In Calvin Tomkins' 1991 new yorker profile "A Touch for the Now," curator Walter Hopps comes across as an eccentric maverick. We learn of his preferred schedule (his workday begins not long before sundown and stretches into the morning hours) and near-mythic disappearing acts (his elusiveness prompted employees at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C., where he served as director in the '70s, to make buttons reading "WALTER HOPPS WILL BE HERE IN 20 MINUTES"). It was his relentless perfectionism, however - preparators will recall the habitual groan "Wrong, wrong, wrong" that greeted their best efforts - that cemented the impression of the curator as a mercurial iconoclast. Indeed, while Hopps' legendary nonconformity may overshadow his curatorial accomplishment, his independence is not unrelated to his achievement. In a 40-year career spent in and out of the museum world, during which he has organized well over 100 exhibitions, he has never succumbed to administrative logic or routine (he once said working for bureaucrats while a senior curator at the National Collection of Fine Arts - now the National Museum of American Art - was "like moving through an atmosphere of Seconal"). Hopps, in retrospect, manages to come across as both consummate insider and quintessential outsider.
Hopps opened his first gallery, Syndell Gallery, while still a student at UCLA in the early '50s, and soon achieved acclaim for his "Action 1" and "Action2" overviews of a new generation of California artists. Later, his Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles would bring attention to such artists as Ed Kienholz, George Herms, and Wallace Berman. As director of the Pasadena Museum of Art (1963-67), Hopps mounted an impressive roster of exhibitions, including the first U.S. retrospectives of Kurt Schwitters and Joseph Cornell and the first museum overview of American Pop art ("New Paintings of Common Objects") - not to mention Marcel Duchamp's first one-man museum show.
Yet Hopps has enjoyed as much success outside institutional settings as within them. Shows such as "Thirty-Six Hours," in which he hung the work of any and all comers over a two-and-a-half-day period, are case studies in curating art outside museum settings, Even today Hopps works in multiple contexts: while serving as consulting curator for the Menil Collection in Houston, he also puts in time as art editor of Grand Street, a literary journal that he has helped turn into an artists' showcase.
Hopps' flair as an impresario is matched only by his knack for hanging stunning shows. As Anne d'Harnoncourt, director of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, put it, his success comes from "his sense of the character of works of art, and of how to bring that character out without getting in the way." But Hopps also sees the curator as something like a conductor striving to establish harmony between individual musicians. As he told me when I sat down to interview him in Houston in December, in anticipation of his Kienholz retrospective that goes up this month at the Whitney, it was Duchamp who taught him the cardinal curatorial rule: in the organization of exhibitions, the works must not stand in the way.
HANS-ULRICH OBRIST: You worked in the early '50s as a music impresario and organizer. How did the transition to organizing exhibitions take place?
WALTER HOPPS: They both happened at the same time. When I was in high school, I formed a kind of photographic society, and we did projects and exhibits at the high school. It was also at that time that I first met Walter and Louise Arensberg.
But some of my closest friends were actually musicians, and the '40s were a great time of innovation in jazz. It was a thrill to be able to see classic performers like Billie Holliday around the clubs in Los Angeles, or the new people like Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, and Dizzy Gillespie. The younger musicians I knew began to try to get engagements and bookings, but it was very hard in those days. …