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Walter Hopps, Museum Man With a Talent For Talent

By Paul Richard
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, March 22, 2005; Page C01

Most museum men are smooth. Walter Hopps wasn't. He was sort of a gonzo museum director -- elusive, unpredictable, outlandish in his range, jagged in his vision, heedless of rules. That's if you could find him, which wasn't always easy. But Hopps, who died Sunday in Los Angeles at the age of 72, had a peculiar gift. He found artists, wonderful artists, and he found them first.

That's because he had a knack. He wasn't just for abstraction, or photography, or funk art or assemblage or political art or street art. He was for all of these at once. No one idea controlled him. When he became director of the Washington Gallery of Modern Art in 1967, all the art that he displayed there -- colored stripes by Gene Davis or street art from Los Angeles or paintings on linoleum by the group the Hairy Who -- looked utterly unlike anything that had been shown at that gallery before.

Walter Hopps with an Alexander Liberman sculpture outside the Corcoran Gallery in 1970, after he had been named director of the museum. (The Washington Post)

When he became director of the Corcoran Gallery of Art, he showed visionary architecture -- Paolo Soleri's. Also New York abstract expressionist sculpture -- David Smith's. Hopps's Smith installation began on the second floor, marched down the broad stairs, continued through the door, between the guardian lions, across 17th street and flowed out into the park beside the White House grounds.

A lot of his colleagues were cautious followers. Not Hopps. He was the first to show Andy Warhol's pop art. He also was the first to show Ed Ruscha, Ed Kienholz and Frank Stella. Ruscha makes flawless drawings with words in them (these are now on exhibition at the National Gallery), and Kienholz made funky, gut-punching assemblages, and Stella makes big abstractions. Their work has nothing in common, except that it's terrific. This sufficed for Hopps.

There is no 20th-century conceptualist as influential as Marcel Duchamp. This now is obvious, but it wasn't when Hopps installed the first Duchamp retrospective in Pasadena, Calif., in 1963. He did as much for Barnett Newman, who made empty fields of color, and for Joseph Cornell, who made evocative little boxes. He even introduced R. Crumb, who drew comics, to the museum world.

When he moved to Washington in the early 1960s he did his scouting here. Sam Gilliam, Ed McGowin, William Christenberry, Rockne Krebs, John Gossage -- Hopps reached out to all of them. Go back through his record, and it's like a pounding drumbeat, first, first, first, first.

Walter Hopps began his art career as a college kid in California. Toward the end of his life he worked for both the Menil Collection in Houston, where he was its founding director, and for the Guggenheim in Manhattan. Right until the end Hopps was searching out unfamiliar artists of exceptional accomplishment. He may have been the finest art scout of his age.

He often astonished. That was part of who he was. He also often vanished. James T. Demetrion, former director of the Smithsonian's Hirshhorn Museum, was studying at UCLA when Hopps hired him as the curator of the Pasadena Art Museum. Hopps, Demetrion recalls, once began to hang a Jasper Johns exhibit the night before it opened. "He said he'd show up at 9 p.m., though of course he didn't. He strolled in after midnight, and we were there all night. Still, the show looked great."

Hopps would often work three days without a break, and then disappear for the same amount of time. When he was working at the Smithsonian's National Collection of Fine Arts his boss, Joshua C. Taylor, was sometimes heard to say, "If I could find him, I'd fire him." But of course he didn't. Hopps always kept roaring back. That was part of him, too.

Artists surrounded him. When he was serving as the NCFA's curator of 20th-century American art, he borrowed a downtown storefront here to mount a group show he called "Thirty-Six Hours." The idea was simple. He'd be there for that period, and while there he'd hang anything anyone brought in.

And what he saw he remembered. Hopps kept a kind of mental store of everything he'd seen, and every image in it was retrievable at will. All you had to do was ask.

I still have the button somewhere. The size of a half-dollar, with white words on a black background, it was commissioned (by his staff) with only half a smile. It says: "Walter Hopps will be here in 20 minutes." Which meant, of course, he wouldn't.

Hours, sometimes days, would pass before one heard his low, rich voice, often on the telephone in the middle of the night. It was always worth the wait. He was the best art talker I have ever heard. His speech was like a Jackson Pollock drip painting, swooping, swelling, doubling back. He mesmerized. He taught.

One night, I remember, at the headachy end of a noisy artists' party, I asked him to conceive a show on the spot. "Okay," he said. "We'll call it 'Seven Enormously Popular American Painters.' Five supporting actors, and two stars. For the five, Walt Disney, N.C. Wyeth, Norman Rockwell, Rockwell Kent and Saul Steinberg. And for the two competing stars, Audubon and Warhol."

The death of Walter Hopps makes the modern-art museum world feel somehow pale and tame.

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