Dennis Hopper at MOCA: Double Trouble

Edward Ruscha, 1964, gelatin-silver print, 16 x 24 in. © The Estate of Dennis Hopper, courtesy of the Estate of Dennis Hopper and Tony Shafrazi Gallery, New York

When listening to Jeffrey Deitch attempt to mythologize Dennis Hopper the other day, and then to Julian Schnabel likewise attempt to place his friend Hopper at an art-world level the actor was not able to reach during his lifetime — a mere six weeks past — and, indeed, while I soon thereafter walked through the show of Hopper’s work at MOCA’s Geffen Contemporary, I couldn’t help but think of the late John Szarkowski, who was for nearly 30 years the director of photography at the Museum of Modern Art, and one of the people who made photography collectible.

A few years ago, I had the fortune to interview Szarkowski; during that interview I handed him a book of photographs, and watched as he paged through it. I saw the way his eye worked over each photo, darting from side to side, corner to corner; taking it all in like an old-fashioned (read: human) scanner. His focus was intense and rigorous, but relaxed. And then he offered up his assessment: “First-rate.”

As for “Dennis Hopper: Double Standard,” I was rooting for him, and for the show — why not? I wasn’t among those in a twist because he was a celebrity, and this was Deitch’s first show, etc. It was cool, I suppose, that Deitch brought in Schnabel, who is, after all, a great filmmaker. And besides, Hopper was by most accounts (save, perhaps, those from his ex-wives) a good guy, certainly an interesting man. He was Dennis Hopper! No one, least of all the actor himself, claimed that he was Anselm Kiefer.

But I began to worry a bit when Deitch noted how amazing Hopper’s home was, and how his entire life was a work of art. This is not how one usually introduces an artist’s exhibition. And given that the show includes a lot of paintings, I became nervous when Schnabel said he didn’t see Hopper as a painter. (If the curator of a show including paintings doesn’t think of the artist as a painter ...) Schnabel, by the way, was speaking on his knees, also not typical of the way shows are normally introduced (unless the artist is Toulouse Lautrec, perhaps). He was wearing a bright-green shirt untucked over purple pants, pink socks and sneakers. All I could think of was what color underwear he was wearing. Fortunately, he didn’t tell us.

What he did tell us was that Hopper was a great friend, the go-to guy for those times you (Schnabel) were feeling a little crazy. Which, one imagines, might not be infrequent. Dennis would always pick up the phone and listen. Are you getting the picture? I don’t recall any such information in the comments opening the Arshile Gorky show or the Martin Kippenberger show — and they’re both dead, too. Such information, while of a certain kind of interest, smacks of dissembling, of not really getting to the point. Which is the art at hand.

“Double Standard” is made up of many, many photos, arranged salon-style by Schnabel, meaning, basically, floor to ceiling. A lot of these photos are nice, some very nice, a few memorable, one or two perhaps even iconic. Hopper had a decent eye. But for the most part, if you take in each photo as would Szarkowski, you don’t get much back. Sure, an older black-and-white shot of a bullfighter is inherently interesting; but there’s nothing particularly interesting about the photograph. Likewise with the Italian walls, which Schnabel hangs with edges cropped and unframed in a row, as if they are special. They’re not — they’re Italian walls, very nice, textured! (My son just spent a year in Italy and photographed many nice walls there. Be happy to sell you one.) And so it goes throughout the show.

The exceptions are the titular Double Standard — pretty great — and Hopper’s shots of the Ferus Gallery crowd (early Warhol, Ruscha, Rauschenberg, even Hockney if I’m not mistaken). But then these are photos of interesting people, which is to say, people, faces we are interested in. It is hard, if you have a good eye, to miss with shots such as these. To Hopper’s credit, he didn’t miss. But the great irony of this show is the one face missing — Hopper’s. The truth is, there’s more life in one still of him on the set of Apocalypse Now than in any of Hopper’s own photographs. This was Hopper’s one true talent.

As for his paintings and sculptures, let’s just say that if you were right out of art school, and you tried to get a serious gallerist with this work, you’d likely be out of luck. Unless, of course, you were a celebrity. Yes, the title of the show is doubly ironic.

That book Szarkowski thought first-rate? It’s by Anne Fishbein, a Los Angeles photographer who is not a celebrity, not even a celebrity photographer. She shoots for L.A. Weekly, among other publications, and her photographs are in the collections of MOMA, LACMA, SFMOMA. Not, however, MOCA.

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