It was a cold December night in 1978 when I finally met him. Having recently moved to DC, I had been told he was the man to know. It took a month to find him. First, I tried his office at the National Collection of Fine Arts, a half-block from my studio. I whimsically announced when I entered his office, “I’m looking for Walter Hopps.” Someone behind the counter looked up and said, “When you find him, let us know.” I left the museum thinking you must have a great job when no one knows where you are.
A month later, hundreds of artists were standing in a haphazard line down G Street and around the block, waiting to meet Hopps, the most interesting curator you could ever hope to meet. He was putting on an event called Thirty-Six Hours at the Museum of Temporary Art (MOTA) in which he stood at the museum’s doorway and accepted everything that came his way. You walked up, introduced yourself, shook his hand, set a piece in front of him and you got the chance to talk about it. He stood for a day and a half, speaking to each artist and discussing each work. All of the work was hung salon-style at MOTA, with the overflow being hung across the street at the Washington Project for the Arts. The piece I presented was an assemblage consisting of an aluminum government sign with my parking tickets glued to it. I told him I would have preferred to bring the parking meter instead. He laughed and said that he would have liked to see that.
A week passed before he came to my studio. He walked in and immediately noticed the bar I had just built in the main room. He put on his glasses, asked a few questions about its inception, and carefully inspected it. I stepped behind the bar to make us a drink. The conversation went on for two hours as he looked through every painting in the studio while smoking one cigarette after another. Walter Hopps was intense in a graceful way. His visits over the years were lively and informative, demonstrating the unselfish support he bestowed not only on me personally, but on so many artists during his lifetime.
He seemed to be interested in everything. When he visited the studio, he made suggestions and critiqued the work, always with his constructive input. He approached art the way an artist does, with a sense of adventure and exploration. He wanted to be hands-on with the art; he would pick up a piece and look at the surface, the sides, the back, everything was observed. In his assessment of my work, he was a motivational and supportive friend. When I complained of feeling unappreciated, he was always complimentary. He championed my efforts. His advice was always to remain steadfast and persistent. He told me stories of famous artists, of how they had struggled. Walter had a way of seeing an artist’s work in relation to the historical databank in his head. He would connect your work to others and in doing so it would open you up. His memory of details and facts was legendary. Our discussions were always enlightening, and I was fortunate to have him on my side. Walter seemed more like an artist than a curator at times.
Once I entered his trajectory, he introduced me to people and other artists that I would never have had the chance to meet. He connected people. He had a way of explaining the mysteries of art and artists, especially to those who might be confused by all of it. Walter helped them connect the dots. One night at a cocktail party, we were looking at one of my paintings hanging on the wall. We were standing with President Carter’s press secretary, Jody Powell. Mr. Powell had a bewildered look on his face. Walter said, “Jody, you like New Orleans jazz, right?” When he confirmed such, Walter pointed out how the notes of a piece of jazz music seem to float and pop around the room when you hear a song. Mr. Powell shook his head to confirm he understood. Walter moved right in with his connection, “Visual abstraction in painting is much like those notes. This is called lyrical abstraction.” Jody Powell’s face lit up. In the living room of a collector, he had helped Mr. Powell understand theory and modernism in a way that connected the man’s background to what he was seeing. It was so graceful and kind. Over the span of almost three decades, I watched him do this. Walter Hopps was an inspiration, a motivator, and his path was wide.