Media culture is so rapid and so recent that the lives of many people still around today encapsulate the entire history of sound film, rock and roll and, for most, the digital age. But what if one person's life were to contain just about every pop phenomenon beloved by the postmodern mind?
That person was Dennis Hopper. He starred in two of James Dean's films and was crushed by the young actor's death. He roomed with Elvis Presley and the actor Nick Adams, as the King's film career began. Hopper married Hollywood royalty, the actress Brooke Hayward, daughter of famed producer Leland Hayward and the doomed beauty, actress Margaret Sullavan. Brooke chronicled Hopper's descent into drugs and depression in the bestselling memoir Haywire.
Hopper, as was demonstrated in his spectacular recent show at Shafrazi Gallery, knew every significant pop artist and curator (Irving Blum, Andy Warhol, Walter Hopps, Ed Ruscha and onwards) before anyone else, collected them first and photographed them for all time. He made the film, Easy Rider, which turned Jack Nicholson into a star and, more dubiously, glorified a thousand, thousand overdoses and jail sentences for drugs. Hopper's performance in Apocalypse Now gave the finger to John Wayne and created a more circumspect real-life model for military leadership for Colin Powell and his imitators (don't think that they didn't teach this film at the Army War College).
In Hoosiers, Hopper demonstrated that American genius must be tinged with mental illness and in Blue Velvet he showed that American mental illness must be tinged with a genius borne from pop culture and pop music themselves. Hopper was both a restless seeker and a sultan of pleasure, a disciplined craftsman as an actor who was often a private mess, and, in later life, a conservative who voted for Obama because he disapproved of Sarah Palin.
In person, Hopper could be difficult or graceful, depending on how much pain he happened to be in at the moment. His persona communicated that life cannot be transcended, but is rather a deep, diaphanous dive. Even when he was wrong, Hopper was always in the right place at the right time, ready to take advantage of any situation. Dignity and desperation were his divas, sirens which sing for us all in the body of his work.
Dennis Hopper, 74, died of cancer at his home in Venice, Ca. on May 29, 2010. An exhibition of his work, "Dennis Hopper Double Standard," opens at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art, July 11-Sept. 26, 2010
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).