Herms the Messenger
Photos by Roger Marshutz
It isnt very often you get to orchestrate your own requiem, but Walter Hopps who once compared curating to conducting a symphony has managed it neatly. Hopps died while in L.A. for the festivities surrounding Hot Set, his first hometown curatorial effort in ages, a highly personal 45-year survey of the work of assemblage artist George Herms. And while Hopps crossing over may seem to cast a pall over what was conceived as a joyous reunion with one of his oldest art-world comrades, it in fact adds another, entirely congruent layer of meaning to the rich patina of love, loss and longing that envelops Herms patchwork oeuvre. Herms work has always been markedly elegiac, often created in homage to favorite artists, poets or musicians at their death or to mark other mortality-reminding transformational passages, like marriages, births or retrospectives. Drugstore for Artie (1991-92), for example, is dedicated to his painting mentor Artie Richer, who ODed in 1965. A set of weathered pharmacy cabinets, it is encrusted with poetic and literal references photos, news clippings, a battered violin case, even one of Richers own linocuts. But it is Herms chosen medium the piecing together of chewed-up scraps of rusty urban detritus into poetic collages that communicates, with a direct visceral impact, the passage of time, the preciousness of memory and awareness, and the decay of the material world. Of course, the same can be said for almost all assemblage, a category of art-making rooted in Cubism, Surrealism and Dada, whose moment of ascendancy the famous 1961 Art of Assemblage exhibit at New Yorks MoMA was also treated as the last gasp of Eurocentric American art before the shiny new era of deadpan Pop was ushered in.
For whatever reason (emanations from Simon Rodias Watts Towers?), California was the spawning ground for the most and the most consistent of the assemblage artists. Central to this regional, generational Zeitgeist was a nexus of artists, writers, musicians and uncategorizable others associated with the Beat movement including Wallace Berman, Ed Kienholz, Michael McLure, Bruce Conner, Jay DeFeo, Dennis Hopper and Jess who made the scene up and down the coast, oscillating between the poles of L.A. and San Francisco, blowing like Roman candles looking for an angry fix in the hysterical night (or something). And both Herms and Hopps were central figures Herms as one of the quintessential practitioners of West Coast assemblage, and Hopps as the curator who supported it in and contextualized it with his Syndell Studio and Ferus Galleries, and later as director of the Pasadena Art Museum, where he made history by giving Marcel Duchamp his first museum retrospective, in 1963. Due to Hopps death, and the exhibit at the Santa Monica Museum, both men have had their lives and contributions to contemporary art history assessed and re-examined thoroughly in recent weeks, but one crucial aspect of the milieu from which they emerged and which they helped give shape to has been consistently underplayed. Assemblage was the last West Coast art moment to materialize in a critical, institutional and financial void, where the participants are almost guaranteed to be doing what they actually want, because they want to. At the time, the swift commercialization of the L.A. scene and its conspicuous tidying up into more archival and salable 60s idioms like Finish Fetish and Light & Space may have seemed like just another stride in the great march of Modernist innovation. But since the big M didnt quite pan out as the transformative panacea the label promised, interest in the emotionally grittier, socially and spiritually engaged artistic subculture of the Beat era perhaps the last subculture to have survived long enough to find itself before being turned into a marketing tool has been snowballing. Paradoxically, its the very ahistoricism of assemblage that makes it so compelling today. The very idea that art can be something you scrape off the sidewalk and stick on the wall something that you notice undermines the supply-side hierarchy of the art marketplace, and empowers individual, unqualified human beings to transform the world through creative engagement. These are ideas the shiny, happy mainstream have labored long and hard to render into dismissible clichés, but theyre not so easy to write off when you stand face to face with the objects that embody them. Herms work can be breathtaking in its archetypal simplicity as in the rusted-buoy-on-a-tripod ready-made Sphere (1989-90) or nearly overwhelming in its allegorical complexity in the frequent compartment-riddled works like Drugstore for Artie, but without exception they occupy the same unstable, indeterminate universe, breathe the same air and are subject to the same impermanence as the viewers who share their space, bringing together the rarefied, numinous realms of the gods (and those who can afford them) and the sticky, smelly reality of everyday life. Given their disconnection at the source from fame and fortune and the American philosophy of relentless consumerism, their survival and re-emergence in the contemporary art dialogue is remarkable a breath of fresh air in an increasingly stultifying cultural atmosphere. Its unlikely to resuscitate the art world, though; people are already rolling their eyes at last years glut of rickety art-school handmade objects, and chomping at the bit for the next hot trend. Thats cool art and the art world are two different things, and one is important and the other one isnt. Walter Hopps knew that, which is why he had such a lousy track record as an art-world bureaucrat. As a coda to his long, quixotic engagement with the business end of the art stick, Hot Set couldnt be more elegant. But were not talking Mozart here the chosen musical idiom for Hopps, Herms and most of the other Beat culturati was jazz. According to the exhibition brochure, Hopps personal title for the show was The Bricoleur of Broken Dreams . . . One More Once. In the very last paragraph of the transcribed essay, he explained, One More Once is what the great Count Basie would say before he repeated a passage. Hed come to the end of the piece and hed say, One more once, and up and play the whole last part of the piece again. People loved it. Thank you, Walter. Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr. Hopps has left the building.
A memorial service for Walter Hopps will be held at SMMOA on May 3. For info, call (310) 586-6488. GEORGE HERMS: HOT SET| Santa Monica Museum of Art, Bergamot Station, Building G1, 2525 Michigan Ave., Santa Monica | Through May 14 FROM GEORGE HERMS WITH LOVE | Tobey C. Moss Gallery | 7321 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles | Through May 7
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