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HOPPER’S BIG SHOW
by Tiff Chalmers
 
It didn’t take the dozens of art-world paparazzi at the July 9 press preview at the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA to ensure that its new exhibition, "Dennis Hopper Double Standard," would hit the ground with more pre-awareness than a teen vampire sequel. The barely posthumous exhibition survey -- curated by artist-director Julian Schnabel under the aegis of newly minted MOCA director Jeffrey Deitch, with assistance from credited collaborator and BFF-to-the-stars Tony Shafrazi (who was Hopper’s dealer) -- is packaged tightly enough even for vintage Michael Ovitz.  

Yes, "Dennis Hopper Double Standard" is more than the sum of its media-friendly parts. It is the ultimate Trojan Horse wheeled into a welcoming institution: a star-powered art show by an art-star and star-artist, curated by an artist-director, presided over by the new art-star-Svengali of a revivifying art institution whose hip wing is named for a star-maker, in a town full of artists and stars. Viral events of this kind infrequently attract universal approval, yet "Dennis Hopper Double Standard" deserves high marks for ingenuity.

Visitors to MOCA’s converted warehouse funnel through an amusing antechamber of mostly large-scale Hopper works into a central corridor of his sculpture, assemblage and painting, hung in serial progression according to Hopper's "creative development." A salon-style orgy of much-loved photographs serves as the spiritual center of the space, while two side alleys offer glimpses of less-celebrated Hopper experiments such as abstract land photography and graffiti-inspired painting. It is imbalanced, visionary and charming, all in one breathless moment. But enough about the exhibition.

Deitch spoke first, proclaiming Hopper "one of the ultimate American artists," skillfully weaving his personal history into the tapestry of nearly every movement of the 20th century, from Abstract Expressionism onward, a theme that Schnabel would take up later. Deitch admitted that the impetus for this exhibition was sheer willpower, his and Julian’s (Schnabel earned special thanks for "volunteering to be the curator"). Proclaiming the exhibition the "fastest turn a major museum has made of this sort," Deitch didn't mince words: "We rushed it, so that Dennis could be involved."

Enter Schnabel, stage left. No stranger to Brechtian technique, he quickly dispatched a friendly helper to remove the clear plastic podium, leaving him exposed against the backdrop of the 26-foot-tall polychromed Hopper sculpture La Salsa Man. Still too comfortable, he dropped to his knees for the entirety of his monologue. Declaring Deitch's speech "a genius moment for Los Angeles," he admonished, "You're extremely lucky to have a guy like Jeffrey out here."

Schnabel then turned to the subject of Hopper, whom he views as a painter foremost: "Whatever tool he had, he thought of things being formed." Continuing from the vague to the cryptic ("Lucio Fontana did not know Joseph Beuys," and neither knew Cy Twombly) to the confrontational ("Are you bored?" and "The Vanity Fair thing [a "last interview" by Bob Colacello] was a bunch of shit"), and again the complimentary ("The people that work here are delicious"), Schnabel seemed magnanimous, ending on a blissful note as he urged the collected onlookers -- presumably hateful critics -- "Let's take the high road." Shall we? Indeed.

According to the press release, the artist's oeuvre is remarkable because he "blurred the boundaries between art, film and popular culture," and by the standard of his work, Hopper does perhaps deserve a place in that line, behind Kenneth Anger, Wallace Berman, Bruce Conner, even Jack Goldstein (whose planned retrospective is rumored to have been bumped to accommodate this one). But Hopper was famous and accomplished in the cinematic medium -- and cinema is the art form of the 20th century.

Which leads by way of double entendre to the inevitable question that haunts this particular undertaking: What does it mean, the "double standard" that we all know infects the life and work of Hollywood star-artists? The answer to this question is hardly worth the time it takes to ponder Hopper’s role as, once again, a crazed madman in Waterworld, mysteriously absent from Schnabel's "Excerpts on Freedom" montage of Hopper's top moments on film, looping in the rear of the exhibition. Tim Burton is lucky he didn't have to go on after this.

"Dennis Hopper Double Standard," July 11 - Sept. 26, 2010 at the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA, 152 N. Central Avenue, Los Angeles, Ca. 90013


TIFF CHALMERS writes on art and culture from Los Angeles.