“…I want to say that the myth that I started out as a photographer and painter before becoming an actor isn’t true. I did it all simultaneously. So it wasn’t one thing or another. As soon as I arrived on a movie set, I began to see filmmaking as the greatest art form of the twentieth century. No other art form had embraced photography, writing, acting, set design, architecture, music, literature…movie making had everything in one package.”
- Dennis Hopper, Dennis Hopper et le Nouvel Hollywood, Paris, 2008
The name Dennis Hopper is written large on the fabric of American popular culture. Americans can name his greatest cinematic achievements such as Rebel Without a Cause, Easy Rider, Apocalypse Now or Blue Velvet but few are aware of the depth of his immersion in all aspects of the visual and performing arts.
Painting and the theater were active interests of Hopper when he and his parents moved to San Diego in 1949. In 1953 he landed the role of Lorenzo alongside Vincent Price in The Merchant of Venice. Price, a renowned collector of the Abstract Expressionist period, lived with important works by Jackson Pollock, Franz Kline and Richard Diebenkorn. Throughout his life, Price devoted great efforts as an arts patron sought, along with friends Edward G. Robinson, Louis Kaufman, Billy Wilder, Norton Simon and Walter Arensberg (whose Hollywood home was filled with modernist masterpieces including seminal works by Marcel Duchamp) to educate and promote the arts in a city which, at the time, was relatively provincial. Price became a mentor of sorts to the young Hopper opening doors through which Hopper was naturally inclined to go.
Rebel Without a Cause, released in 1955, starring Dennis Hopper opposite James Dean and Natalie Wood, was Hopper’s first major cinematic role. Dean was an icon for a new generation who rebelled against dogmatic conventions of American culture. Specifically, James Dean represented a revolution in cinema against the traditional studio system towards a more naturalistic method of acting espoused by Lee Strasberg. But in symbolic terms Dean represented a challenge to social conformity by the post-war baby boom generation. Similar conventions were being shattered in Jazz by the new be-bop sounds of Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie. Writers and poets such as William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac and Allan Ginsberg broke up conventional narrative with a disjointed non-linear style. Dean encouraged hopper to pick up a camera and become involved with the foremost subversives of the day.
In Los Angeles the epicenter of this revolution in the arts opened in 1957. The critic Walter Hopps and artists Wallace Berman and Robert Alexander inaugurated Stone Brothers Printing, which soon became the nexus for artists, writers, poets, musicians and actors who sought new methods of expression. Dennis Hopper became a regular there and James Dean made an appearance. Hopps, who as young man was transformed by a visit to Walter and Louise Arensberg’s collection, later that year opened The Ferus Gallery with Hopper’s friend, artist Ed Keinholz. Ferus began not only with exhibitions of artists but also screened movies and held poetry readings. In the early days Ferus was a sort of “Cedar Bar West” where the Los Angeles art world converged to meet to tracks of Jazz and bottles of wine. The artists were kings and experimentation was the rule. Artists in the early stable of Ferus included John Altoon, Robert Irwin, Wallace Berman, Bruce Conner, Craig Kauffman, Ed Keinholz and many more.
In 1959 Hopper left Los Angeles for New York where he studied under Lee Strasberg learning his Actors Studio method. He spent much of his time visiting galleries, jazz clubs and museums and continued to focus on evolving his ability as a photographer. But later that year Hopper moved back to Los Angeles quickly became deeply immersed in the art scene revolving around the Ferus Gallery. "It was an incredibly nurturing situation and some quite spectacular things came out of it. Some people were nurtured by it in a kind of secondary way—Dennis Hopper and Frank Gehry, for instance, were very much a part of the dialogue we were having" (Robert Irwin as quoted in K. McKenna, The Ferus Gallery, A Place to Begin, Gottingen, 2009, p. 236).
Andy Warhol opened his first gallery show at the Ferus Gallery with his breakthrough "32 Soup Cans" in July 1962. Hopper later bought one of these seminal works from Virgina Dwan for $75. Also that year, Walter Hopps organized the first museum survey of Pop Art, New Paintings of Common Objects, at the Pasadena Art Museum. This show introduced Los Angeles to the works of Ed Ruscha, Andy Warhol, Jim Dine, Roy Lichtenstein and others. Hopper met Andy Warhol in 1963 in New York through his friend, the critic and director of the Museum of Modern Art, Henry Geldzahler. Concurrently with Warhol’s next exhibition at Ferus Gallery of Elvis paintings in September of 1963, Walter Hopps organized the first Marcel Duchamp retrospective at the Pasadina Museum of Art.
Hopper and Warhol both hosted parties celebrating the confluence of artists around these shows and attended by the Los Angeles art scene. It was during this time that Hopper, Hopps, Warhol, Duchamp and others gathered for the opening dinner at the Green Hotel and Duchamp made the readymade "Green Hotel" in Hopper’s collection. "The private opening was a festive black-tie affair, preceded by a dinner and followed by a reception held in the ballroom of the nearby Hotel Green. The guest lists, however, read like a who’s who of contemporary Southern California Art: Edward Moses, Billy Al Bengston, Larry Bell, Edward Kienholz, (Edward Ruscha, Dennis Hopper), Robert Irwin…were but a few of the artists invited, along with local art world figures Henry Hopkins…Norton Simon, John Coplans…Los Angeles Dealers Paul Kantor, Irving Blum, Felix Landaue and Frank Perls. Julian Wasser, a contract photographer for Time, was on the scene taking pictures. Years later, Wasser could still recall that the opening was electrifying and out of the ordinary. Artists grasped the significance of the occasion and attended as an act of homage. Echoing similar sentiments, Irving Blum recalled that artists were both astounded and moved by Duchamp’s work, especially in its anticipation of so many recent avant-garde developments. While the newspapers preferred to cast the opening as a wild bohemian event, Hopps felt that a different mood prevailed. The atmosphere of the ballroom in the Hotel Green transported guests to an elegant world like that in a Fred Astaire movie” (D. Tashjian, "Nothing Left to Chance: Duchamp's First Retrospective," B. Clearwater, ed., West Coast Ducahmp, Miami, 1991, p. 64). While in LA, Warhol shot Tarzan and Jane Regained….Sort Of, a film featuring Dennis Hopper and Wallace Berman and Claes Oldenberg.
By the mid 1960’s Hopper amassed a sizable collection of artworks by his friends including critical pieces by West Coast Artists Ed Ruscha, Berman, Conner, Irwin, Altoon as well as East Coast artists Warhol, Lichtenstein, Ruscha, Johns, Rauschenberg, Stella, and Oldenburg. From 1967-1969 Dennis Hopper worked intensely on a film, co-written by Peter Fonda and starring Hopper, Fonda and Jack Nicholson, whose narrative was inspired from the 1957 novel On the Road by beat writer Jack Kerouac. Easy Rider became the touchstone that defined Hopper’s generation. Dennis gave small parts to his artist circle of friends Wallace Berman and George Herms while Bruce Conner contributed to the editing.
The Ferus Gallery shut it’s doors in 1967 but Dennis Hopper continued his immersion in the art scene through the 1970’s, 80’s and 1990’s becoming an integral element of Andy Warhol’s circle with his friends and dealers Leo Castelli and Bruno Bischofberger. In 1971 Warhol painted a commission of portraits of Dennis Hopper using an image of Dennis wearing a cowboy hat taken on location from Hopper’s film The Last Movie. These paintings, along with a series of portraits of the dealer Bischofberger, were Warhol’s first ventures into a new abstract expressionist style which would become typical in his late work.
Hopper threw himself with abandon into various film projects during this time and concentrated on developing his own career as a photographer. In 1986 he showed his photography with the dealer Tony Shafrazi and began collecting again, buying works by Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring and Kenny Scharf. In Hopper’s Basquiat painting, Untitled, 1987, life comes full circle with Basquiat’s non-linear samplings of text, much like the Beat generation cut-up prose of William Burroughs or the visual cut-ups of Bruce Conner’s work that he collected in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. Julian Schnabel and David Salle were represented in depth in the Dennis Hopper Collection. Salle cast Hopper as Dr. Luthor Waxling, a novelist and self-help guru, in his 1995 film Search and Destroy. Schnabel cast Hopper as a character loosely based on Bischofberger in his 1996 film, Basquiat. Hopper must have enjoyed his role as art-world insider playing the part of another art- world insider.
Highlights from The Collection of Dennis Hopper include Basquiat’s Untitled 1987, executed in acrylic, oil stick and graphite, as well as Warhol’s Portrait of Dennis Hopper, 1971, in synthetic polymer and silkscreen ink in shades of blue, gray and ecru. The two works will be presented for sale at Christie’s Post-War & Contemporary Evening Sale on November 10, 2010. An additional single-owner section from the Hopper estate will be featured at the Post-War & Contemporary Day Sales the following day. Christie’s will also present a sale of prints, smaller works and other memorabilia from the collection in January 2011 during its Interiors sale.
Post-War and Contemporary Evening Sale
10 Nov 2010
New York, Rockefeller Plaza
Post-War and Contemporary Afternoon Session
11 Nov 2010
New York, Rockefeller Plaza
11-12 Jan 2011
New York, Rockefeller Plaza
Post-War & Contemporary Art