Julian Schnabel curates a MOCA retrospective of artwork by his late
actor-director friend, which opens Sunday.
By Jori Finkel
July 10, 2010
With assistants milling around him, Julian Schnabel looked like he
was directing a movie. The painter who is also a filmmaker was
walking through the south wing of MOCA's Geffen Contemporary last
week calling out requests.
"Could you clear out these boxes so we have a better view?" asked
Schnabel, who is known for having a rather commanding presence even
in a bathrobe, but on this day wore track pants and a plaid shirt.
"Let's try to move that up a bit," he said with a sweeping hand gesture.
He was in the sweaty final stretch of a three-day period installing "
Dennis Hopper Double Standard," an exhibition of artwork by his
longtime friend that opens Sunday.
"This is a portrait of Dennis, a portrait that we can walk through,"
he said. "He was a really curious guy who was self-educated, and his
instincts were always on the edge."
The show is also Schnabel's first official undertaking as a museum
curator at least as far as he can remember. "I'm always hanging my
own shows, and god knows I've helped other friends hang their shows.
But doing a museum show for a friend who wasn't there I can't
remember another time."
"I thought that Dennis was actually going to be here with us when we
did this," he added. "Every 30 minutes or so it hits me that he's not."
Hopper died at age 74 on May 29 from prostate cancer. Schnabel says
the idea for the show jelled a few months earlier when talking to
incoming MOCA director Jeffrey Deitch about his friend's importance
as an artist and relative lack of visibility. While Hopper has had a
few retrospectives abroad, this is his first museum survey in the
U.S. "You're never a prophet in your own land," Schnabel said.
Schnabel's own land is the New York art scene, and he got to know
Hopper there in the late 1980s, after meeting him at a Keith Haring
show after-party in the basement of the restaurant Indochine.
("Underchine," offered Deitch.) Over the years they grew close;
Deitch even became the godfather of Hopper's son, Henry.
"The guy was like family to me. Whenever I was going mad, I called
him," Schnabel said, describing Hopper as "pretty down to earth when
it came down to it" and "a damned loyal friend."
Hopper also helped Schnabel make his first movie, "Basquiat," by
agreeing to play a small role, Swiss art dealer Bruno Bischofberger.
"He did me a favor he was the first actor to sign on to do the
movie, so other actors were more comfortable doing it," Schnabel said.
Schnabel by this point sat in the show's central gallery, the heart
of the show. He has stacked more than 150 photographs by Hopper in
rhythmic groupings on angled walls, which in some sections look like
film strips and altogether feel like a big photo collage.
"A typical museum curator might not feel comfortable taking this kind
of liberty with the artwork," Deitch said. "It takes an artist like
Julian, who really shared Dennis' sensibility."
Schnabel sees the grouping as an expansive, inclusive Whitman-esque
portrait of America from California to New York "actors mixed with
painters, Hells Angels mixed with Freedom Riders, Martin Luther King
mixed with bullfighters."
Bringing together the high and low, famous and forgettable, beautiful
and ugly, has a Beat feel to it, added Schnabel, who offered that the
entire show could have been called "On the Road."
"There is so much travelling going on in the work," he said, looking
at a Diebenkorn-like abstract landscape in the show. "Not only was
Dennis an anonymous spectator looking out of a car window but someone
who got somewhere, became the center of attention, and then tried to
turn the camera around."
The show's entrance is more Pop than Beat, with two giant, colorful
fiberglass sculptures greeting visitors: a Mexican waiter with
platter in hand and a Mobil Oil man holding a "free 5¢ coupon" sign.
Both are found objects that Hopper re-created when working with Fred
Hoffman, who was also MOCA's curatorial consultant, for his 2001
retrospective at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam.
A screening room features a short film that Schnabel has pieced
together with highlights of Hopper's acting and directing career,
"Easy Rider" included. Other galleries have early conceptual
paintings (which Deitch compared to Joseph Kosuth) and later gestural
paintings (which Schnabel compared to Cy Twombly). There are
photographs of graffiti and paintings of photographs of graffiti.
Rudi Fuchs, who curated the Stedelijk exhibition, framed Hopper
primarily as a painter instead of a photographer. But this show makes
it hard to label Hopper either way. As Schnabel pointed out, he was
not one to spend weeks in his studio "trying to perfect a painting
technique. He was going through emotional shifts and dealing with a
psyche not in the most hospitable circumstances, so there is an
erratic but at the same time persistent vision."
Does that open up Hopper to being seen as a dilettante?
Schnabel shook his head. "I think we're living in a society where
people don't like it if you do too many things. I've become aware of
that because I've directed movies."
"What is a dilettante anyway?" he continued. "How hard is it to be an
actor and wait for directors to get a job? Are you a dilettante
because you do what you want, or a professional because you're getting paid?"
He went on to describe Hopper as a conceptual artist with a painter's
eye, who saw paintings in everyday life. He glanced at a wall of new
photographs: color-drenched digital images printed on aluminum,
"taken right from Dennis' camera" and printed for the show. These
shots, like a close-up of a building wall painted a brilliant red,
verge on painterly abstraction.
And they are not all that different than Hopper's films in their
intensity of vision, Schnabel suggested. He singled out the
psychedelic LSD-fueled cemetery scene in "Easy Rider" as a sort of
matrix containing all of the basic elements in Hopper's visual art.
"It's all there the iconography, the color, the violence, the
transcendental quality," he said.
"This is not a film that you could make from a script," he added.
"It's a diving board."
Then, a few minutes later, he added, "Is this the film of a dilettante?"