Holding Up the Torch: Walter Hopps and the World of Art

June 28, 2017   •   By Scott Timberg

THE CURATOR WALTER HOPPS (19322005) was one of the great cultural figures in postwar California. By co-founding and running the legendary Ferus Gallery on La Cienega and working as a renegade curator at the Pasadena Art Museum, he helped bring the Southland, which was then still rather conservative in its tastes, into the modern age. He helped establish L.A. artists like Ed Kienholz, Wallace Berman, and Ed Ruscha, and his early exhibits of Marcel Duchamp, Andy Warhol, and what would come to be called Pop Art were milestones — not just locally, but globally. In later years, he went on to the Corcoran Gallery in Washington and then helped found the Menil Collection in Houston.

Hopps’s story has never been told as completely as it is in The Dream Colony: A Life in Art, assembled from his conversations with artist Anne Doran by The New Yorker fiction editor Deborah Treisman. The book reads like an outlandish, deadpan memoir about an unlikely cast of characters. Ruscha contributed an introduction. I spoke to Treisman by phone about the book and Hopps’s bright if erratic genius.


SCOTT TIMBERG: So, you were part of this project partly because you knew Walter a bit when you worked at Grand Street. Give us a sense of the guy you met — this is long after his time at Ferus and Pasadena — was he still the brilliant but elusive Walter Hopps of myth?

DEBORAH TREISMAN: Yeah, it’s interesting. I started at Grand Street in early 1994, and about two weeks after I started, Walter had this massive brain aneurysm. He was hospitalized and wasn’t very present for a period of time … He wasn’t at the top of his game … But it did all really come back. After a year or so, I started to become privy to all these incredible stories that he would tell from his past about artists, about other people. While at Grand Street he would select portfolios of work by artists — some of whom were from his earlier days, some of whom were new — and he often would do a short essay to accompany the artwork. And Walter, I don’t think, ever felt at ease as a writer. He was a talker — a speaker and a narrator — and I think he kind of formed his ideas while speaking them. Often he would talk to me or someone else at the magazine and say what he had to say about the artist, and I would edit that into a piece.

We did the same thing later, when he was doing catalog essays for some of the big shows he was working on. He was working at the Guggenheim and did a Kienholz retrospective at the Whitney. I would work with tapes that he had made about these artists — either being interviewed or just talking — and turn them into an essay. And so we thought let’s just do the whole thing and get your full story told.

The way he envisioned it was not as a straight autobiography. It was a story of his career, and also of the artists he knew — he definitely wanted chapters about different artists. I mean, the subtitle of the book is A Life in Art.

And yet, even years before he’s really involved in the art world, there’s so much fascinating stuff — Mexico, his mother dating John Wayne, his early years borrowing friends’ cars, going to see Charlie Parker and Miles Davis play. I wondered if this surprised you — how wild these early recollections were.

Yeah, I mean he told some stories about double-dating with Chet Baker. And I think Charles Mingus was his roommate at one point. He definitely had the sort of crazy late-adolescence, early student period. He was booking jazz shows with a friend of his who was at Oberlin. I think somewhere in the book he says he thought that jazz was where the money was going to be, that these musicians, with their popular appeal, were just gonna make it — and that artists were going to be the starving ones in the attic. Well, later, he realized he had got it all wrong: the jazz guys died off and were miserable, and these artists started hitting it rich. I think as soon as he made it to the home of Walter and Louise Arensberg and saw their art collection, that was that. Art was going to be his focus — and this was when he was 15 or so.

It’s always interesting to get the prose of someone we know in other ways — someone who’s a musician or a painter. And I know these are Walter’s spoken words, not his writing — but how would you describe his use of language? I mean, if he had been a writer, what kind would he have been? Of who would he have reminded us?

That’s a good question. I’m not quite sure, you know, because the book has been distilled down from lengthy tapes with digressions and interruptions. But the way he talked … As a kid, he had been a big fan of radio. You could always sense a sort of suspense, a thriller undercurrent when he was telling a story — that he was taking you somewhere, and he clearly didn’t quite know where that was.

He clearly knew how to structure an anecdote. I mean, I don’t know what happened between the tape recorder and the page, but it certainly reads like a finished and structured kind of story.

Yeah, I suppose I was what happened between the tape recorder and the page. So there’s certainly some editing and restructuring, but his stories, especially the ones from his early years, were pretty well polished. He retold them and fine-tuned them, in a sense. There were some stories he told about six different times on different tapes, and almost in exactly the same words.

In the introduction, Ed Ruscha remembers how Walter would come over and chain smoke, pacing up and down the room and delivering whatever lecture he had to deliver at that moment. I think that was the way he was.

Hopps is really revered by a lot of people here in Los Angeles, people who knew him, but there have also been people — I’m thinking of Irving Blum, who ran Ferus alongside him, as well as the art critic Dave Hickey — who talked about Walter needing adult supervision.

Well, Walter — he was an eccentric, and he had a habit of disappearing and then working through the night for 48 hours straight to get something done. He usually, as I’ve heard it, got things done, just not on other people’s hours. And there’s this image of him as a kind of huckster of contemporary art — you see that in the Kienholz work that’s on the cover of the book: instead of dirty postcards under his jacket, he’s got de Kooning — works of modern art. He was a salesman in every way other than financial, you know?


He wanted to sell the world on what he thought was brilliant in art, but he was never actually looking for a handout — he was a terrible businessman. When Irving Blum came into Ferus’s second incarnation, he was shocked at how little money it was making for anyone. I mean, he liked to bring rich people to art. He certainly cultivated a lot of California collectors. I was very close with a collector who had bought a huge amount of art through Walter, with Walter taking no commission. It really was just about getting support for the artist.

He was not the best businessman in that sense, and not a self-preserving person at all. He has a funny story in the book about his grandfather in Mexico being offered a deal to be the country’s purveyor of Coca-Cola and turning it down, because — I forget what he wanted to do, jam or something. Walter said, “You know, this is sort of how the Hopps family goes — we turn down the big deals.”

Speaking of the family, it’s interesting that he had this supportive and fascinating, and fairly educated, professional family — but they were very un-artsy. His dad had no knowledge or real interest in art, and Los Angeles was rather provincial and sleepy in the 1930s and ’40s. I wonder if Walter would have had the same force and impact had he emerged in a more traditional art center — New York, San Francisco, London, or Paris. Was he the kind of person better suited to an open frontier?

I think the idea of him as a frontiersman is a great one. You know, it’s what his forebears had been — going out to California, working their way down to Mexico, and so on. He spent a lot of time in New York and was sort of fascinated with the city’s art as well, but I think the thrill for him lay in finding the things no one else had found, bringing them to life. Even when he was in DC, when he was at Corcoran or the NCFA — or, before that, at the Washington Gallery of Modern Art — he was setting programs for artists who had not been recognized in any way at all. I think that was the payoff of his job. It was easy enough to take a big show that’s been at MoMA and bring it to the Corcoran or the Menil, but it’s much harder to find the person that will have that show in 50 years.

What qualities or talents do you think were key to making him so effective as a curator? Clearly scheduling and conventional efficiency were not among them. What did he have that made him so successful and influential?

I think he had an ability to talk to artists, to understand what they were doing, and to recognize — to be truly, profoundly excited by the idea that they were doing something new, kind of out on the edges, on the margins. That sort of thrill is infectious, and artists who sense it are going to trust you. They’re going to let you take their work and put it out into the world. And even down to the technical nitty-gritty of hanging things on a wall — he had ideas. He wasn’t just, “Here, let’s start with the one you did in January, and put the one from February next to it.” He was thinking about evocative, resonant ways of arranging art — like taking a Joseph Cornell Dark Sky box and putting it in the middle of a room with a spotlight and dark all around. He made you look at an object in a different way, so that you really saw it.

You can see some old installation shots, but I’m not sure they can convey it. And some of stuff is not particularly well documented. But there are things like the show he did in Washington, like “36 Hours” — where he said he would hang anything that anyone brought him, you know, that could fit through the door, over a period of 36 hours. So he’s standing there in this gallery, he’s got several floors, and people are lined up around the block with their artwork, and he hangs a show for 36 hours straight. I’m sure he was taking speed or something, you know … That’s how he got through the night. But he ended up with something that no one else would ever have put up. He found resonance there. And he was excited about what he saw.

He did unconventional things like that. For instance, in group shows, he would include children’s art, and saw no reason not to … You know, there might be a child there doing something interesting with color that would catch his eye. So he wasn’t bound by the conventional script.

Well, I love the epigraph for the book, where Hopps describes himself as the guy who finds the cave where the great painting is and holds the torch.

I pulled that out. It was a quote I’ve always just loved, from Calvin Tomkins’s 1991 profile of Walter in The New Yorker. It was this idea that he wasn’t only helping others see art, but was also helping art get made. He’s holding up the torch so that the artist can put the paint on the wall. And he has some great scenes in the book of watching people make art: he got to spend the night watching Franz Kline, he watched Rauschenberg make a huge work. For him, this idea of being present at the creation was really important; it was like seeing his child being born or something. Here he is, a witness to something great.

I like that image because there’s something very innocent about it. You know, he’s sort of along for the ride, the same way the rest of us are — he just happens to have the torch.

Yeah. Yeah.

I think it’s fair to say there’s a nostalgia here in Los Angeles for the Ferus days, for the early Ed Ruscha, Kienholz, Berman breakthroughs. Angelenos think of Hopps as doing this radical stuff here in the ’50s and ’60s, and then going back east and not quite finding a structure that could accommodate his wild eccentricities … Is there anything to that, or did he really have his heyday here in California?

I would say he had a heyday in California. I think he really had another one at the Menil.

You know, that was something that he started from scratch. He worked so closely with Dominique de Menil, whom he adored and who really gave him free rein. So, in a sense, that’s his mature heyday — that’s when he’s not disappearing for a week or calling you at two in the morning. That’s when the focus was entirely on the art.

And on another frontier, too — Texas.

Working with a French heiress who happens to be fantastically open to art of all periods, in Texas. This period gets less coverage in the book simply because he didn’t get to that part of his life before he died. But I would definitely say that was his second heyday.

Here’s my last question. Obviously, Walter was a one of a kind, if that cliché ever had any meaning. But I wonder if our contemporary culture still has a place for people like Walter Hopps, who are so brilliant but so impractical — sort of dreamy.

Yeah, I think it takes some of the discovery and novelty out of the equation, because it’s much easier to get work out into the world now than it was back then. There have been some iconoclastic people in the art world in later generations, but I still think he was one of a kind. I haven’t seen anyone quite like that. There have been people with great imaginations, and great impresarios, and people who’ve been behind a full-fledged movement or scene. But he was different, because he wasn’t just pushing one thing — he was really all over the map, but everything he was seeing and feeling became interconnected, and existed on this kind of level playing field. No one else would have ever put all those things together on that field.


Scott Timberg is the editor of The Misread City: New Literary Los Angeles and author of Culture Crash: The Killing of the Creative Class.