Walter Hopps’s arrival in Houston introduced a new and lively context to us artists. We all learned so much from his curatorial work and the way he installed shows at the Menil Collection. It was impeccable: the perfect height, the perfect space between pieces, and of course astute and telling relationships between works.
Hopps also brought a connection to worlds of artists who lived before our time, who intersected with Walter’s own. He was a master storyteller, and brought a living context from artists he’d worked with closely, like Duchamp and Cornell, to our own work and how he perceived it. He could put everyone's work in a context much bigger than our own thinking had done. And it was always based on experience for him, with the artists he brought forward into our thoughts, broadening meaning, and connection in time and geography, history really. A vivid presence. In short, we felt valued. By a museum director!
The Forrest Bess show I put together with Hiram Butler in the 1980s to coincide with the opening of the Menil Collection was something I was very excited about. Walter and Neil Printz came to the show many times. I think Walter was hoping that he could have the Menil Collection buy a particular small painting that I liked a lot and he loved. It was called, It Fits. I think it was from 1949. Anyway, he used the expression several times, “I’m nutsy in love with this painting.” I like that! Also he did me the great favor of bringing Mrs. de Menil to an exhibition I had at Hiram Butler Gallery of my own work years later. I think it was Mrs. de Menil’s last gallery visit. It was on a Sunday when the gallery was closed and I gather he tied my work into many traditions. The monoprints going back to Degas, the rusted metalwork he brought a context to which I wish I could've heard because it was reported to have been absolutely beautiful. He generously wrote a piece on my work for a show I had at Jason McCoy Gallery as well. Helping artists was important to him.
Walter Hopps, Untitled (series), c. early to mid 1950’s, light drawings on silver bromide photographic paper, each 10 × 8 in (approx.), Courtesy of Private Collection.
Walter’s own photography practice goes back to his childhood, first with a Brownie camera, then in his own darkroom upstairs in his house. I am surprised none of his photographs appear online. They are marvelous. His love of music—jazz especially—may have further motivated his craft. He told me about creating his own false ID card to get into clubs in Los Angeles. This was not so he could drink; it was to hear live jazz. I always got a kick out of that. There are many series of Walter’s photographs, jazz portraits and collages I particularly love.
Some are photographic drawings; apparent accidents and incidental marks create an inevitable form. The delicate tracings seen here are drawn with light on photographic paper, as particular and unrepeatable as the immediate gesture that caused it, recording his body’s specific movement. We may name images: twig, cell, cloud; but these things are felt, intuited, not represented. The light drawings are contained in a slender box Hopps constructed from discarded television cue cards. Walter found these in an alley in Los Angeles around 1955. Words once making full sentences have been truncated, invoking interpretation, suggesting narrative; but again, obscuring objective or known meaning. We are thwarted in our effort to read the text, but still we try to invent the narrative.1
I want to thank Caroline Huber Hopps for providing images of a few of Walter’s works. In fact, it’s hard to think of Walter without thinking of Caroline, for me. Our friend in common, artist Virgil Grotfeldt, said of Caroline, “Caroline Huber is central to the Walter I knew. First of all she was an artist, as was Walter, so that is where their relationship begins. Walter loved Caroline’s art: that was always obvious to me. Caroline brought so much to the relationship; I hardly know where to begin. Aside from her position as Director of Diverse Works, she maintained a studio practice, kept Walter organized, as much as possible, and was devoted to his work. Without Caroline, the Walter we knew would have been quite different.”2 Without Caroline, I would not have known Walter as a friend.
Which leads me to another thing I really loved about Walter: how much he respected artists. He took up their fight over that of the institution. I remember one time I was talking to him about having been invited to go to Dallas to talk to a new Deputy Director at the Dallas Museum of Art (DMA). She’d asked a group of artists to discuss ways the artists’ community could become more involved with the DMA’s programming, and how artists could involve themselves in future museum programing. I remember he said, “That's a shame to ask the artists to come to say what they can do for the museum when it should always be what the museum can do for the artists and the artists’ community.”
As a final message to Walter, I was happy to select a small drawing—along with many of his friends—to put inside the casket with him. I've included an image of it here. It has a bit of alchemy to it, a sort of changing seed, gold, open and evolving.
- 1. Hopps, Walter. “Untitled.” Gulf Coast: A Journal of Literature and Fine Arts, volume xii, number one (2000): P. 128-144.
2. James, Terrell and Grotfeldt, Virgil. “Walter Hopps: Standing Sideways”, Glasstire, 2 April 2005. (http://glasstire.com/2005/04/02/walter-hopps-standing-sideways/)
TERRELL JAMES is an artist.