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The Curator As Artist

Anyone who had the good fortune to spend time with Walter Hopps probably hasn’t forgotten the experience. Lots of people profess to have an interest in art, but to hear Hopps hold forth on any of the hundreds of artists, living and dead, whom he knew about was to know what a person who really loves art sounds like. An Eagle Rock–born curator whose reputation was made in 1963, when he organized the first Marcel Duchamp retrospective for the Pasadena Museum of Art, Hopps was an extraordinarily knowledgeable, largely self-taught man with a messianic belief in the importance of visual art. And he was such a persuasive speaker that he had very little trouble convincing others of his point of view — he could really cast a spell. Co-founder, with Ed Kienholz, of L.A.’s first significant avant-garde art gallery — the Ferus, which opened in 1957 — Hopps was founding director of the Menil Collection in Houston, adjunct senior curator for the Guggenheim and curator of a survey of work by George Herms that recently opened at the Santa Monica Museum of Art. His contributions to the art world are myriad, and many of them had made their way securely into the history books by the time he died of heart failure, on March 20 at Cedars-Sinai Hospital. His work will live on. However, those who counted him as a friend, as I did, know that something irreplaceable is gone for good with his passing. The art world is crowded with pretentious academics with sticks lodged very far up their asses, but you couldn’t find a more high-spirited companion than Hopps — he had a fabulous sense of humor, and he loved gossip. He was funny and fun, and he lived absolutely by his own eccentric rules. He certainly never gave a damn what time it was, and if he felt like talking to you at 3 in the morning, he’d pick up the phone and call. I’ve never met anyone with such a burning curiosity about a wider variety of things, a greater reverence for history, a more welcoming embrace for the new, or less patience for stupidity. When the misinformed made the mistake of offering their opinion, he would declare “Wrong!” in a loud, booming voice. Hopps was very macho in that regard, but at the same time, he was uncommonly at ease with the feminine aspect of his nature. He was a sucker for all that is lyrical and lovely in life, and wasn’t afraid to show it when he was feeling sentimental. Needless to say, Hopps made a few enemies along the way — people who shoot from the hip, as was his wont, tend to do that — but even his detractors grudgingly conceded that he was brilliant. Artists loved him for the simple reason that he loved artists and approached the job of looking at a work of art humbly and with utter seriousness. He had an astonishing visual memory and could recount details of an artwork he may’ve glimpsed once, 30 years ago. He remembered because he cared, and there was nothing he felt himself above looking at. Hopps moved comfortably along the art world’s corridors of money and power, but his heart always remained in the street, and he never stopped believing there was something fascinating going on out there. I once asked him if he ever got bored, and he snorted derisively at the very idea. “It’s all happening all the time!” he bellowed. “How could I get bored?” The world seems like a slightly smaller place without him.


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