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Correction to This Article
The March 22 obituary of art curator Walter Hopps gave an incorrect name for the Smithsonian Institution museum where he worked in the 1970s. The correct name is the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Walter Hopps; Curator Of 20th-Century Art

By Yvonne Shinhoster Lamb
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 22, 2005; Page B06

Walter Hopps, 72, the self-taught curator who specialized in 20th-century art and gained an international reputation for his innovative exhibitions, died March 20 at a hospital in Los Angeles after falling and breaking three ribs earlier in the month.

In a career that spanned from Los Angeles to Washington to Houston, where he most recently was 20th-century art curator at the Menil Collection, Mr. Hopps was known for a renegade spirit that attracted much attention in the art world.


Walter Hopps, known for a renegade spirit, was director of the Corcoran Gallery of Art from 1967 to 1972. (Gary Cameron -- The Washington Post)

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He showcased the work of leading abstract expressionists as well as emerging pop artists such as Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein. Among his landmark exhibits was the first retrospective of Marcel Duchamp, the first museum exhibition of Frank Stella and "The New Painting of Common Objects," a 1962 exhibition that signaled the rise of American pop art.

He also was art director of Grand Street, a New York-based literary magazine.

Jean Stein, the publication's editor, said Mr. Hopps surpassed his job description. She said his vision guided the magazine, which combined art, literature, science and political thought and published works by internationally known artists and writers.

"He influenced so many people in the art world to care for artists the way he did," Stein said. "He cared for them and nourished them."

Mr. Hopps relished doing "small exhibitions" -- photo layouts in the magazine -- particularly when it became more difficult for him to get around, Stein said.

His last full-scale exhibition was for Beat generation artist and poet George Herms, one of the figures from Mr. Hopps's early days in Los Angeles. "George Herms: Hot Set" opened March 4 at the Santa Monica Museum of Art in California, and Mr. Hopps and Herms held a talk March 8.

In a 1991 New Yorker magazine interview, Mr. Hopps was described as "a tall, imposing man with flowing hair and with Mephisto eyebrows that form bushy circumflex accents over blue eyes."

In the article, Mr. Hopps compared his work to one of his other passions: music. "I think that the closest analogy to installing a museum exhibition is conducting a symphony orchestra," he said.

This was a fair analogy, wrote Calvin Tompkins in the New Yorker story: "Like some artists, he has the visual equivalent of a musician's perfect pitch."

Mr. Hopps was born in Eagle Rock, Calif., on May 3, 1932. In high school, he started a photographic society and organized exhibits. During this time, he also met the influential art collectors Walter and Louise Arensberg, which further spurred his direction. He attended Stanford, Harvard and Yale universities but never earned a degree.

In 1957, he and artist Edward Kienholz opened the Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles, a legendary spot where Warhol exhibited his paintings of Campbell's soup cans.

In the 1960s, he became director of the Pasadena Art Museum in California. He left Pasadena in 1967 and later became director of the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington until 1972. He reportedly was fired from the Corcoran because of his habit of disappearing for hours, among other eccentric behavior.

He then was curator of 20th-century American art at what is now the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American Art and served in 1972 as U.S. commissioner of the Venice Biennale exhibition in Italy, where he featured artists such as photographer Diane Arbus and painters Richard Estes and Sam Gilliam.

In 1979, he settled in Houston and soon became founding director of the Menil Collection.

In 2002, he was named adjunct senior curator of 20th-century art at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York. There, he organized a traveling retrospective of the American pop artist James Rosenquist, one of his many path-breaking exhibits.

Guggenheim director Thomas Krens once called Mr. Hopps "one of the preeminent curators of his generation" and said that he "redefined how we look at art of the modern era."

The Menil Foundation established the Walter Hopps Award for Curatorial Achievement in 2001 to recognize and encourage a continuation of Mr. Hopps's "spirited tradition of innovation and excellence."

A colleague once said Mr. Hopps merely "wanted the world to see what he saw."

Survivors include his wife, Caroline Huber of Houston.


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