Dennis Hopper (A Keen Eye), Artist, Photographer, Filmmaker

by Rudi Fuchs and Jan Hein Sassen

book copyright: 2001

 

 

from the chapter titled 'Along the Western Trail', 

by Jan Hein Sassen

 

On our first visit to Dennis Hopper in Los Angeles, at the end of March (2000), he takes us to one of his studios, a vast space that was once part of the studio of abstract-expressionist painter Sam Francis. What initially strikes the eye is an artwork of generous proportions, consisting of three painted canvases and a number of smaller ones on which black-and-white photographs have been printed: King Part Bust Trap (1991-97) . . . . Each one is made up of large colorful surfaces on which graffiti has been sprayed and then entirely or partially painted away again. Printed onto the smaller black-and-white canvases are blurry photographs which, on closer examination, seem to be reworked film stills dramatic scenes with lots of action.

 

. . . . This play of reality and illusion with painting, photography and, of course, film has become Dennis Hopper's trademark. What Hopper did first, painting or acting, is no longer clear. When he received his first important role in Rebel Without A Cause at the age of eighteen, he had already had some drawing and painting lessons in his home state Kansas, but it looked as though acting, for which he proved to have considerable talent and by which he wished to become famous, would take priority over his other creative talents for the time being. The acquaintance with James Dean, the leading actor in Rebel Without A Cause, and their subsequent friendship was a crucial moment in his life. Not only a friend, Dean was a teacher and a model to Hopper. Both came from the country, the Midwest, both painted and had great plans for the future, boundless energy and creativity. But, above all, they were defiant, determined to break through the rigid Hollywood studio system and eventually direct films themselves: "It is hard to imagine now how young, vanguard Hollywood suffered and chafed in the years of the fifties and early sixties as compared to Italian and French New-Waves." Jimmy Dean and Dennis Hopper would act together in only two films. On one of the last days of the filming of Giant Dean was killed in a car accident. The loss of this friend has profoundly influenced him throughout his entire life. But a number of decisive matters were learned from him. Dean taught Hopper how to act 'naturally': "Do things, don't show them. Stop the gestures . . . pretty soon it will be natural to you and you'll start going and the emotions will come to you if you leave yourself open to the moment-to-moment reality." What may have been just as important, though, was his advice to take up photography as a means of developing his artistic vision. "You gotta get out and take photographs. Learn about art, learn about literature, even if you want to be an actor." Since then he has taken thousands of photographs, for a long time only in black-and-white and full-frame: "Cropping is not a luxury a director would have."

 

In Hopper's house in Venice there is a small, early painting from 1955 abstract, thickly applied, earth-tone colors more reminiscent of a European 'matter' painting than one in the tradition of American abstract expressionism. Abstract expressionism did have a natural appeal for him, however, as it was anti-illusionist, painting for the sake of painting. He had seen paintings of such figures as Pollock, Diebenkorn (who, he informed me, was "the most important American painter") and De Kooning at the home of collector Vincent Price during the early 1950s. At that time, Hopper must have been about fifteen or sixteen years old. Unfortunately, other works from that period remain unknown to us. A huge fire at his house in Bel Air destroyed all of the roughly three hundred paintings in 1961.

 

After 1958 he was able to act only on rare occasions due to an earlier confrontation with director Henry Hathaway, which had made him 'off limits' in Hollywood. At some point during that time, he also ended up in the relatively isolated surroundings of avant-garde artists in Los Angeles, where he became acquainted with an entirely different mentality and encountered a form of creativity that he had missed in the film world. In those surroundings he came to know poets of the Beat Generation and visual artists such as Wallace Berman, Ed Kienholz, George Herms and Bruce Connor, all of whom would have a significant influence on his work. They would meet at the Ferus Gallery, owned by Kienholz and Walter Hopps, or in the bar around the corner, The Beanery. And in New York, he became friends with the new pop artists from the East Coast Andy Warhol, Roy Lichenstein, Claes Oldenburg and Allan Kaprow and the poets Allen Ginsberg and Charles Bukowski. He sees art change from introspective abstract expressionism into the more outwardly directed art of the assemblage, pop art and the happening. The Californian assemblage art of Berman, Kienholz and Connor is different from the pop art of the East Coast. Southern California itself is pop art; the artists there have either a more critical and personal view of their surroundings (Kienholz, Connor) or a more detached view (Ed Ruscha). Having a great deal of time and being a 'man of his own means' due to his acting work, Hopper takes in the new artistic atmosphere, visits museums and galleries, and begins to experiment with assemblages himself, combining found objects with blow-ups, "which were extraordinary and ahead of their time."

 

. . . . Nonetheless, among a broad audience, Dennis Hopper has had a significantly greater reputation as a photographer and art collector, to the extent that it is sometimes stated that he has only been photographing since the disastrous fire in 1961. Actually his ultimate goal, then, was to direct a film according to his own judgment. It has, in my opinion, been aptly remarked that his photographs were always taken with an eye for film, as was already evident, in fact, from his principle of not cropping and shooting only in black-and-white. Hopper was seen with a camera so often that he earned the nickname 'The Tourist.' He photographed both the California and the New York pop-art scene from the inside out and produced beautiful portraits of not only American artists such as Kienholz, Connor, Warhol, Jasper Johns and Lichtenstein, but also their European contemporaries, including Peter Blake, David Hockney, Jean Tinguely and Martial Raysse. Moreover, works by all of these artists were purchased for his collection. Hopper followed Allan Kaprow throughout his Ice Palace project in California and recorded this on film as well. But he also made portraits of Hollywood stars and the new pop-music idols and portrayed the hippie scene of those years in unforgettable images. Hopper has a very fine eye for detail and for the right moment at which to capture the essence of his subject: "My lens is fast and my eye is keen." In 1963 he took part in the Civil Rights March with Martin Luther King. Here, with his hippie look, he met with the aggressive behavior of southern rednecks. "I realized I didn't have to be black to be hated." This acquaintance with the harsh elements at the lower end of society made a deep impression on Hopper and sharpened his political awareness. But the anger of his generation, which rebelled against the hypocrisy of the 'Affluent Society' also had a highly nihilistic and iconoclastic element. In 1967 he built the Bomb Drop, a replica of a device from World War II, an absurdist macho machine. These tendencies are also quite visible in Easy Rider and his experimental film The Last Movie (1971).

 

In 1969 Dennis Hopper finally had the chance to make a film as he saw it: Easy Rider. He wrote the scenario together with Terry Southern and Peter Fonda and, for an entire year, carefully sought the right locations. With Easy Rider he created a modern western, the road movie, using new inventions such as the flash-forward and fast cuts. With respect to this, he himself says that the experimental films of Bruce Connor had a certain influence. Furthermore, there is the revolutionary aspect of drugs being used openly and the visual interpretation of the effect that they have on one's perception. As well as the use of what we, in those days, referred to as 'real music', that is to say music not specially made for the film but existing music by famous pop groups. The two peace-loving hippies Captain America (Peter Fonda) and Billy (Dennis Hopper) are, in fact, two small-time dope dealers . . . . Looming forth from beneath the portrayal of freedom is a darker, more destructive and nihilistic image of the America of that day.

 

Aside from the fact that Easy Rider brings success, fame and money, it also gives him the freedom to realize his dream of making a film in which he put all of his creative ideas of that time into effect: The Last Movie. Unlike Easy Rider, this film is produced with Hollywood backing. Despite a prize in Venice and a reasonably good reception in Europe, the film is shelved after two weeks in the United States. After almost two years of editing in Taos, New Mexico, Hopper had become entangled in his own destructiveness. The final product is regarded as a total flop. And yet: "His framing and sense of visual detail are evident. He likens his reflexive technique to the Abstract Expressionist telescoping of materials: 'This is paint I'm using. See? And this is canvas. I'm showing you canvas. Now you're going to turn it upside down . . . This movie shows you the structure.'"

 

After this catastrophe, the relationship between Hopper and Hollywood is in ruins. Now spending most of his time in Taos, having given up painting and photography, he leads the ultimate 'sex, drugs & rock 'n' roll' hippie life of the 1970s. Hopper had been experimenting with drugs since the fifties, as did many artists and actors from that time (and before). Now, however, drugs and alcohol slowly begin to assume control of his life. Occasionally he still does acting, as in the Wim Wenders film Der Amerikanische Freund (1977) and as the legendary crazed photographer in Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now. In 1980 he is able, by chance, to direct a film in Canada, the scenario and the title conforming to his view: Out Of the Blue. In this film about a punk teenage girl with an incestuous, alcoholic and ex-con father (Dennis Hopper), the dark side of life is shown again. This is a fascinating work with the characteristic marks of Hopper's direction: a keen eye for detail, quick cuts, but interrupted now and then by a beautiful, long Antonioni-like shot.

 

. . . . Soon afterwards in an art show at a stadium in Houston, Hopper blows himself up in a dangerous stunt (The Blow Up, recorded on video). This happening brings a particular period to an end and is meant to be symbolic of his "rebirth into the art world." Having kicked the habit of drugs and alcohol by 1984, he makes a comeback, not only as an actor but as a visual artist.

 

The first paintings produced by him then, still from 1982, are peculiarly abstract expressionist and collage-like, as though he needs to start from the very beginning. He devotes himself, however, primarily to his comeback in the film world. After big successes as an actor in Blue Velvet and Hoosiers (both 1986), he directs Colors in 1988. Around 1990 he begins to take his painting and photography seriously again. The previously mentioned graffiti paintings, inspired by Colors, were made by him in Taos, where he was using an old movie theater as a studio. At this point, visual art is still not something Hopper does in Los Angeles. He takes photographs in Europe, Morocco and Japan, and like his earliest ones, these are abstract studies of weathered walls with or without graffiti, weathered posters or other marks left behind by people. But now the photographs are in color, or Polaroid, are more aesthetic, less harsh, show a detail more frequently. With Framed Colors these are blown up to large proportions and made part of a monumental series of color studies: photography is now being used purely as a painterly means an old Hopper technique, but without the Duchamp-like irony that was employed by him in the past.

 

. . . . Perhaps, over the years, Dennis Hopper has acquired a different outlook on his art and life. He has started to collect art once again, including work by Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, Kenny Sharff, David Salle and Julian Schnabel. In 1996 he played in this last artist's film on the life of Basquiat. In Hopper's own film Backtrack the role of leading actress Jodi Foster was modeled after the visual artist Jenny Holzer. This film no longer has the destructive undertone of his earlier films but is still distinctly Dennis Hopper.

 

His art continues to deal with the problematics of reality versus illusion, photography versus painting. The fundamental change, for him, lies with an acceptance of Los Angeles. The city with which he has always had a love-hate relationship, in which he basically had to live because of the film industry being there, has now become his home. In Hollywood, Hopper now enjoys the status of a Grand Old Star. In the most recent works, one finds a mixture of the magnification and revival of his past as a filmmaker and visual artist, on the one hand, and the creation of a present-day Southern California Urban Landscape on the other a tribute to Los Angeles. His latest projects include a number of Wall Assemblages and two six-meter-tall advertisement 'men.' The Wall Assemblages are, in fact, parts of sets, segments of wall standing free in space details from the city, selected by Hopper and reproduced for their inadvertent beauty. The reality of the city is now directly linked with the illusion of a film set.

 

Even now, driving through the endless city with Dennis Hopper means learning to look at details, peculiarities, at the beauty of walls with or without graffiti, at the gigantic billboards, weathered or new.

 

Six months ago he pointed out a 'Mexican man,' more than six meters tall, in front of a restaurant. I'm having that one reproduced, he told us. And now we are on our way to the workshop where the copy of the 'Mexican man' is being made. Astounding: not only La Salsa Man but also the original Mobil Man is standing there big as life, American through and through. Found objects made anew: the ultimate Californian pop culture and Hollywood illusion, all rolled into one.

 

The End

 

 

from the chapter titled 'Back and Forth' ,

by Rudi Fuchs

 

There is simply no way of getting around Easy Rider. In conversations with Dennis Hopper as well, that legendary film from 1969 keeps on cropping up: as a breakthrough to himself, as his own declaration of independence. The film has cardinal significance in his life; it situates other things in time. After Easy Rider, he said, I stopped taking photographs. He was referring to the black-and-white photographs from the sixties: portraits of friends from the Los Angeles art world, but then staged in the way in which he was making other photographs at the time, of places and situations in the city's landscape. When I started taking photographs in 1961, he said, I stopped painting. In 1961 Hopper was living in Bel Air (Hollywood). There was a fire in his studio, and in it three hundred paintings were lost, almost everything that he had produced. When Hopper talks about his life as an artist, it is often about such interruptions as though no sort of order or calm has ever come about in that life.

 

My first encounter with him took place a few years ago in a small gallery in Kassel, where new photographic works (1996-97) were being shown: large glossy shots, in color, of walls with scrapings, splatters, graffiti, peeling paint. What I had to think of that work, I didn't know. In terms of his aesthetics, it resembled, to a certain extent, the decollages of the early sixties, a version of abstract expressionism in a realistic form. But, at the same time, it was also different. In those photographs one could discern a rigid and precise control and a strange intensity of observation. Aside from that work, I was then acquainted only, and superficially, with the photographs from the 1960s. Those I regarded, in my ignorance, as a commentary from a fascinating period, the emergence of the West Coast as a place for art, made by a movie star who was acting as an observer and collector. But the intensity of the man began to interest me.

 

. . . . In the world of visual art, Hopper had a certain reputation as the photographer of the West-Coast scene. In Europe this was mostly an exotic one, the reputation of a legendary filmmaker who, more or less on the side, also produced photographs which, in their form of observation, were reminiscent of images from Easy Rider. That was comprehensible. But he sent me several photographs of his paintings. These gave me the impression of a morphology, or a visual language, that had taken shape with him before Easy Rider. That was what began to intrigue me and what began to determine, as a literal theme, the gist of our conversations. The exhibition would be about the artist Dennis Hopper. This had not yet been defined. That artist was a man who is actually a painter but who may have been hampered in this activity by the film legend. By this time I was certain that this was not a Hollywood celebrity who, on the side, produced art as well. That image did not correspond at all to the tone of our conversations and to what I gradually came to see. More and more, it became clear that Dennis Hopper is a true artist, who has been hindered in the development of his artistry due to, among other things, his work in film. At least it seemed that way. This was the only way in which I could understand how he describes his career over the years: After Easy Rider I stopped taking photographs; after the fire in Bel Air I didn't paint for a long time; only after the film Colors (1988) did I start making paintings again. But we can also describe that development differently and that is, in part, what our conversations were about. I began to understand that the films which he directed were part of his work as an artist. The rigid and unfashionable way in which he photographed street scenes during the 1960s is an extension of the crude design of paintings and assemblages from an earlier time and those crop up again in the filmic design of Easy Rider. We are dealing, in fact, with a consistent visual language which manifests itself in its own way in different media, without any evidence of an aesthetic contradiction. Dennis Hopper glides from one medium into the other when a different medium offers him better opportunities to portray intense emotion. The paintings done before 1961, the few that remain since the fire in Bel Air, had an abrupt and even aggressive design which, he noticed, would be more aptly suited to black-and-white photographs. Those ruthless photographs, void of sentimentality would have their sequel in the abrupt and harsh design of Easy Rider.

 

Of course he could stop taking photographs after this: the drama of the film had made this redundant . . . . Likewise, in reverse order, the experience of the film Colors had made him observant of the expressive use of graffiti in communications among various street gangs; and what could not be expressed by him in the film served as the basis for a new series of paintings. In other words, those films are not interruptions of Hopper's artistic activity but rather links that unify and interconnect parts of the whole . . . . Actually, therefore, we should regard Easy Rider a painting, a polyptych, and not as an interruption of Dennis Hopper's work as a painter.

 

. . . . In our conversations Hopper always spoke about his art and about the making of art in general with singular and moving affection. I acquired the impression that he often missed the making of art, the contemplative character of this. In the day-to-day run of things, his life is mainly taken up with the bothers of the film world and of being Dennis Hopper. The making of art takes place during certain periods, in time that he must set aside for this. If he is unable to be doing this, the making of art is consequently present, in a peculiar way, as an absence in his life and thus as a longing as well. From the way in which this matter continually arose in our talks, it could be gathered that the making of art has a central place in his life. At the center is that quiet concentration, the artist being alone with himself at that moment, away from the turbulence of public life. This is also how he spoke about his studio in Taos, New Mexico as though it were a hiding place, far from what had once, long ago, overtaken his vocation as an artist.

 

It could be that I am painting a slightly romanticized picture of this. Of course Dennis Hopper is also an actor and filmmaker in heart and soul. In my opinion, those activities are inextricably linked with that same artistry at the actual center of his existence. But the outside world places him in two worlds. That is the reality which makes him and his work restless and hectic and which has led to that oeuvre of abruptly alternating phases and moments. When we, Jan Hein Sassen and I, spent several days at the studio in Taos, I noticed in the various things from various periods, all standing there jumbled together, that these may well have been produced so abruptly and impulsively that they actually had not yet reached a state of calm. That was a strange experience: to see works there, some of them still from the early sixties, which were restlessly awaiting their completion and a place.

 

The studio is a former movie theater from the 1930s, built in adobe in the Mexican style, just outside Taos along the road to Santa Fe. Little has been renovated in the high space; the front rows of seats are still standing. No painter's materials were lying around; work is done only at intervals. The newest paintings that were there dated from 1994. Standing diagonally in the space was a white partition on wheels. That is the wall on which he paints. There was a large painting which Hopper referred to as being unfinished, a large canvas with two bizarre (Rorschach-like) forms, painted robustly in white with frayed edges, onto a ground of light brown. Dangling on a string in the upper part, like a kind of insect, was an odd doll of Mexican origin. For one reason or another, the completion of this painting had been interrupted possibly since 1994, as it appeared to be part of the group of paintings from that year. That group has a collective title: Morocco eight or nine paintings in various sizes, into which abstract patterns and marks have been incorporated (manipulated, enlarged, rearranged, clarified), these having been seen by Hopper on weathered old walls in Morocco and photographed. They are clear and lyrical and gentle paintings; as we looked at them quietly, Hopper mentioned his fondness for Richard Diebenkorn; that connection was indeed discernible.

 

But I should like to attempt to find out how the mechanism of making art works with an artist who, unlike the one who spends day after day in his studio, roams back and forth among different disciplines and media and who therefore works in the midst of interruptions.

 

. . . . Dennis Hopper talks about the studio as an inviting and sheltered place. But he can never be there for long:  his film work takes him away from it. When he produces art, it is usually in brief periods of concentrated working as on a precise project, with purpose, until the theme is completed or exhausted. The groups of works that make up his oeuvre as an artist lie relatively far apart. They seem to be isolated eruptions of fanatic creativity. Because work from most of the groups has remained in Taos, we went to the studio there in order to gain a general perspective. I wanted to see what links existed among the various moments and what memories they kept of each other. But first we should map out the course of production.

 

Due to the fire in Bel Air in 1961, only a few of the early works remain: several photomontages which, in terms of the image concept, relate to the photographs from the sixties. I know of one earlier painting, from 1955. Hopper was nineteen years old at the time. It is a small work, a 'matter painting' like those that were being made in Europe then (by Dubuffet, Tapies): a compact and heavy surface, a dark reddish brown. I can see the young artist in Kansas, intently stirring the paint around, mixing it with sand or some other grit, and then discovering something that was not there yet. This, in any case, is how an artist is supposed to work: plodding away into the unknown. And so in 1955 he was onto something. But during that same year he also played in his first films in one of these, Rebel Without A Cause, together with James Dean, with whom he appeared a year later in Giant. How did those experiences relate to such a laborious matter painting? Pop art was also beginning to blossom during those years: Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, in Los Angeles Ed Kienholz and Wallace Berman, who primarily made assemblages. Assemblage, or the construction of heavy surfaces with a complex materiality, was a form of making art that definitely appealed to the matter painter Hopper. The work that has survived from the early sixties shows the marks of that attraction. It involves combinations of assemblage with photographs and with painting, direct and raw, that is to say without the refinement of developed aesthetics. Also in the production of paintings from the early eighties, when he returns to this after a long interval and after the three big films (Easy Rider, The Last Movie, Out Of the Blue), the assemblage technique plays an essential role.

 

That the photographs from the sixties are so different from other photography from that time though the themes bear a superficial resemblance to the photographs of Peter Frank or Garry Winogrand or even the old master Walker Evans is precisely due to the fact that they have been conceived with the eye of the assemblage-maker and painter. Contrary to my experience in the past, I am now struck more and more by the strangely unphotographic quality of Hopper's photographs. In general, for instance, the motifs are set down sharply, observed from a close perspective in a generally shallow, confined space. The background is often filled with additional motifs such as posters, inscriptions, ornaments: an abundance of other things and marks that come into view in the vicinity of the main motif. There is hardly room for airiness and atmosphere. The photographs are dark and compact in form. In their visual aspect, they have a dense weight which is reminiscent of assemblage.

 

After Easy Rider, the film that changed his life and made him a character, he made no art for years, at most sporadically or when an opportunity arose. Then, in 1982-83, there came the small, wild group of paintings and assemblages, expressionistic in character, to which I have referred earlier. But I also recall that small matter painting from 1955 and the nineteen-year-old artist's urge to discover and hold onto something that could help him in his progress. Following this, he must have worked hard between the acting jobs, as it is stated that almost three hundred paintings were lost in the Bel Air fire of 1961. The small matter painting looks as though it had been worked on for quite a long time. The few things from the years 1961-1964 still standing in Taos make a much more nonchalant impression: they are put together more loosely and impulsively entirely in accordance with the assemblage technique that would start to play a role in Hopper's art.

 

With the exception of the photographs, the making of art had come to a halt then. Photography is a less time-consuming medium than painting, easier to fit into the increasing film work; but in photography Hopper may also have sensed a more precise control once he had found his own form; photographs may have been a more effective way for him to arrive at what he wanted to show. Then, in 1969, came Easy Rider and, after that, other films. Out Of the Blue was shot in 1980. It was a difficult phase in Hopper's life. Therefore, as I see it, the work from 1982-83 was made with a new beginning in mind. When I look at those paintings, at their obsessive hecticness and at their sloppiness, I have the impression that the artist was in a hurry. Once more, after all those years, he wanted to put into practice all that he still knew from the old days: the movements of the hand and the controlling keenness of the eye. He wanted to know whether the inspiration, as they say, was still there, whether he was still capable of doing it. The paintings have a reckless appearance; they're vehement, they're scarcely finished as though the patience for this wasn't there. For that reason these paintings, which also hold all sorts of reflections from twenty years of American art, have a distinct and moving quality. They don't fit, but there they are: messy and obstinate, each work unto itself. Compared to these, the later Morocco series from 1994 and the Graffiti series from 1991-92 were constructed and developed with much more control. But the basis for those two later series was laid in the session from1982-83, where an experience was rediscovered. The Graffiti paintings were made ten years later: a group of works in which the graffiti of gangs, visually supported by broadly painted rectangular frames, are raised to monumental motifs. There is a certain gloriousness about the paintings, as if they were altarpieces. The project of painting them followed the 1988 film Colors, directed by Hopper. Large stills of dramatic moments in the film, printed on linen in black-and-white, have been linked with the paintings just as in the predella and panels of a medieval altarpiece, where we see depictions of important moments from the lives of saints. At the same time or prior to these paintings, small and medium sized Polaroid photographs with very intense and vivid close-ups of the graffiti were also produced.

 

. . . . Much of the work that has been discussed here stood in the studio in Taos. In the days before, I had seen other work in Los Angeles, at Hopper's house and at different places in the city. In Taos we were able to hang all sorts of works easily and quickly, and in different sequences, on the soft wall of adobe. We spent days carrying out these exercises. One combination after the other was tried out and studied and discussed . . . the works there in that studio had to be brought to a state of calm so that we could look at them carefully and patiently just as one should be able to do in the exhibition. That was the simple and practical goal of the exercise in Taos. In those two days, the different things slowly found their places. They became comparable. Despite the interruptions, they proved to be related to each other. Then what I had been hoping to find also became clear: that Easy Rider, too is a work of visual art with a specific place in Hopper's oeuvre . . . . More than ten years would go by before he would attempt anything like this, images almost beyond control, in the hectic paintings of 1982-83, his new beginning, then as a painter. Easy Rider is also the discovery of a landscape which scarcely had a visual form prior to this film.

 

After that it was unforgettable. To phrase reality in such a way and allow it to exist forever is the true role of the artist. Paintings and films and novels can, through the course of time, easily lose their social or political relevance but never the persuasive power of their compelling form.

 

The End

 

 

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