Magazine article The Spectator

Exhibitions: Dennis Hopper: The Lost Album

Magazine article The Spectator

Exhibitions: Dennis Hopper: The Lost Album

Article excerpt

Dennis Hopper: The Lost Album

Royal Academy, Burlington Gardens, until 19 October

Radical Geometry

Royal Academy, until 28 September

In an age when photographs have swollen out of all proportion to their significance, and are mounted on wall-sized light boxes the better to show off their high-resolution colour, it's a relief to see an exhibition of small photographic prints in good old black and white. Dennis Hopper (1936-2010) is best known as an actor and hell-raiser, but he was also an artist who worked in various media. 'I am an Abstract Expressionist and an Action Painter by nature,' he insisted, but in the Sixties he took thousands of photographs, a group of 400 of which are now on display in the Academy's Burlington Gardens galleries. Because they are relatively small, they are arranged in blocks on the walls of these spacious rooms. The viewer can look at them sequentially, or can move around more freely, jumping in and out of the river of images, sampling as you go. If Hopper had continued to take photographs, rather than giving up when he started to direct the film Easy Rider in 1967, he could easily have made a name as a photographer. As it is, there's still plenty to see and enjoy.

The work dates from 1961 to 1967, when Hopper was in his mid to late twenties and his visual curiosity was evidently leading him in all directions, from social commentary to abstract textures. He didn't crop his images but printed them full-frame, which means he was composing carefully with the camera, making the viewfinder do the work. In fact, we can see the development of a natural eye for composition emerging through the display in the way that Hopper places and frames his elements. The show starts with a self-portrait reflected in a headlamp, a deliberately arty and self-conscious but oblique image. From the beginning it's clear that he's closely involved with the art world: here are portraits of Martial Raysse with a neon sculpture, Niki de Saint Phalle, Tinguely, Kienholz, Ruscha, and Rauschenberg with something nasty printed on his tongue. There's Duchamp with curator Walter Hopps, and Peter Blake lurking behind a photograph of Peter Blake. There's a pleasing informality and directness to these shots, and even when obviously posed they often have the spontaneity of street scenes.

Besides the beautiful people and the Sixties' Bright Young Things, there is the politics of the counterculture, and downtown LA tramps sifting through rubbish give way to images of Martin Luther King at the microphone. These are photos shot from the hip, taken on the run, and even when obviously set up, Hopper mostly gets his subjects to look relaxed. He's already interested in patterns and textures (see Paul Newman in the chain mail of chain-link fence shadows), and photos of dancing hippies and Hells Angels shift through motorbikes and love-ins to crushed leaves and tombstones in Mexico. A long bullfight sequence is superseded by a group of more abstract shots of walls and barred shadows, corrugated iron, torn paper, chains and bedsprings.

Here is someone with a keen interest in the effects of light and narrativeless images, in the things that were being done in contemporary art. A painted broken window is like a painting, a torn gauze is reminiscent of an early Lee Miller. A photo of paint blisters looks like a sculpture in silhouette. …

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