Friday, April 16, 2010

Uneasy Rigor: Dennis Hopper, curated by Julian Schnabel, at Jeffrey Deitch's MOCA/LA

April 16, 2010. News that the first exhibition planned by Jeffrey Deitch as the new director of MOCA/LA will be a survey of work by Dennis Hopper, curated by Julian Schnabel, must be greeted with mixed feelings.

On the one hand, Hopper is undeniably a prodigious, mythic presence on the American scene, mostly due to his extended Hollywood career as actor and director. He helped define the counterculture in Rebel Without a Cause and Easy Rider, and raised the stakes with fierce performances in Apocalypse Now and Blue Velvet. He is also an early and important member of the West Coast art demimonde, friendly with many of LA's more radical practitioners, including Wallace Berman, Ed Ruscha and Billy Al Bengston. He started buying art in the late 1950s and owns one of the Warhol soup can paintings from the historic exhibition at Ferus Gallery, among a varied and extensive collection that includes Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat as well as Schnabel.

Hopper was himself a photographer, shooting portraits of fellow showbiz personalities and of the unique LA cityscape, as well as dabbling in paintings over the years that reveal various timely influences, from Ab Ex to Pop Art to graffiti.

Not to be ghoulish, but Hopper is seriously ill with prostate cancer and steadily weakening. His remaining time is short, and an homage would need be mounted quickly if he is able to contribute to its organization, let alone be there to attend the opening. So if Deitch is doing the right and righteous thing by honoring a favorite son and LA bad boy, then alacrity is all important. Unlike most museum exhibitions which require years of preparation, this one is scheduled for July 11, 2010.

On the other hand, this is exactly the sort of P.T. Barnum extravaganza, dripping with cronyism, star fucking and insider dealing, that Deitch's main detractors feared he would bring to MOCA. It feels like an extension of the titillating, fame obsessed, outré projects that often dominated his NY galleries. And the selection of Schnabel as curator, regardless of his personal connection to Hopper, reeks of the Koons/Joannou debacle at the New Museum. Schnabel has directed Hopper in his films. Hopper owns Schnabel paintings. They are "dear friends".

It is the height of nepotism. It makes one wonder about the need for actual, dedicated curators at museums, when they can be so easily replaced with wealthy, well known, well connected, ego-tripping artists, by institutions looking for big buzz and commensurate box office dollars.

Hopper's photographs are noteworthy, but in general his production as an artist is overshadowed both by his activities as a collector and more particularly by his iconic presence in Hollywood. He is certainly a true believer, a man who understands the vital importance of art and also the all-consuming, extravagant nature of artistic obsession. Undoubtedly these aspects of the man will be showcased in the upcoming MOCA show. But to be brutally honest, Hopper's art making, by itself, would not attract a second glance were he not also a movie star with a long career, a unique reputation, and many influential friends in the creative industries of film and art.

While no one wants to be disrespectful to the life and legacy of Hopper, it would be hard to imagine another situation - without time being of the essence - where this sort of exhibition would be tolerated, especially as the first effort by a controversial, incoming director of a major arts institution that was itself nearly bankrupt. The planned show favors glitz and spectacle over the interests of the community of hard working LA artists, and elevates the art of the deal, personal connections, fame and notoriety above aesthetic concerns. As a further indication of Deitch's unfortunate tendency to big name, big marquee ballyhoo, he has apparently contacted starchitect Frank Gehry about designing the exhibition.

From the CultureMonster blog of the LA Times:

Jeffrey Deitch has scheduled his first exhibition as the incoming director of the Museum of Contemporary Art. Reached by phone last night after a flight from New York to Los Angeles, he confirmed that it will be a survey of works by actor and artist Dennis Hopper, curated by larger-than-life painter and director Julian Schnabel.

“Dennis is a very inspiring figure for me,” said the art dealer turned museum director. “The American art world often likes to put artists into boxes. You’re an artist, not a filmmaker. You’re a photographer, not a painter. But Dennis shows you can blur those boundaries, which is very current and exciting.”

Although most big museum exhibitions take years to organize, Deitch had the idea for this show just a couple of months ago when visiting Schnabel, a longtime friend of Hopper, who, at 73, has advanced prostate cancer.

“We’re rushing this exhibition because Dennis is ailing,” Deitch says, “and I wanted him to be able to participate in the selection of works. He saw the space with us last week.”

“Art Is Life,” as the exhibition is called, promises to be one of MOCA’s flashier shows, given its art-meets-Hollywood connections.
A 2007 video shows Hopper walking through and commenting on his collection. "I think that probably I collect things I wish I'd made."


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