Even before Andy Warhol hung his painting of a soup can, people have pondered what is art, who is an artist, and what role do museums have in determining either. But after spending a few hours at MOCA walking through the new Dennis Hopper show, ironically titled "Double Standard" — after one of his most famous photographs — curator Julian Schnabel and MOCA director Jeffrey Deitch seem to have re-opened the debate anew and added several layers to the stew.
I went to the show to see Hopper's photography. And somewhere, nearly buried in the rambling exhibit, there are several hundred photographs, mounted grid-style on a couple of walls. The photography was shot over several decades beginning with the civil rights march on Selma, the early birth of pop art in Los Angeles, Hopper's moviemaking years in Hollywood and his more recent fascination with abstract street art in Venice.
After looking at those pictures, my main thought was: what an interesting life this guy had. And he had the presence of mind and artistic inclination to document every inch of it. While it would be easy to dismiss his photography as a case of being in the right place at the right time, his photographs are more than that. He had an eye for the ironies of life, a sense of humor and history, an appreciation for the struggles of the common man, and for his own fortuitous place at the corner of art and commerce. Some of his photographs moved me, made me laugh ("Is that really Jane Fonda in that bikini?") and shake my head. Lucky guy, I thought, and talented. And, apparently, very likeable. This, I think, is what got him in trouble MOCA-wise.
As museum director Jeffrey Deitch explained for the press last week, the show was rushed into production in two or three months due to Hopper's illness. (He died a few months before the show was to open). As his condition became more grave, Schnabel, a good friend, told Deitch "We've got to do this" and volunteered to curate the show. It feels as though his relationship with Hopper clouded his vision of what exactly is art. In Hopper's case this show reflects as much the fact that he was an appreciator of art, and a knowledgeable collector, than an artist himself.
The two huge pop sculptures — a 30-foot-tall "La Salsa Man" and an Esso gas station attendant — at the entrance of the show are a puzzling case in point. Hopper apparently saw the Mexican waiter towering above PCH as he was driving through Malibu and thought it was fabulous. These figures are common in the California landscape. I remember seeing that waiter myself, and thinking if I had the money I would love to buy one and put it in my backyard.
Hopper did have the money. He bought the mold and hired someone to fabricate one that he could call his own. This, in the world of pop art, would be "found art" or a "readymade." It now sits at the entrance of the exhibition, attributed, like many pieces in this show, to the Dennis Hopper collection.
Deitch said Hopper was very involved in every step of the fabrication of these pieces, even determining that the hair on the Esso man should be blonde, not brown. But if you recognize something as great, buy it and put it on display, does your name go on it as the artist? Hopper may have recognized its coolness but Salsa Man is not his creation. What is it doing in a museum show of his artistic works? If the show were a re-creation of his home, which was filled with pop art he had collected over time, I could understand it. But as a retrospective of his artwork, it feels wrong to be here, and misleading.
This kind of clouding of the waters is rampant at the show. The gallery walls are filled with huge paintings that replicate his photography. These are described in the press release as "Hopper's monumental billboard paintings from the 2000's." One wonders how and when Hopper did those? Did he project the negatives from his photos onto the canvas?
When Schnabel was asked about the technique, he clarified: Hopper hired billboard artists to create these renderings of his photographs. Those artists' names are nowhere to be found, and the assumption that Hopper created the paintings is only corrected in conversation with the curator. I'm sure that many who visit the show will think that these works were done by Hopper.
In the end, what was meant to be a tribute to Hopper has become a messy example of throwing everything on the wall to see what sticks. If Deitch and Schnabel had focused on his photography, and exhibited it so it could be appreciated as an artful and interesting document of a life well-lived, and a history of the burgeoning art scene, Hopper's friends would have given him a much more fitting tribute.
Double Standard is at the Museum of Contemporary Art until Sept. 26.