Photos by Roger Marshutz

It isn’t 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 OD’ed 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 Richer’s 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 York’s MoMA
— was also treated as the last gasp of Eurocentric American art before the shiny
new era of deadpan Pop was ushered in.

Beauty (1978)
(bottom): Flat World (1974)

For whatever reason (emanations from Simon Rodia’s 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 didn’t 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
Paradoxically, it’s 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 they’re 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
It’s unlikely to resuscitate the art world, though; people are already rolling
their eyes at last year’s glut of rickety art-school handmade objects, and chomping
at the bit for the next hot trend. That’s cool — art and the art world are two
different things, and one is important and the other one isn’t. 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” couldn’t be more elegant. But we’re 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. He’d come
to the end of the piece and he’d 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
Moss Gallery | 7321 Beverly Blvd., Los Angeles | Through May 7

LA Weekly