Dennis Hopper Exhibits Another Side of Himself As a 'Strange Realist'

By William Booth
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 1, 2006

If one were expecting, perhaps even hoping, that the art exhibition surveying the work of actor Dennis Hopper would be glorious, self-indulgent dirt, well, one would be disappointed.

Hopper isn't bad for a celebrity. Not at all.

He is talented and thoughtful, and his stuff appears to be unique, solid. Arty-looking visitors strolling the just-opened show on Friday, some wearing the latest architectural eyeglasses, occasionally stop before one of his big billboard photo-paintings and say holy cow.

"He's been a bit of secret," says Douglas Chrismas, director of the Ace Gallery, a private museum and exhibit space on Wilshire Boulevard, which hosted the show -- Hopper's first big retrospective in his adopted home town. "People of course know him as an actor and director, but you ask him, he would say he thinks of himself as an artist first."

Ten years before he co-wrote, directed and appeared in the seminal '60s film "Easy Rider," Hopper was first a painter of abstract expressionist work, and he ran with a crowd that included Jasper Johns, Roy Lichtenstein and David Hockney.

A disastrous fire in Bel Air and Brentwood, Calif., in 1961 consumed his production, perhaps 300 paintings, Chrismas estimates. It was a near-fatal blow, but from the ashes Hopper took up, in a serious way, black-and-white photography, which makes up about a third of the exhibit.

As Craig Krull, owner of the Craig Krull Gallery in Santa Monica, recalls the tale, Hopper's wife gave him a camera after the fire. "He really developed a very keen sensibility" characterized by "bold compositions and dynamic moments," Krull says. "He knows how to put together formal elements on a plane."

As Hopper moved through the art world, Hollywood and political circles, he brought the camera with him. "He was able to capture many moments that might not be historically significant but that take on a historical significance because of the way he photographed them," Krull says.

"He took to it like a duck to water," says Chrismas, a longtime figure in the New York and Los Angeles art scene who represented Warhol. "You'd never see him without his freaking camera. He wouldn't leave the house without it."

The photographs in the exhibit, which Chrismas guesses represent about three percent of Hopper's output, include portraits, but not as many of fellow actors as one might expect.

There is an image of Paul Newman (a shirtless Adonis) and another of Dean Stockwell (with fried egg on his cheek) and a 1964 shot of Bill Cosby, which Hopper took for Vogue magazine and which showed the young comedian, wearing a pair of black Converse high-tops, hiding himself in the ivy shrubs of the louche-luxe hotel Chateau Marmont. But most of the early photographs are portraits of fellow pop artists, such as Claes Oldenburg and Ed Ruscha.

Tony Shafrazi, owner of the Tony Shafrazi Gallery, represents Hopper in New York and has been friends with him since 1963. Shafrazi says Hopper was part of a movement of actor-artists in the 1950s who "had a broader approach to acting than a previous generation." Hopper was in two of James Dean's three movies, and both Hopper and Dean saw acting as just part of a wide range of creative expression that also included sculpture, dance, painting and photography, Shafrazi says.

"James Dean spearheaded the idea that acting was only one aspect of art, and to do painting and photography is also important," he notes. "This left a tremendous impact on Dennis."

Hopper avidly collected art by California artists working in the late 1950s and early 1960s. "He was one of the first people worldwide who responded to this new art that was developing" -- pop art, Shafrazi says. At the first major exhibition of Andy Warhol's paintings, a series of Campbell's soup cans shown in Los Angeles in 1962, Hopper was one of only two buyers who took home artworks. Shafrazi says Hopper got them for $75 (and later surrendered the paintings during a divorce).

As Hopper, 69, takes his guests on a tour of the exhibit, he seems in fact more artist than actor. He quotes Leonardo da Vinci (on the difficulty of representing the creamy patina of a wet stain on a Tuscan wall). He paraphrases Marcel Duchamp, with whom he agrees when he explains, "An artist is a person who points his finger and says, 'That is art.' " And he speaks in great detail about the difference between digital and film photography, how with the former, "you're spraying with light, and not like a [film] photograph, where it rises up from the chemicals."

Hopper has also taken his photographs from the early '60s and transferred them to huge oil paintings on vinyl. He says he always has been fascinated by the Southern California landscape of outdoor advertising. Asked why his work now is so big, so billboard-y, Hopper says, "That's L.A. -- the billboards and the cars. Maybe next I should do some palm trees."

The big images are arresting. When he was a young artist hanging out with the pops, he often took his comrades to a billboard-painting factory near downtown Los Angeles. He says the place amazed him, and that what he often tries to do with his art (including his photographs of graffiti from Florence, London, New York, Prague) is just capture what is already there on the streets, a style he calls "strange realism."

It works. Shafrazi remembers Hopper in the '60s, when Dennis was the person they all wanted to meet.

"He's a big star, he's dynamic, he's running around taking photographs all over, plus he's the hottest, coolest, most knowledgeable guy on art," Shafrazi says. "He is a conduit, he's the guide, he's the pointer."

Staff writer Sonya Geis contributed to this report.

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