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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.

Comments () | Archives (12)

Wow ~ Christopher, sounds like you had a really bad day. But why take it out on this amazing show ? I was there Saturday night, and the excitement in the air was palpable. For a major donors' pre-event, MOCA expected on 150 people... they were surprised & pleased when 601 showed up. Then for the members & public event, 8 to 11pm, it was a packed house with 1536 showing up to celebrate the late artist's legacy.

The depth and layers of meaning must have been lost on you Mr. Knight. It's sad that you were looking for something showy, flashy & more LA. Because you missed Mr Hopper's keen eye as a chronicler and interdisciplinary visionary who peels back layers of time, culture & meaning to help us see beauty & art in everyday life.

Cheers Dennis ~ thank you for your powerful vision which has changed my life & our culture. And Bravo to Jeffery Deitch for taking this extraordinary risk, which successfully breaks down boundaries between highly defined artistic categories. This show crosses into new territory for MOCA... I celebrate this adventure. Dennis Hopper's Double Standard is a win for everyone : Mr Hopper, Mr. Schnabel, Mr Deitch, MOCA, the LA art scene, and you, the art warriors who come to honor this courage.

Sounds perfect for MoCA and the usual "artscene" pablum of contempt art. It is all about party, to allow the rich to show and reveal their good taste and aburdist inclination, as they are played out, vacuous and souless, looking for momentary distraction, not connection to life.

I am sure it was a great turnout, how many will come afterwards? Only art students on weekends, and self interested past students looking for an in, to also become a limited yet invested in irrelevancy. Like the silliness of Murikami, who at least had a shop to promote, this will vanish when the seemingly endless supply of suckers, those who paid for art degrees, runs out. No one else cares.

Save the Watts Towers, tear down the Ivories

Dear Mr. Knight,
You nailed that review! Dennis Hopper was the "Mr. Brainwash" of his day. Why? Put simply, Hopper apparently was good friends with the best artists of the time, eg Warhol,Rauschenberg,Lichtenstein and tried to imitate their work. Similarly, "Mr.Brainwaash" tried, with very limited success, to imitate the best of the street artists like Fairly and Banksy with whom he had become friends.

All it should take to persuade any vistor to the Hopper exhbit of your point of view, is for the vistor to the Geffen to wander into the next rooms displaying MOCA's "First 30 Years" where the work of Warhol,Rauschenberg,Lichtenstein as well of many other far outshine anything in the Hopper rooms.

Nicely written analysis by Mr. Knight. I was there and glad to see a crowd but the work is not Museum worthy other than as a nod to a patron and a celebrity which may be enough for what it is. If someone goes to the show, they can step into the next galleries and see two terrific pieces: the William Kentridge video art (animated drawings projected in a quasi medicine cabinet) and the Dave Muller painting of vertically stacked album covers, which are also at the Geffen.

Typical... Christopher Knight /L.A. Times wet blanket review.

Thanks and Cudos to:
Fred Hoffman,Doug Christmas,Tony Shafrazi and Benedickt Taschen who recognized Dennis Hopper years before Knight and Jeffery Deitch,Julian Schnabel and MOCA for organizing a appropriate memorial for a local and international icon!

The only posturing condescension is in this self-congratulatory and jaded review. Unfortunately your own pretension and disdain for anything that isn't already universally acknowledged as high art clouds your ability to see the great show for what it is. Your blunt, dismissive review is also more informative of your inability to appreciate more subtle art whose motifs aren't shoved down your throat. I suggest you get over not the show Double Standard, but your own double standard of only praising famed and established artists instead of talented artists who do it because they love it.

I agree with Christopher Knight 100% - this is an exhibition that should never have appeared at MOCA. Despite the sentimentality of Dennis Hopper as a quasi-outlaw of Hollywood (until he became a conservative Republican shilling for retirment funds in his last years!), the quality of his artwork is just not there - it is totally derivative and weak. There is something unfortunately cynical and sad in Mr. Deitch's choice of this as his first MOCA show.

I am so glad to see this review! Hopper was an interesting figure, but the art is mostly really mediocre. And yes, the choice to do the show reflects a cliched desire for Hollywood glamor and publicity, at the cost of actual art.

Of course the opening was packed! Hopper was a celebrity. And yes, it is good for MoCA to do some more populist or accessible shows, to reach other viewers and audiences. The planned (and then cancelled) Thom Mayne show could have been a great way for MoCA to address downtown LA and it's own urban context.

To think MoCA cancelled the Jack Goldstein retrospective (fortunately picked up by OCMA), which would have offered a far more interesting and more genuine relationship between art practice and Hollywood, by an artist whose work has tremendous relevance to the art-making community.

Deitch could be a great showman and fundraiser and leader for MoCA, but so far his curatorial choices are lamentable. With Paul Schimmel stepping down, MoCA has hardly any curators left on staff, which is really sad for a once leading and internationally-respected museum.

I was very pleased to read this thoughtful review. There was a wonderful show that went around the country a few years ago, entitled "Semina Culture," documenting the life and work of Wallace Berman and his circle of friends, which constituted L.A. Bohemia in the '60's. Hopper was part of this group, but as Christopher Knight has noted, he went another way after the success of "Easy Rider." Thinking about Hopper's life and work in relation to Berman's makes the essential character of each quite clear. Berman was a serious artist and Hopper was not. That is simply obvious, although of course Hopper has his defenders, especially in Hollywood. Christopher Knight is correct in pointing out that the Hollywood connection damages L.A.'s credibility as an art scene, rather than enhancing it.

A fitting review for a misguided exhibit staged for the PR opportunities.

There's nothing wrong with honoring a beloved, faded icon as he succumbs to a gruesome death. But turning MOCA into the Make A Wish Foundation as a way of generating press for an art dealer turned museum director is crass, disgusting and sooo LA, Mr. Deitch. Welcome!

The Make-a-Wish comment hits the nail on the head, that is exactly what this exhibition feels like. What a slap in the face to the many dedicated professionals at Moca, like Paul Schimmel, who were drawn to the institution for it's stelar reputation. Moca is a joke in the art world at this point, something very sad and heartbreaking for anyone who cares about it's long-term health and survival.

I'm sure it seemed like a good idea at the time to newly appointed MOCA curator Jeffrey Deitch. Kicking off his debut art exhibit "Double Standard" with art and photographs from beloved actor Dennis Hopper, an icon of the 60's (and of Los Angeles) and curated by painter and filmmaker Julian Schnabel. It seemed like a good idea to me as well, so I went to see the art and I met Julian Schnabel at the art talk. I have to say right off the bat...what a complete jerk Mr Schnabel turned out to be. I sort of like some of his paintings, (very few), and I liked his Basquiat movie that he directed (and included Dennis Hopper in) but in person he was very rude!  Both artist Ed Moses along with Jeffrey Deitch were in attendance and seemed uncomfortable with Schnabel's 'Sylvester Stallonean' babbling. When asked by Schnabel, Ed Moses added a good point about the Hopper art and photos being a collection of notes with which he was able to make some great films from. (Which I totally agree.)  Schnabel then turned on Moses and told him that he felt he was wrong and went off on some long non-linear talk about art and Dennis Hopper's role in it. Sure Dennis made several important films, but we are at an ART SHOW! His art did not hold up to major museum standards. The styles were all over the place, and looked quite amateurish. I hate to say it, because I was really looking forward to seeing what Dennis's painting skills were.

Schnabel's attempt  to hang the show was poor. The opening room was sparsely arrayed with a few oversized ho-hum attempts at Pop art. Many of the graffiti pieces should not have been included at all. The best part of the show were the photos, but they were hung in a salon style with photos all the way up the wall, as if it was a large Schnabel canvas, instead of intimate stories told through the eye of Dennis's life with the camera.

The super-graphics style black and white oil paintings that were painted by other artists using photos from Dennis's archive were impressive, but the scale and the craftsmanship of the work is what made them noteworthy.

Overall, the show made it clear to me, why we are just now seeing his art. It was not great.

-Mark Andrew Allen


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