The Suspect: Milton Ernest Rauschenberg (a.k.a. Robert or, to accomplices, “Bob”). The Case: 1950s era crimes against prevailing aesthetic norms. The Private Dick: Walter Wain Hopps III (a.k.a. “Chico”), abetted by two other investigators—curator Susan Davidson and myself, a graphic designer.
Raymond Chandler-like references aside, Philip Marlowe is an apt persona for profiling Hopps. A true-blue Los Angeleno (third-generation Californian), he struck a been-there, done-that posture—somehow slightly sinister—accentuated by bristling eyebrows and an ever-lit cigarette.
Hopps was fascinated with what Southern Californian urbanologist Mike Davis called “Sunshine or Noir” mythology. One of Walter’s oft-mentioned cultural heroes was Jack Whiteside Parsons, a brilliant Jet Propulsion Laboratory rocketeer, who became an Aleister Crowley occult-arts-sex guru before blowing himself up in his Pasadena garage laboratory in 1952. This homegrown tabloid story merged two of Walter’s passions: scientific advances and oddball behavior.
But I digress—exactly as Hopps would when deploying his improvisational oral histories. I was left so besotted by the patter that the line between true-life narrative and tall tale was indistinguishable. It did not matter: the art-world tangents were so intriguing, the overtly blue invective so ferocious.
During the American Bicentennial, when Hopps was curating Rauschenberg’s second retrospective at the National Collection of Fine Arts in Washington DC, he formulated two plans. First, because visitors viewed the chronology backwards, the show ended with what Hopps was just then discovering to be mostly forgotten work beginning in 1949 through the early 50s; the curator vowed to delve into this period of elemental sculptures, abstractions in black and white, imagist paintings, blueprints, conceptual pieces, and Combine predecessors. Secondly, Hopps hatched one of his grandiose schemes: a series of discrete shows trained first on the early 1950s, then the Combines, followed by the silkscreen paintings, technology works, Cardboards, etc. Later, as curator at the Menil Collection, he launched the first of these projects in 1991 with research for the show and publication Robert Rauschenberg: The Early 1950s. (The intended multiple shows eluded him, though specialized exhibitions by other curators have filled in the gaps.)
When I designed The Early 1950s catalogue, job descriptions at the Menil were loosely defined. This meant that I was pulled—willingly, I should add—into all the research, especially the photo documentation, which involved poring over proof sheets that Rauschenberg had shot at Black Mountain College, in Rome, or in his Fulton Street studio. Hopps, Davidson, and I peered through loupes: could the light fixtures in this unidentified photo be the same as the ones in that photo taken at the Stable Gallery? Or would we extrapolate from a photo a lost painting’s dimensions to determine which one Bob had painted over after his 1951 Betty Parsons show? First lesson: no minutiae are too superficial to yield vital clues.
Hopps, simultaneously instructive and badgering, was a relentless mentor during what became a long slog. Putting his protégées on the defensive, he bellowed trademark lines such as “You don’t say ‘Shit,’ when you have a mouthful!” Listening to him organize his thoughts was a graduate-level seminar. It may sound dumbed-down now, but the overarching principle was “Don’t say what you don’t know.” In other words, if facts don’t arise from primary documents or didn’t come out of the artist’s mouth, don’t repeat them. Don’t speculate. Though not flawless, Walter’s scholarly rigor was both daunting and contagious.
Hopps was the consummate night owl. After dinner we would start working in the back office of one of the gray Menil bungalows. Since a form of OCD plagued him, we would start with sharpening to a precision point a jar full of No. 2 yellow pencils. Slightly dyslexic and a horrid speller, Walter spewed sparkling insights orally but had trouble putting them down on paper, which meant Susan and I would often take simultaneous dictation—longhand. He floated enough long pauses that we were able to keep up. Because he was chain-smoking Benson & Hedges Lights, I would be prone on the sisal carpet in order to stay underneath the nicotine cloud. The next afternoon, we, minus Walter, would compare notes, then type up and edit the previous night’s transcript.
Several weeks into this grueling routine and with a publication deadline long-lapsed, Hopps arrived at a finished four-chapter manuscript. At long last! One night after we collectively read through the completed text about 2 a.m., he stood up and grimly announced, “It sucks, we have to start over—from the beginning.” Lying on the floor in disbelief, then quietly sobbing, I have never felt more deflated. If the text was ever wrapped-up, I still faced executing the design in very short order.
After regrouping in the following days, our further sessions would often conclude at sunrise, when I would exit feeling like a student vampire. During this time Hopps did finish the publication—expertly, albeit late; thus the print shipment arrived the very day of the Menil opening (forcing Susan and me to race onto the airport tarmac to retrieve it). Still, the book endures as a distinguished model of scholarship, some really slick detective work. As Hopps loved to describe any such successful pursuit—in less-than-decorous slang—he pronounced the final tome “Tight and Bright.”