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Art review: 'Dennis Hopper Double Standard' @ MOCA's Geffen Contemporary

July 11, 2010 |  8:11 pm
Hopper La Salsa Man 2000 AFP Getty Images "Dennis Hopper Double Standard" opened Sunday at the Geffen Contemporary, the Museum of Contemporary Art's Little Tokyo warehouse. A sense of melancholy hangs over the late Hollywood maverick's photographs, paintings, sculptures and mixed-media works. Hopper, 74, died in May from complications of prostate cancer.

Yet the torpor lies elsewhere. Failed promise characterizes this mostly listless art, however celebrated the actor-director's movie career.

A mood of missed opportunity is compounded by the context. MOCA is a major museum trying to climb out of a deep administrative and financial hole it dug for itself over the last decade. A mediocre show won't help. Organized by painter and movie director Julian Schnabel, with an assist from L.A. art dealer Fred Hoffman and New York art dealer Tony Shafrazi, the show is the first to be conceived and implemented by MOCA's new director, former New York art dealer Jeffrey Deitch.

It's cute watching all the Easterners go gaga over Hollywood. Hopper, a bad boy whose ardor for art was genuine, gives license to indulge. But he just isn't a very interesting artist. And for anyone who saw his large 2006 survey at L.A.'s Ace Gallery or the smaller one at Hoffman's old Santa Monica space in 1997 -- not to mention Shafrazi's September show -- the MOCA presentation will be largely redundant.

In the late 1950s Hopper was among a rambunctious group of like-minded young actors, all movie and TV stars during their youth. With Billy Gray, Dean Stockwell, Russ Tamblyn and the late Bobby Driscoll, he developed an avid interest in bohemian L.A.'s small but unruly art scene.

Hopper painted. It was the cusp of the 1960s counterculture, and a reputation for being difficult had stalled the young actor's budding career. So he had lots of free time.

Hopper Wallace Berman 1963 A little abstract canvas in the show's first room is clotted with reddish-brown paint -- the only 1950s  Hopper work to have survived. The routine Abstract Expressionist effort is mostly a talisman of a precocious kid's avant-garde resistance during an era of social conformity.

Soon he took up photography. Related to an actor's movie work, where the camera is king, photography connects art to an Industrial Age machine. The shift away from imaginative hand-craft solidified when he met Andy Warhol in 1962 and Marcel Duchamp in 1963, both in town from New York for gallery and museum shows.

Hopper, then 27, embraced their art's Neo-Dada slant. Found objects got plucked from the rising trash-heap left in consumer culture's mass-produced wake. Highly individual Abstract Expressionist gestures bridged impersonal Pop imagery. A passel of slightly older artists -- Jean Tinguely in Paris, Robert Rauschenberg in New York, Noah Purifoy in L.A., etc. -- experimented with its absurdities. Hopper was a sharp student of the genre.

Hopper Coca Cola Sign (Found Object) AFP Getty Images Mixing Rauschenberg and Warhol, he presented pretty much "as-is" a commercially produced, 1962 advertising sign made from four thermometers attached to metal reliefs of Coca-Cola bottles. The cheeky object charts dynamic levels of aesthetic heat.

Fast forward to 2000. In two colossal sculptures at MOCA's entrance, the Coca-Cola sign's slender burlesque of mass-culture madness is now blown up to gargantuan proportions. One displays a cheerfully looming auto mechanic, conventional emblem of machine-age mistrust in a society built around cars; the second depicts a stereotyped Mexican waiter, symbol of the city's imminent Latino majority and the out-size fear engendered in the establishment mind.

Hopper made them using molds of old commercial signs. But the nostalgic silliness and posturing condescension just get transferred into Hopper's sculptures. Their social commentary seems bombastic and disengaged.

Worse are his paintings from the 1980s and after. Mostly they come in two kinds.

One is artificial graffiti. Abstract shapes and "writing" are streaked and spray-painted on canvases whose rough surfaces mimic stucco. Sometimes they're joined with shadowy photographs, including stills from "Colors," Hopper's 1988 movie about L.A. gang life.

Hopper Morocco diptych AFP Getty Images The other is commercially printed Photo-realism. Several of his black-and-white 1960s photographs were mechanically reproduced at billboard scale. Made after 2000, they add only grandiosity to old pictures of Warhol, pre-silver wig, "hiding" behind a flower; a tattooed biker couple lounging in a dive; and Pop artist Roy Lichtenstein sitting by a cartoon painting of a crying woman.

It all seems amateurish -- soggy hot-house Pop, divorced from time and space, like the immediate social landscape glimpsed from Saturn through the wrong end of a telescope.

What happened? I'd guess Hopper got unplugged from the working life of a visual artist.

By the end of the '60s he returned to movies; art went by the wayside. The phenomenon of 1969's "Easy Rider" led him elsewhere. Without an exhibition catalog it's hard to follow the survey's chronology with precision, but almost nothing turns up for the next 10 or 15 years.

As the "double standard" title suggests, the show posits that, given modern media, distinctions between popular culture and art culture are moot. Maybe. Artistically, though, movies like "Giant" or "Blue Velvet" are better than anything here. Their brilliance diminishes the show.

When Hopper got back to art in the '80s, after the Post-Minimal and Conceptual heyday, art had radically changed. His effort to use graffiti for reentry feels stilted and flat. There's none of the urgent grace of work by younger artists he admired, like Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat.

In flaccid 1990s color photographs of graffiti-covered walls, street-life energy dissolves into wan pastiche, in slick versions of 1940s and '50s Aaron Siskind photographs. Hopper is back at square one.

Hopper Double Standard, 1961 It's a pity, because some 1960s photographs are rich. "Double Standard," the show's title work and Hopper's best and most famous picture, looks east toward a former gas station at a West Hollywood intersection. Shot from inside a convertible, the image seems written on the windshield -- a malleable fiction wedged between the future at a fork in the road ahead and the past glimpsed in a rear-view mirror. Think moving picture as publicity still.

The term "double standard" also implies social friction, seen in photos documenting L.A.'s art scene and the Civil Rights movement. A stunned moment comes in 1963, as Hopper glumly photographed President Kennedy's funeral flickering on his TV screen. He speaks for us.

The show's centerpiece is some 200 black-and-white documentary photographs, shot in the early 1960s but mostly printed for a Shafrazi exhibition and a hefty Taschen book last fall. Sometimes a visual joke -- artist Bruce Conner plus pretty girls standing before a wall-sign advertising "Bruce Conner's Physical Services" or Jane Fonda posed like a Hollywood Artemis -- suggests humor's power as social lever. Many are good, but few are great; sticking to them, the show might have secured his artistic reputation as an incisive if short-lived documentarian.

Instead, mostly you wonder how, had he kept with it, Hopper might have developed as an artist. MOCA owns none of his work, odd for a museum going to the trouble of mounting a survey. (The L.A. County Museum of Art owns "Double Standard.") So you also wonder this: At the current fork in MOCA's own road, what might this droopy show portend?

-- Christopher Knight

Follow me @twitter.com/KnightLAT

Dennis Hopper Double Standard, Geffen Contemporary @ MOCA, 152 N. Central Ave., Little Tokyo,  (213) 626-6222 through Sept. 26. Closed Tue. and Wed. Adults: $10. www.moca.org

Photos: Dennis Hopper, "La Salsa Man," 2000; "Wallace Berman," 1963; "Coca Cola Sign (Found Object)," 1963; "Morocco (Diptych)," "Double Standard," 1961; Credit: Robin Beck, AFP/Getty Images.

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