A freewheeling spirit speaks from the pages of “ The Dream Colony ,” a delightfully stream-of-consciousness memoir crafted by editor Deborah Treisman from the tape-recorded reminiscences of Walter Hopps. Hopps, who died in 2005, was a gleefully unorthodox advocate for cutting-edge art. His curatorial stints at such venerable institutions as the Corcoran Gallery and the Smithsonian never managed to turn him into a conventional museum professional.
Hopps came from unconventional stock. His grandfather left home to pan for gold and wound up in Mexico, where he raised a stake to open a hardware store by using his expertise with dynamite to blow open a jammed safe door for a grateful banker. Hopps’s father, a doctor, removed his son’s appendix himself and presented it to Walter in a bottle after surgery. “I always meant to take a picture of it,” Hopps muses, “but somehow didn’t or couldn’t.”
Marvelous anecdotes abound in “The Dream Colony.” Among his friends and colleagues, Hopps was as famous for his storytelling as he was for his embrace of art that bewildered or enraged others. He too saw the world in a different way. Even in his elementary school in California, he incited fellow first-graders to ignore their teacher’s “stupefyingly obvious” instructions to wallpaper the rooms of a dollhouse and instead “tear up the wallpaper and make multicolored collages.”
Hopps was still tearing up the rule book when he started exhibiting art in a ramshackle Los Angeles neighborhood in 1952, barely 20 years old. For his first big show, “Action,” he hung paintings on the curved walls of an abandoned merry-go-round on Santa Monica Pier, a display of contemporary California artists so hip that a contingent of San Francisco Beats trekked south to see it. At the Ferus Gallery, co-founded with artist Edward Kienholz in 1957, he continued promoting West Coast talent, “about evenly divided between the dark-side-of-the-moon assemblage artists and the lyric abstract people.” Assemblage pioneer Wallace Berman’s one-man show at Ferus was closed down by the vice squad due to a sexually explicit photo in one of his boxes.
Hopps liked edgy art by edgy people. Berman “made a bit of a living as a pool hustler and a card shark,” he tells us, and the vivid depictions of his artist friends are studded with such matter-of-fact references. We see John Altoon slashing his own paintings because he was angry at a gallery owner, and Kienholz telling Hopps, after he found towering stacks of liquor cases in the Ferus storeroom, “Some people I know kind of got it off the back of a truck. . . . Let’s not go into the details.” There is, of course, major alcohol and drug abuse by everyone, including Hopps, who took speed to get him through his day job at a bioscience lab and then ate oranges injected with grain alcohol “to stop the shakes.”
The bad behavior and high times make amusing reading, but the more important narrative traces Hopps’s lifelong engagement with art at the forefront of innovation and experimentation. At the Pasadena Art Museum, he curated “New Painting of Common Objects,” which spotlighted work so new that in 1962 it wasn’t yet called pop art. But he also organized the first museum retrospectives of Marcel Duchamp, who had been outraging traditional-minded viewers since the 1913 Armory Show, and of Joseph Cornell, whose work appeared in a New York exhibit of surrealist art in 1932. Hopps had a deep grounding in avant-garde art of the early 20th century; he connected it with gusto to the incendiary work exploding across America in the century’s second half.
The whole country seemed to be exploding by the time Hopps arrived in D.C. in 1967. He was politically active himself and compares his tumultuous tenure as director of the Corcoran to “doing a tour of Southeast Asia.” The Corcoran’s 1971 Biennial was a virtual who’s who of contemporary American art, with Roy Lichtenstein, Philip Pearlstein, Ed Ruscha, Alex Katz, Wayne Thiebaud and many others. A few months later, Hopps was out, fired for encouraging the staff to form a union.
He moved on to the Smithsonian’s National Collection of Fine Arts (now the American Art Museum); the memoir rates a Robert Rauschenberg retrospective as the most important show he did there. Hopps’s shrewd, appreciative assessment of Rauschenberg is one of the best of his brilliant thumbnail sketches, along with loving recollections of his friend Kienholz and the Los Angeles collector Edwin Janss Jr., a cherished mentor and father figure.
Hopps’s death in 2005 cut short the recording sessions with artist/journalist Anne Doran from which Treisman winnowed this memoir. An affectionate portrait of Houston-based collectors John and Dominique de Menil closes “The Dream Colony,” which says little about the years after his appointment as founding director of the Menil Collection in 1981.A comprehensive chronology following main text covers the main events of the subsequent quarter-century, but it’s hardly necessary. Hopps’s atmospheric account captures three decades in the art world with such passion and perception that we don’t need to know more about what he did, though we may very well wish we could have hung out with this dynamo and heard him talk more about art.
Wendy Smith is the author of “Real Life Drama: The Group Theatre and America, 1931-1940.”
By Walter Hopps with Deborah Treisman and Anne Doran
Bloomsbury. 312 pp. $30