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Henry Hopkins and the 'lost' Ed Ruscha

September 29, 2009 | 12:28 pm

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When he was director of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Henry T. Hopkins gave the green light to the first major retrospective of Ed Ruscha's paintings. The show, which traveled the U.S. and Canada in 1982 and 1983, was instrumental in securing Ruscha's reputation as a critically important artist -- both for Los Angeles, where he began to attract attention as a promising newcomer around 1959, and for a 1980s art world that was just on the cusp of going global.

Hopkins, who died over the weekend at 81, was instrumental in developing L.A.'s art scene. As an educator and a museum director, he was around in the 1960s as the cultural scene began to take off and again after 1986, when he returned from museum jobs in Texas and the Bay Area and L.A. became a powerhouse.

Among my favorite Hopkins stories is a rather harrowing one that concerns Ruscha. Hopkins bought one of the artist's first word-paintings not long after it was made, a transitional 1959 canvas called "Sweetwater." He paid $200, arranging a $10-a-month payment plan with the young, then-little-known painter.

Sweetwater is the lovely name of a small Texas town off Route 66, mythic highway from the banal Midwest to California's paradise. The path recalled Ruscha's own youthful move from Oklahoma City to art school in Los Angeles, giving the picture an autobiographical twist. A large painting, it showed the town's name neatly printed in the bottom register of the canvas, followed by a crucially placed comma that suggested "more to follow." Above, wide brushy strokes of colorful paint suggested the Abstract Expressionist paintings of the 1950s New York School, which Ruscha had turned his back on to move to California, hovering like threatening storm clouds over the prairie.

I'll let Henry finish the distressing tale of "Sweetwater" after the jump, a narrative excerpted from a 1980 oral history he gave to the Smithsonian's Archives of American Art. I've edited it some for readability, but you can find the original text in the full document here.


"I was a teaching assistant at UCLA in art history and had a little office that I worked out of. Since I was moving with some frequency at that time, I put ["Sweetwater"] in my office. ... I came in one day and the painting wasn't there. I asked the other T.A.s if they knew where it might be, and they didn't know and hadn't heard, so I asked around the whole Art Department if anybody had seen this painting and where it was.

"[N]obody said anything.

"But I came back about a week later and in my office there was a little note on my desk from a young woman -- whose name I've fortunately forgotten -- that indicated the fact that she wanted to talk to me. So I went to find her. She said that she was an art student at UCLA, a painter, and that she had seen that canvas sitting there....It didn't look like it was finished to her and, therefore she took it and used it as her own to paint on.

"I asked to see her work, thinking conceivably something could be done, it could be cleaned off or something. But she was ... painting kind of like Joan Brown at that moment, with two-foot thick pigment, [so] it was totally gone.... That was the end of 'Sweetwater,' which [now exists] only in photographs.

"I think it took me something like 15 years to tell Ed what had happened to it. Now he knows, so my conscience is clear."


For anyone interested in the history of contemporary art, the entire Hopkins oral history is worth a look.

-- Christopher Knight

Related content:

Henry T. Hopkins dies at 81; painter and museum director had formative role in L.A. art scene

Photo: Henry T. Hopkins with two Ed Ruscha paintings in the background. Credit: Los Angeles Times

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