After Jack Kennedy was assassinated, Harvard professor Daniel Patrick Moynihan remarked to the columnist Mary McGrory, "We may laugh again, but we may never be young again."
This was the feeling permeating the walls of the Tony Shafrazi Gallery last Saturday night, gallery walls that were crammed floor to ceiling with the photographs of Dennis Hopper, pictures taken right after Dallas, when the boyish spirit of the slain President permeated the souls of every creative person in Hopper's scene. At this point in his film career, Hopper seriously pursued the idea of becoming a fine artist exclusively. He was fortunate to meet (and collect) young Pop legends-to-be at his juncture, and they have never been better portrayed.
Hopper's early shot of Andy Warhol glowering ironically behind a flower became the first iconic shot of the artist. He captures the smoldering sex appeal of Oklahoman Ed Ruscha and the high haughtiness of Claes Oldenburg. Roy Lichtenstein's gamine limbs and doeful eyes ask you not to come too close, lest you disappear in a field of dots, while Robert Rauschenberg flicks his stenciled tongue and Jasper Johns channels Kim Stanley in Streetcar.
Hopper's good looks, early rebel roles and legendary marriage to Brooke Hayward, the daughter of producer Leland Hayward and doomed leading lady Margaret Sullivan, signified the kind of reserved glamour that inspired and aspired Warhol and his rivals. Hence, their once-in-a-lifetime supplications to Hopper's lens. It was fascinating at the Shafrazi opening to observe the youthful pretensions of a later generation grown middle-aged. Sean Penn, who must be 50, was cut like a UFC pugilist in a bespoke Savile Row suit, while Matt Dillon just looked relaxed.
Dennis Hopper himself, at 75, exhibited the graciousness and humility that has characterized him for awhile. Standing in front of wall-sized gray paintings, newly fabricated from the images mentioned above, he embraced everybody, posed for every camera, smiled winsomely, like a pop priest intercessing. Hopper always looked beyond his own ego into the creative light of others, and the heartfelt honesty of his search is amply rewarded in this brilliant, wistful show which reconjures the powers of the past.
"Dennis Hopper: Signs of the Times," Sept. 12-Oct. 24, 2009, at Tony Shafrazi Gallery, 544 West 26th Street, New York, N.Y. 10001.
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).