For a time, if my phone rang before 7:00 a.m., I knew it was either my mother or Walter Hopps. We were working on the Rosenquist retrospective for the Guggenheim Museum at the time (he in Houston at the Menil Collection, I in NYC at the Guggenheim Museum). He called to chat, really, to regale me with memories and tales. This was not the man of "Walter Hopps Will Be Here in 20 Minutes" fame of his earlier career. This was a man with time on his hands and stories to tell. He was waiting on the world—impatiently. (“Where ARE you?,” he would implore on my answering machine.) While insistent, he was in fact kind and could be patient once his trust had been earned. There was bellowing early on. “WHAT WORK IS THIS?!," he demanded to know while sifting through two hundred assorted images. When I offered the title and the owner of the work, he and Jim Rosenquist both looked at me silently, surprised. Walter never bellowed at me again.
Walter collected all manner of kitsch, memorabilia, ephemera, tchotchkes. Shells, rocks, and a deck of playing cards for the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders were displayed with small sculptures and shed snake skins and doodads of innumerable variety. (His walls were filled with incredible artwork, naturally. Most gifted by friends. But it was the kitsch that really struck and charmed me.) The haphazard collection cascaded across a very long countertop in his home in Houston, adjacent to a wooden chest of drawers filled with original Joseph Cornell material and research. (Walter had given Cornell his first major museum exhibition, and he owned some beautiful shadow boxes.) Walter had eclectic interests. These extended to artists and their work as well. He was never hierarchical, nor dismissive. When I visited Houston to work with him, he set up studio visits and dive-bar luncheons with local artists and friends. Terrell James and the late Virgil Grotfeldt are two artist friends we regularly visited.
On one visit, I spent a great deal of time perusing the tchotchkes and the Cornell material. Walter was smoking an herbal cigarette on the couch while I picked up bits and bobs. He announced, out of the blue, that there was someone upstairs he wanted me to meet. I couldn’t imagine who was up there. (The dog was in the yard and his lovely wife Caroline Huber was running errands.) We went upstairs, he opened a bedroom door, and there sat Alice. She was glorious. A potpourri sachet in the shape of an Alice in Wonderland doll, she was sitting on a built-in bookshelf with an audience of tiny objects—all her worldly possessions—fanned around her. (Walter’s dear friend, the author Jean Stein, had gifted him this small talisman in the 1980s or 90s).
Walter was one of the most rational people you could know; he had a stupendous intellect. He was also deliciously superstitious. It was a riveting combination. Alice travelled with him, kept him safe on journeys. In transit, she lived in a checkbook box and travelled with a menagerie of her own talismans and objects. A little wrapped sugar cube from a restaurant in Paris, a satiny cat and other animals more wild, a tiny perfume bottle, and a little pearl ring. A green plastic saber—the kind used for spearing cocktail olives. Alice was well equipped for fending for herself and for protecting Walter in her powerful role as amulet and totem. She was his pocketsize goddess.
When we traveled for Rosenquist installations internationally, Walter invited me to visit Alice at each location. (Each venue of the exhibition provided a new installation of Alice as well.) He, Caroline and I would talk in their hotel room, and I would admire Alice.
When Walter was laid to rest in Lone Pine, California in 2005, Alice and her menagerie were dispatched on this last and most significant journey. Caroline gently placed Alice and her collection in the coffin, reportedly tucking items here and there. A handsome wooden door from Walter’s Pasadena home served as the lid on his casket. (He’d purchased the Green and Green-style house while working nearby at the Pasadena Museum of Art in the 1960s.) Many artists lived and worked in the house over the years—Walter never sold it after he left California for jobs in DC and Houston. Artists Richard Jackson and Erick Pereira—each of whom had lived and worked there for a time—crafted the simple wood coffin and secured the door atop. It was perfect.
Walter’s mellifluous, stentorian voice still booms in my mind. It breaks through my dreams, and resounds each time I think of him. During the Rosenquist installation at the Menil Collection, we debated the placement of an artwork. I left the gallery to take a phone call. ‘SARAH,” his voice boomed from the next room. I walked back, assuming defeat, “We did it your way. It works. It can stay.” Surprised, I thanked him for humoring me. The installation crew laughed heartily. Walter humored no one. He did things his way, in supreme confidence. We are all still trying to catch up.
ContributorSarah C. Bancroft
SARAH C BANCROFT is a curator and art historian, and serves as executive director of the James Rosenquist Foundation. She and Walter Hopps co-curated the 2003 James Rosenquist retrospective for the Guggenheim Museum, where she worked from 2000 to 2005.