On Walter Hopps
Walter was a prodigious talker. There was a time when we spoke on the phone every few weeks, seldom for less than an hour. Walter would call up, sometimes in the morning, or later in the afternoon, and without much preamble or conventional small talk would launch into his latest musings on broad historical events, like the Westward Migration and its late flowering in the art of the 1950s, or the Civil War (a favorite topic) and how it shapes attitudes still, and then continue, in that looping, circuitous way of his, through various other formative periods in American history (FDR, WWII, Eisenhower), before arriving, either quickly or slowly, at his main themes, one thing linked to and calling up the others: jazz, especially his beloved Miles, Dada, Duchamp (or simply Marcel, as Walter referred to him); American painting after the War; the social and economic history of Southern California and how it intersected with the visual arts; Surrealism in America; the history of the Beats; Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg; Faulkner; the movies, and anything having to do with Dennis Hopper, Jean Stein, or Terry Southern; there was also postmodernism, the architecture of Louis Kahn, Native American shamanistic rituals, baseball—well, you get the idea. Like I said, at least an hour.
The conversations, near monologues really, would often end with him making a connection to his listener (that is, me) with something like, “Now, what you guys are up to today is in line with what Bob and Jasper were doing in the early 60s. I get that.” I never felt it was gratuitous or a sop. The whole point for Walter was the continuum. It was almost like a physical law—forces once set in motion would continue to spread outward, like a chain reaction in a laboratory, taking different forms but hewing to certain recognizable molecular combinations. Or rather, the combinations were new, but the molecules themselves, the building blocks, were familiar. Like a great literary critic, Walter dwelt in the visceral, sub-textual dream that exists inside of art. It came naturally to him, and he accessed it easily, in a seemingly contradictory way: by being highly sensitized to and in tune with a work’s surface properties, its visual life. In this, Walter’s antennae were unusually sensitive.
Walter believed in History—that is, in large forces that determine society’s and people’s lives generally—and he also believed in the individual’s ability to shape his or her own destiny, which is why character mattered. It’s a very American idea. Walter was more concerned with the notion of character—of who had it and how it was expressed—than any curator I have known. This belief allowed him to occasionally admire an artist’s work to excess, if he judged their character to be of high caliber, and it was the mechanism behind his assessment of collectors, some of whom were almost mythologized for their risk-taking while others were pitied for their obtuseness. For Walter, one’s attitude mattered. Style, too.
It has been noted by many others that Walter dressed like a 1960s company man: dark suit, lapels of medium width, white shirt and black tie, black brogues. Seersucker suit for summer. And then there was the tan raincoat and snap brim hat, which together with the slim briefcase gave him the oft-remarked-on look of a CIA man. Like the operative he resembled, Walter could be absent for days, weeks, or months, or he could appear unexpectedly at odd times. He came once, in the late 1980s, to a rehearsal of Karole Armitage’s dance company. I don’t even know how he knew about it, but he appeared without warning at the downtown studio just as Karole and her dancers were getting down to work. He was dressed, that day as every day, full on CIA—raincoat, hat, briefcase, horn-rimmed glasses. He found one of the few chairs placed along the wall, and sat very still, briefcase and hat on his lap, completely focused on the dancers for over an hour of rehearsal. At the break, he briefly thanked Karole and was gone. I think it was Walter’s first time seeing her work, and he was certainly no expert on dance, but when I talked to him about it a few days later, he had taken in a great deal of what was good about the choreography. He had grasped its essence.
I had the great good fortune to make two exhibitions with him, a small one at the Menil Collection in 1988, and another, larger one at the Museo de Arte Contemporáneo de Monterrey about a dozen years later. I got to observe, first hand and up-close, his famous curatorial acuity, his seemingly instinctual ability to hang pictures in a way that maximized their energy in a room. At this task, Walter was his most feline self. After a long, quiet, and still period of looking, he would act quickly and decisively, like a cat suddenly pouncing. One, two, three, or at most four strokes and that room was done. At the time of our first show, Walter was still smoking, and he used the cigarette like a timer. During installation, he would stand in the center of a gallery, eyes fixed in one direction, while he smoked down a cigarette, occasionally flicking the ash into the cupped palm or an ashtray held in the opposite hand without so much as shifting his gaze. When the embers were just about to burn his fingers, Walter would quickly stub out the butt and go into action, moving a painting himself (strictly forbidden among today’s unionized installers) to exactly the right position on the wall. Then he would step back to feel its effect, take in its rightness in relation the room and to its fellows, and turn to consider another section of wall, and, yes, light another cigarette, with which the whole process would start again.