I met Walter Hopps in September 1975 during my year as a museum fellow at the National Collection of Fine Arts in Washington D.C. (now the Smithsonian American Art Museum). I began my fellowship with the exhibits crew, installing an exhibition of contemporary American sculpture that was organized by a curator who had recently left the museum. I never met her but she was very lucky—and so was I—since Walter Hopps took over the project and installed the show. I was straight out of grad school and I had never seen anyone like him; there was the chain-smoking, nervous pacing that everyone remembers, but also the laser-like attention and care he took with each object, the utter finesse of the final installation. At one moment, I remember him turning to the chief of the exhibits crew, a guy who was notoriously tuned-out, and saying something like: “This time John, it’s going to be down to inches.”
I spent the last half of my fellowship in the department of 20th-century painting and sculpture. When Walter finally turned up, he invited me into his office straight away. He asked me where I’d gone to school and what the subject of my Master’s thesis had been. When I replied the University of Michigan and told him that I had written my thesis about 18th-century fashion plates and images of fashion, I thought I saw him flinch, just for a second, before he asked me if I liked Rauschenberg’s work. “Oh, yes,” I answered. His next question was: “Do you want to play hardball or softball?” I’m not big on sports metaphors, so I probably flinched this time but knew enough to shoot back, “Hardball.” My life changed and my postgraduate education began, working for him on the retrospective of Rauschenberg’s work he was organizing for the museum. One day when I complained about the difficulties of trying to record the media in a Rauschenberg combine painting, which he insisted had to be catalogued in systematic detail, he answered that curatorial work was basically “nitpicky and labor-intensive.” Down to inches, you might say.
Playing “hardball” meant working late, working day and night, in fact. One evening as we were leaving the museum, we passed through the 19th-century galleries where George Catlin’s Indian paintings were hanging. I remember him asking me what I thought of Catlin, as we were crossing 8th Street outside the museum. I replied too glibly that I thought they were interesting but that I didn’t think they were good paintings. “It depends on what you mean by good painting,” he replied.