard-sized piece, the iconic Double Standard, stood out as a chronological and spiritual nucleus.
Made in 1961 at the intersections of Santa Monica Boulevard, Melrose Avenue and Doheny Drive, Double Standard is an on-the-road-type shot taken from the inside of a car. While its rear view mirror reflects traffic behind, the wind- shield frames two Standard Oil signs accompanied by a billboard stating that “Smart Women Cook with Gas in Balanced Power Homes.”Visually and themat- ically multi-layered, the piece is emblematic of Hopper’s sense of time, place and culture—and it’s one that the artist himself still digs a lot.
It has been published in several books (including gallerist Craig Krull’s chron- icle of the hip L.A art scene titled Photographing the L.A.Art Scene 1955-1975) and metamorphosed into the advertising poster for last year’s historic exhibition Los Angeles 1955-1985: Birth of an Art Capital at the Pompidou Center in Paris.
Hopper thrived during an epoch that began with the 1957 founding of Ferus Gallery, the La Cienega institution that gave rise to luminaries like Ed Ruscha, Billy Al Bengston, Ed Moses, Robert Irvin, Ken Price, Ed Kienholz and Llyn Foulkes, to name just a few. An abstract expressionist painter and avid photogra- pher, Hopper immortalized his friends—predominantly male artists and hipsters and some of their wives and girlfriends at work and play.
His artistic “aha!” moment came when Irving Blum (who, along with Walter Hopps, owned Ferus) showed him a photograph of Andy Warhol’s Campbell soup cans and work by Roy Lichtenstein. “To me, this was the new reality critics were talking about,” explains Hopper today.
The 1962 Ferus show of 32 Warhol canvases made history, as did the Hopps-curated retrospective of Marcel Duchamp at the Pasadena Art Museum. The latter brought Warhol to Los Angeles where Hopper photographed him in several settings. It was then that Hopper decided that “painting was for cavemen.” He made assemblages from large photographs and machine-made objects, com- mitting himself, as he says, to “using the machine.”
Thus, even though many still think of him as primarily an actor, he better embodies the persona of a multi-faceted artist.
Bornon May17, 1936 in DodgeCity, Kansas, Hopper began taking art lessons at age six.“I took lessons from a Rocky Mountain water colorist until I was nine,” he says.“This was at the end of the dustbowl where we wore gasmasks to school. The first light I remember seeing was at the movies—otherwise the sun was just an orange blur in the sky. But, since then, I knew I wanted to be involved in films.”
After his family moved to Kansas City, Missouri, he spent Saturdays at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art where they offered children’s programs that exposed him to art and theater. Of his experience there, Hopper is concise. “I liked to sketch the actors,” he says. When he turned 13, he and his family moved to San Diego and Hopper began to act at the Old Globe Theater. Upon graduation from high school, he was offered a contract with Warner Brothers. During a stint at the La Jolla Playhouse, Hopper met Vincent Price, who introduced him to abstract art by figures like Robert Rauschenberg and Richard Diebenkorn. Intuiting that the young actor/artist had it in him to be a collector, Price gave him his first painting.The gift proved to be prophetic: today Hopper’s Venice resi- dence (designed by architect Brian Murphy) displays paintings by Basquiat, Salle, Campo, Warhol and Dill, to name a few. (It’s also home to his wife Victoria, sixteen- year-old son Henry and three-year-old daughter Galen.)
His film career began with Nicholas Ray’s Western Johnny Guitar. Roles in Rebel Without a Cause and Giant (also by Ray) brought him face to face with James Dean who became a close friend and role model.
After leaving Warner Brothers, he moved to New York where he spent five years studying with Lee Strasberg. A Hollywood expatriate, he also moved to Paris, London and Mexico City to realize his goal of becoming an auteurist filmmaker. He made films such as The Last Movie, which won acclaim at the Venice Film Festival but had no stateside distribution, and Out of the Blue, which won prizes at the Cannes Film Festival but met the same fate.
His full repertoire of stage, television, and film credits is too numerous to list.Throughout his storied film career, he has kept his still camera handy, and his photographs of friends and colleagues have filled museums and galleries. A 1964 portrayal of a young, pensive Paul Newman with his body overshadowed by a chain-link fence ranks among his classics.
In 1969, Hopper roared his chopper into the epicenter of attention while starring in Easy Rider, which he also co-wrote and directed. “Easy Rider ruined my art career,” says Hopper wryly. “It diverted me from my path as an artist.”
But, since art ostensibly thrives on adversity, after a short period he began to paint again. He also continued acting and traveling. Film roles took him and his camera to far-flung locations like Australia, Cape Town, South Africa and Romania. “I took a lot of photographs out of the car,” he says, adding that he got some incredible ones of Bucharest at night.
Experiences in these locales changed his photographic style drastically, he points out, because of his embrace of digital photography. Up to 2001, Hopper worked in black and white and processed on film.That year he, along with Helmut Newton, David Bailey, Richard Hamilton, Brian Clark and David Salle, received digital cameras from Olympus to “try out.” While most of these star lensmen swore their eternal allegiance to film, Hopper digressed. He still uses that Olympus. As several remarkable photographs attest,
Hopper had found his magic machine—one that allowed him create in terms of photography as well as painting. Such works include an image of Michelangelo’s Last Supper blurrily reflected in a pool of water, night scenes captured through a windshield and the random patterns of a rain-splattered window. Another intriguing set brings to mind the motion and light play of Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase.
He achieves various effects by moving the camera in circles and arcs that recall his early days as an abstract painter. He has made some stunning photographs that could easily be mistaken for painting or collage. It’s hard to believe that scarred, graffiti-covered walls can be so irresistibly beautiful.
A guest artist in a spacious apartment/studio at Azzurra in Marina del Rey, Hopper recently guided visitors through a gallery of prints while also ruminating on the state of contemporary art on theWest Coast and NewYork. Azzurra also owns an art collection composed largely of Hopper’s peers and currently provides guest quarters to Peter Alexander and Joe Goode.
Hopper recounted a visit to the United Arab Emirates (Dubai) where Frank Gehry is building a new Guggenheim Museum, said to surpass the one in Bilboa, Spain. In that vein, he says that he is impressed with the growing quality of Los Angeles. “The galleries (here) are getting better than ever,” he says, citing Gagosian Gallery and Bergamot Station as examples.
He lives very much in the present, but it is evident that his sensibilities were formed during 1950s and 60s.“In the sixties everything was very clear.You saw something new and, most of the time, it was a revelation. Today there is mostly appreciation and imitation [of that time]. There is also a lot of knowledge and experimentation, but not much that I haven’t seen 30 years ago,” he says.
Still, throughout highs of success and pratfalls of failure, this world traveler and internationally acclaimed artist retains a sense of humility and humor. After all, he began a conversation about his life by stating: “I decided recently, that I am just a middle class farm boy from Dodge City, Kansas…I just always wondered where the trains were going.”
Dennis Hopper’s work is featured in the collections of Craig Krull Gallery and Ace Gallery Los Angeles.
Image: Dennis Hopper, Bill Cosby, 1964. Gelatin silver print. Courtesy Ace Gallery Los Angeles.