The life and career of Walter Hopps is legendary. His obituary in The Washington Post described him as a “sort of a gonzo museum director—elusive, unpredictable, outlandish in his range, jagged in his vision, heedless of rules.” Just published by Bloomsbury, The Dream Colony: A Life in Art, a memoir by Hopps with New Yorker fiction editor Deborah Treisman and artist and writer Anne Doran, goes to the source for the real story. In his own words, Hopps recounts his encounters with art and artists from his early days in California, where he started the legendary Ferus gallery, to his work as founding director of the Menil Collection in Houston, with many adventures in between. Recently, I spoke with Doran about the book and Walter’s work and legacy.
William Eggleston, Untitled (Walter Hopps), 1974, dye transfer print, © Eggleston Artistic Trust. Courtesy David Zwirner, New York/London.
Toby Kamps: How was Walter Hopps wired?
Anne Doran: Although Walter was not an artist, except early on when he made photographs and photo-collages, he was wired like one. And that came with all of the benefits and drawbacks. He was single-minded in the way that artists are single-minded, and that periodically got Walter into trouble. It meant that he created some things that couldn’t have been created unless they had his full attention, but at a cost—sleep, financial security... [Laughs] I think a lot about that because the profession of being an artist has changed so much.
Walter didn’t have an eidetic memory, exactly, but he told me once that he remembered every artwork he’d ever seen. And he also told me that made him a little bit crazy. But he was able to call to mind artworks that would fit into whatever show he was working on at the time, or thinking about putting together, and he would often know where those works were in the world. (The latter was a talent that would have made him a fortune if he’d gone to work for an auction house.)
TK: What do you think made him such a great curator?
AD: I would say the combination of extraordinary energy, extraordinary focus, and a really good memory for artworks. And spending a lot of time looking at those artworks in his mind’s eye, and thinking about how they might come together in the real world.
Last night, at one of the events for The Dream Colony, somebody asked me how I would distill how Walter thought about art. Still considering that question, I would say that Walter thought about it as a universe unto itself, with its own topography and its own laws, where past, present, and future artworks all existed at once—sort of the way some physicists have thought about our own cosmos.
TK: Can you say how you and Deborah knew Walter and about how the book came about?
AD: I originally met Walter in the late 1970s in Washington DC, when I was still an art student at the Corcoran School of Art. One day there was a lot of excitement around the building; rumor had it that Walter Hopps, who had been fired as director of the Corcoran years earlier and who was a legend, would be visiting the school and looking at the senior work. In those years, Walter wore one pair of glasses over another pair of glasses to look at art and when he was finally led into my studio that sort of freaked me out. He stared at the things I had on the wall and didn’t say anything, and I didn’t say anything either, and he was very quickly whisked away to the next studio. A long time later he told me he had really liked the work, and he ended up championing it after I moved to New York in the 1980s. Eventually, I ended up working with him at Jean Stein’s art and literary quarterly, Grand Street, where he was the art editor, I was the associate art editor, and Deborah Treisman was the managing editor.
Walter would select the art for the portfolios in the magazine and often write the introductory texts for them. He wasn’t all that comfortable with writing—he was much better at telling—so the way we would work it at Grand Street was Jean, or Deborah, or I would interview him on tape or in person and then Deborah would edit the transcript into an essay. Deborah was greatly entertained by Walter’s tales of the artists he had known, and after she moved to the New Yorker, the three of us began to talk about a book. For about four years between 2001 and Walter’s death, I would travel to Houston, where Walter was the founding director and curator at the Menil, and interview him. I’d come back with a stack of cassette tapes and pass them over to Deborah, who’d transcribe them. Working when she could between her job and a growing family, she wove those transcripts into the book you see today.
TK: In graduate school, I read Calvin Tomkins’s great 1991 profile of Walter the New Yorker, “A Touch for the Now.” I remember his comparison of the curator to the conductor of a symphony orchestra or the director of a play. His goal was always to let works of art play their parts to create an experience or tell a story. To do that he had to think multidimensionally—about the story, the staging, the dramatic action.
AD: For Walter, scholarly considerations were important, but it was also important how things looked on the wall. Tomkins adds that, surprisingly, this made Walter something of a maverick in his profession. I recently interviewed the art historian Bill Agee for ARTnews and he talked to me about watching Walter hang Agee’s Sam Francis exhibition at the Menil. “I left it to Walter to hang the show,” Agee told me. “And I never thought about him being good at that—he was deified for a lot of things, but not for his installations—but it was amazing to watch him work. He hung the paintings at a particular height; he fussed with the lights; he obsessed over every detail. And in the end, I saw, the more you do, the less it’s noticed.”
TK: Of course, Walter’s wide-ranging adventures and his disappearances are the subject of much of Tomkins’s profile. He tells how the staff at the Corcoran made buttons that said “Walter Hopps will be here in 20 minutes” because he was so elusive and hard to pin down. He’d call in and say “I’m going to be late for the meeting.” And when they’d ask him where he was, he’d say “Madrid.” I fantasized about becoming a kind of curatorial cowboy roaming the art world. But now my smartphone calendar buzzes, and I run to the meeting.
AD: I didn’t know Walter in those days. By the time I met him, he was already consulting with Dominique de Menil about a future museum. Dominique gave him her trust, and in return he showed up. For her sake, and for the sake of the museum they were building together. Walter had become, for him, quite reliable.
Even back in the day, and even with champions like Thomas Leavitt, his director at the Pasadena Museum, and Joshua Taylor, his director at the Smithsonian, Walter did not get away with being a maverick. He took big risks and he got fired several times. But he usually had quite a long run at each of the institutions he worked for before that happened—a longer run than it seems most curators have today before moving on.
TK: I’m sure it wasn’t fun, but he seemed to be able to swing from one curatorial vine to another in a way that looks pretty swashbuckling in retrospect.
AD: Can you still take those kinds of risks? Are you allowed to take those kinds of risks?
TK: Well, certainly curating—and the job of being an artist, as you say—have become much more professionalized since Walter’s time. And the art we’re showing, along with the insurance and shipping associated with getting it on the walls is so much more expensive. Also, there are far more collectors of contemporary art than there were in Walter’s early days, and they wield a lot of influence on museums, so there can sometimes be bad feedback loops that make it harder to throw the weight of the institution behind new artists or riskier endeavors. However, we shouldn’t forget that a lot of Walter’s most experimental projects happened at alternative spaces which, then as now, didn’t have the same pressures as a museum. Plus, audiences for contemporary art today have a lot of information, so it’s more difficult to create an exhibition that’s truly revelatory. But every project worth doing still involves risk, and every curator spends a lot of time wondering if their idea is going to fly, not to mention whether they’ll get the loans, funding, and tour partners to come through. But the freewheeling days Walter describes are, I’m afraid, over. The story he tells of curator Jim Demetrion losing half of the Joseph Cornell boxes he was couriering when his taxi caught on fire is hard to believe. Most curators aren’t allowed to touch works at museums today.
AD: I helped Walter pack a work of Joseph Cornell’s once. He was going to take it on an airplane with him; he had booked two seats on the plane, and the box would sit strapped in to the seat next to him. Packing peanuts weren’t going to be good enough, they weren’t going to give this fragile box and its contents enough protection. And Walter enlisted me—he often enlisted artists as free help, which we’d happily give because in return we’d get some learning. So I agreed to help him, and I spent an entire afternoon listening to him talk about Cornell while we took strips of tissue paper and rolled them up into tiny little balls, each one no larger than a pencil eraser and filled the box with them. It arrived at its destination in perfect shape.
TK: The Dream Colony reminds me that being a curator once meant being an oracle. You went out and saw things before your audiences knew about them. Your currency was the information you brought back. Today images and press releases fly around the world, and anybody who’s even mildly interested will be deluged with art information. Also, Walter was famous for helping artists clarify their visions, often recognizing that they were onto something before they were fully aware of it. In our post-Internet age, everyone seems to have tons of information and reference points but little view of the big picture. I’d love to see how Walter would cut through our current digital overload.
AD: In some ways, Walter had already anticipated and embraced it. Pre-internet he had already done the 36-hour show in 1978 at the Museum of Temporary Art in Washington, where he accepted and hung every work of art that came through the door for 36 hours straight. And he once proposed to Alanna Heiss at PS1 a show of 100,000 photographs of all kinds—fine art photos, reportage, anonymous snapshots, whatever—that would cover PS1’s walls floor to ceiling and edge to edge.
TK: Walter talks at some length about his childhood in the book. He had two bouts with rheumatic fever, each of which required long periods of bedrest and convalescence. I talked to his widow Caroline Huber about this, and she points to his childhood as preparing him to conceive of art as the alternative universe you mentioned earlier. Caroline said the fact that both his parents were doctors and overseeing his recoveries meant it was hard for him to rebel. So perhaps art, and his earlier interest in jazz, became outlets because ordinary rules didn’t apply. At the same time, though, as a child he seemed to have a lot of places to learn and experiment, such as the family’s medical library, his darkroom, and—later, after meeting them in a high school course—the library of Louise and Walter Arensberg, the great patrons of Duchamp and Los Angeles’s most progressive collectors. How do you think these early childhood experiences set him up for his adult career?
AD: I think his first encounters with art were love at first sight.
TK: It seems like he was always forming merry bands of pranksters around himself. He’d get a group of inspired people together, and they’d be off to the races. Think about his early efforts to book jazz concerts with his high-school friend Jim Newman and Syndell Studio, his first music and exhibition space. Also, the storied Ferus Gallery, which he co-founded with the artist Ed Kienholz and turned into the leading space for contemporary art in that city. He seemed to have a real knack for building magic circles around himself—both in his practical and intellectual endeavors.
AD: Walter would have made a great actor, or a great snake-oil salesman, and he was probably a little bit of both. It was astonishing how good he was with people, and how dangerously persuasive he could be in getting them to go along with, and help him work on, his latest idea. And once he thought of a project, it was imperative that it happen. He was a frequent user of the old service where you could call the operator if a line was busy and tell them it was an emergency and have them break into the call. This often made people, including boyfriends of mine, mad. He knew the location of every single wooden phone booth with a bench, a door that closed, and a phonebook in the city. Some of them were in hotel lobbies, some were in museums, some were in bars. In those days, he was never without a pocket full of quarters.
TK: There certainly was a manic aspect to his work and also, by his own admission, some serious drug use. William Eggleston talks about Walter coming to visit him in Memphis in a kind of daze. There was a swing in Eggleston’s back yard, and he says Walter would sit there and meditate.
AD: Yes, there were a number of people who’d put him up in that way.
TK: What I find extraordinary too was his work “discovering” artists. He was close with some of the most important artists of their times—Marcel Duchamp, Barnett Newman, Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns. But he also loved mystical outsiders like George Herms and Wallace Berman and the local heroes in all the cities where he worked. The vaults in the Menil Collection are filled with works by great Houston artists—Mark Flood, Susie Rosmarin, Gael Stack, Sharon Kopriva, and Virgil Grotfeldt. Even though they don’t make it into the galleries very often, they are a real testament to his deep engagement with artists. And I love the fact that his group exhibitions usually mixed big name and lesser known artists. This did so much to lift up the entire field and should always be a curator’s responsibility, I think. Walter loved to give artists of all stripes real platforms to show what they were doing.
AD: At the end of the Tomkins article, Walter is quoted as saying, “I think of myself as being in a line of work that goes back about twenty-five thousand years. My job has been finding the cave and holding the torch.” So many curators these days think of themselves as artists. But Walter early on made the choice between artmaking and curating.
Discovering artists is definitely a lot easier than it used to be—maybe too much so. Walter told me once that in LA in the early days, when there was so little arts coverage and certainly no internet, he stayed in touch with what was going on through artists, and musicians, and poets. The poets especially travelled a lot, and they would bring back stories of what was going on in New York and other places. He also stayed in touch with younger curators that he admired, like Ingrid Schaffner and Howard Halle.
Most of all, though, as Tomkins points out, Walter had that “touch for the now,” a phrase coined by his first wife, Shirley. He had an uncanny ability to see what was the important art being made at any given time as it was happening, not in retrospect. I believe that this was partly because he spent a lot of time thinking about what the world needed next in the way of art, so he was good at spotting it when it came along—he'd already been looking for it.
And a question for you: What have you learned about curating from the Menil Collection and Walter’s legacy there—the building, the way things are structured? Has a lot changed?
TK: Of course, Walter’s legacy can be seen in our permanent collection. Our early works by Robert Rauschenberg, our great works by Jasper Johns, Ed Ruscha, Jay DeFeo, Haim Steinbach, Ed Kienholz, to name just a very few, are acquisitions stemming from Walter’s groundbreaking exhibitions and his extraordinary relationships with artists and collectors. When you look at the galleries and installations at the Menil Collection you see Walter’s hand, but you also see a kind of generational collaboration between him, Jermayne MacAgy, and Dominique de Menil. MacAgy, an important, pioneering curator of contemporary art and mentor to the de Menils, died in 1964, but her influence filtered down to Walter through Dominique de Menil who was Walter’s very strong partner in realizing the Menil Collection. We still use a low hanging height, a 56-inch center, that comes from MacAgy. She said it allowed the work to hit the “heart before the head.” (Walter said it should “hit the tits.”) And they all agreed that, first and foremost, things should look good at the Menil. The chronology or the pedagogical point is usually secondary to making the installation sing. Also, we still use Walter’s giant models of the galleries and the hundreds of tiny replicas of works of art that different preparators have made over the years to plan our shows. Over the last decade or so, we’ve moved away from Walter’s more intricate gallery floorplans, which grew around individual works he wanted to showcase, to simpler, more open spaces, which allow us to keep rotating works into and out of installations of the permanent collection.
AD: Walter was a great mentor to me in looking at art. And to many other people as well. And that generosity repeated itself in the way he put together shows. In a Walter Hopps show, individual works didn’t need to shore up a particular thesis. They just needed to converge in a way that was enlivening to all. Jean Stein did this with people at her parties, and in her magazine as well, and that might have been the basis for Walter and Jean’s enduring friendship.
TK: It seems to me that Walter had an uncanny ability to dial into the energies, the thoughts and emotions, embodied in works of art. He wasn’t afraid to go deep, and he seemed to invest as much of his own energies in exhibitions as his artists did in making the work. I know Walter was superstitious, and maybe I am too because I believe that that work—obsessing over every detail of an exhibition—gives a show its power. It’s hard to maintain that level of spiritual investment and remain the smooth unit curators are supposed to be.
The house of art has many rooms, and Walter, more than any curator I can think of, roamed them. I think that’s why he had so many artist fans. He could play on many different registers and make connections between everything he’d seen. He’s still a legend in Houston, and I can’t tell you how many artists here have a photograph of him in their studios. But I notice that Walter didn’t talk a lot about the Menil Collection in the book. Why is that?
AD: I think there were several reasons for that. By the time we had worked our way up to his time at the Menil, Walter’s health was failing, and he often wasn’t feeling up to being interviewed. And also, he was still working at the Menil, and so he was still in the middle of that story. With time, Walter’s stories about his life and about artists would acquire a roundness and completeness through many tellings. And as a natural storyteller, that’s the way he wanted it. But the story of his work at the Menil was still unpolished; he hadn’t yet found a way to talk about it with ease. So he may have put off telling it for that reason. And finally, I sometimes think that Walter had become superstitious—that he felt like Scheherazade: once he had finished his last story, he would die.
TK: This book is a memoir, but it’s so packed with ideas and information that it transcends that genre. Can you summarize the book and its message?
AD: People looking for either an art history book or a tell-all biography might be disappointed. But Walter’s stories are like teaching parables, and if you’re interested in art at all, you might be surprised by how much you’ll learn about it listening to him speak.